Guest blog: How journalists can optimise content for smartphone readers

When it comes to reading news online, people tend to use their computers in the morning at work, their tablets late at night, and their mobile phones consistently throughout the day – writes Atex executive vice president Pete Marsh.

So says a January 2012 ComScore study on cross-media consumption. By analysing internet traffic patterns among viewers of online media content, the study shows how tablets, smartphones and other connected devices are changing the way people get their news and information.

According to ComScore: ‘The trend for newspaper site consumption on tablets shows highest relative use in the evening, just before midnight. This indicates that tablet owners are most likely to turn to their tablets for news late in the evening after unplugging from their computer screens and before getting ready to turn in for the night.

‘Mobile devices, on the other hand, display a moderately steady trend for relative news consumption through the day, suggesting that people turn to their phones for news in small, regular doses as they move from location to location throughout the day.”

A recent Nielsen survey confirms these findings. People spend more than half their time using tablets while in bed or watching TV. Usage peaks first thing in the morning and again late in the evening. Smartphone users, on the other hand, get their mobile news in a variety of situations – during work, while waiting for something, while shopping, or while visiting friends and family.

With these findings in mind, a news organisation might consider designing its mobile news strategy to help keep people updated on the latest stories, while at the same time understanding the ‘on-the-go’nature of mobile behavior. Smartphone users are often looking for immediate answers. They seek information related to where they are right now. They use their phones constantly during the day, usually for just a few seconds or minutes at a time.

And, as ComScore, Nielsen and every parent knows, smartphone users are the ultimate multi-taskers. They get their news while doing something else, like shopping, eating, commuting or standing in line.

Luke Wroblewski, author of Mobile First, understands this behavior very well and offers the following advice to media companies that publish news for smartphones: ‘As a general rule, content takes precedence over navigation on mobile.”

Many mobile websites follow the standard convention that navigation belongs at the top of every page. This paradigm can cause problems on mobile devices because of the limited screen real estate. With some smartphones, the navigation bar can take up as much as a third of the screen. Also, mobile users want their information quickly, so too many navigation options eat up precious time, as well as precious screen space.

Tablet users, on the other hand, have lots of time and lots of space. They read news on their iPads and Kindles while unwinding at the end of a busy day. So, although it may be tempting for media companies to simply reformat the same online content for different screen sizes, it’s clear that the needs of tablet and mobile audiences are quite different.

These distinctions go beyond navigation. Writing for smartphone users requires even tighter editing than writing for website or tablet users. Mobile users are impatient. They are in a hurry to receive and digest the news. They don’t want filler copy or background material. In addition, it is twice as difficult to understand news content on small mobile devices in comparison to larger desktop, laptop or tablet screens. This makes it even more important to avoid wordy content.

Jakob Nielsen offers this advice in his Alertbox blog: ‘Mobile content: If in Doubt, Leave it Out.”

Nielsen cites an example of a breaking news story about a tornado. One mobile user said, ‘I don’t need to know what everyone else is saying about the event from their point of view. I don’t mind a quote from a local authority, but everything else to me is just filler, and I wouldn’t read it.”

Nielsen notes that mobile users don’t want to bother with extra information, especially in mobile apps that are designed for quick news consumption. When reading news on mobile phones, people just want to know the main points. As Nielsen recommends, ‘Cut the fluff, and in particular, ditch the blah-blah verbiage.”

Background and sidebar information is great for websites and tablet devices, because such elements add depth and context, which leads to the all-important stickiness factor. On smartphones and mobile channels, such material should be put on secondary screens. Mobile users can then access this information explicitly when they have more time available or when they are particularly interested in a given topic.

With over one billion smartphones expected to be shipped worldwide in 2016, the big challenge for media companies is to understand the different needs of print, online, tablet and mobile customers, and to determine how to efficiently and cost-effectively repackage content for each of these channels.

As always, this must start with an understanding of audience. Only then can a media company hope to extend the power of its trusted brands by delivering the right content to the right people at the right time on the right device and in the right context.

Atex is a commercial partner for News on the Move, a conference Press Gazette is holding in association with Thomson Reuters on 7 March. Executive vice president Pete Marsh will be speaking on one of the panel sessions.


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