Smartphone Optimization Tips Every Hyperlocal Should Know

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Mobile is the commanding new digital experience. App-rich smartphones are rapidly transforming our daily lives, and it’s become vital for publishers and media companies of all sizes to create mobile products that satisfy consumer demand. What does this all mean for hyperlocal news sites, which have largely been focused on perfecting the digital experience for the desktop? To get answers, I recently spoke with Amy Gahran, senior editor of Oakland Local, proprietor of the blog and expert on the computer-to-mobile makeover.

The computer and mobile phone are both digital experiences. What’s essentially different about them?
People on smartphones tend to have what neuroscientists call “continuous partial attention.” Their eyes aren’t just looking at the screen, they’re also involved with their environment. They tend to give attention in shorter-but-more-frequent spurts than computer users. When you decide to develop a mobile platform, keep that in mind.

You stress that mobile content should be service-related rather than built around web-type articles. Why?
Smartphone users in particular tend to like information and services that help them optimize their experience of their immediate environment — things like mapping, navigation, recommendation services, etc. So it’s important to think not just about what information you can offer or stories you can tell, but relevant services or context you can provide. Also, social media tends to be very popular with smartphone users because it’s highly relevant (people you know or choose to follow) and can be absorbed in short bursts of attention. So what you do in social media has the potential to be a strong draw for mobile users.

Can a mobile site be developed only on smartphones? What about the “feature” phone that isn’t as fancy but has a web browser?
Having a simple mobile website that looks good enough even on the browsers of crappy phones is really important. Making sure that inbound links to your content and services send mobile users to the appropriate page on the mobile version of your site is important. The low-cost end of the mobile market will always be the largest part of the mobile market. So it’s a good idea to have a good, simple baseline mobile web presence, and then scale up from there.

The mobile web is a really big deal. In the long run, it’s a far bigger deal than apps — and it’s cheaper to develop. So the best thing you can do is start checking out your site now on a wide variety of mobile devices, and periodically do some good local mobile market research to keep up with mobile device preferences in your community, and make sure you’re offering stuff that people in your community can actually use on the devices they already have, not what you wish they had or what developers have the most fun building for.

It’s important to think not just about what information you can offer or stories you can tell, but relevant services or context you can provide.

You said in your presentation at Block by Block 2011 that publishers and editors who are thinking of going mobile should “take advantage of what people are already doing in your community.” Would you elaborate?
Make sure in your  market research you find out what people in your community are actually doing, not what you think they’re doing. As I said in a piece for the Knight Digital Media Center, make sure you have a strong presence on the social media that are most popular, and that you’re actively conversing with people, not just broadcasting. And of course, every link that you post on social media should lead to a page that works well on simpler mobile browsers.

Should the stand-alone, independent online publisher make development of a mobile app high priority?  How hard is to do?
Apps are definitely not where you should start. Make your website mobile-friendly. Putting it up on a mobile browser like Opera Mini can be a starting point. That is easier to do if you’re using a content management system that started as a blogging tool, like WordPress. Drupal makes mobile pretty difficult, and that’s a big obstacle we faced with Oakland Local. If you really don’t have any resources to make your website mobile friendly, consider supplementing your online presence with a very mobile friendly type of social media, especially Tumblr. That would let you treat mobile as its own audience, and might help you spot unique opportunities.

Are there revenue implications as mobile becomes the dominant digital platform?
Yes. You need to think hard about selling not just mobile-friendly web ads, but also offering services like mobile-friendly landing pages for advertisers and sponsors. Tools like can be useful on that front.

Display ads don’t work well on mobile. What’s the alternative, and how can stand-alones build a mobile advertising strategy that is likely to pay off?
Text-based ads, or creating informational mobile landing pages, can work better. Be smart and relevant about it. You’ll have to handhold your advertisers and help them develop their ad content. And consider using your social media channels for revenue generation (but be careful, and don’t be spammy.).  But mobile can really help get feet in the doors. That’s why marketers are all over it. Hang out with mobile marketers and learn how they do what they do. You won’t learn about this by hanging out with people from the news business.

Tom Grubisich authors The New News column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of LocalAmerica, which is developing a Web site to rank communities on their livability across 20-plus categories. The rankings will be dynamic, going up and down daily as they are updated through a combination of open data, journalism and feedback from local experts and users of the site.

Related content: With an Inherently Local Ad Base, Publishers Can Take the Mobile Lead

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