So you thought you knew about mobile?

Ross advises or has advised companies such as Audi, Axel Springer, British Airways, Red Bull, Sony and Universal Music; in the past 15 he has founded 6 digital businesses. Safe to say, when he speaks, it’s worth listening. 

Join Ross at FIPP London from 10-11 May (Ross will be speaking about “Mobile as a mindset” in the FIPP Mobile channel). You can sign up here to join him, more than 40 other international speakers and delegates from 25+ countries in London.

Ross spoke to Jon Watkins ahead of the event, touching on subjects of his presentation in London that will be a wake up call on mobile for many a media business…

I understand your session at FIPP Mobile will be a wake up call for many legacy media businesses – in terms of just how they need to adapt for mobile. Ahead of FIPP London, give us some brief insight into situation they face?

We’ve gone through this honeymoon period of transformation where the focus has been on adapting existing content for mobile. But I don’t think we’re at a point whereby we’re really responding to and engaging with the consumer behaviour mobile has introduced. Mobile is not about the device; it’s about a set of behaviours and habits that users have developed through interacting with the device. If you look at how people are interacting with mobile and how their behaviours have changed on a day-to-day basis, its clear you’ve got to completely rethink rather than just adapt the content you’re going to be producing – how content is going to be relevant and engage them and indeed whether that sits on your own platform or on third-party platforms.

The most interesting thing that brings this to life for me happening right now is the opening up of chat and messaging apps to brands. Upwards of 30% of all time spent on mobile is within social and chat apps. Chat is the primary mobile behaviour whether that’s having short, staccato conversations, sharing pictures and videos or engaging with a tight knit group of friends or colleagues, many many times over a period of a day. What they’re not doing on chat is reading long text. So if you were to rethink how you as a content publisher are going to engage with that chat behaviour, you’re going to have to rethink the whole concept of what you’re producing. It’s not about being so textual with people, it’s about being much more image-led, both moving and still. It’s about creating services that are contextual and relevant to user interests. And it’s probably more dialogue-driven than push. 

The challenge for content companies now is how they track the velocity of these new behaviours that are linked to software or hardware innovations. 

It’s not enough to create a lovely little innovation team and silo them away so they sit outside of the main organisation and rely on them to try and understand the effect of these innovations and behaviours. 

It’s got to be marbled into the organisation. 

In effect you’ve got to challenge the direct internal processes to be able to create a culture where everyone is responsible for that innovation rather than it being siloed.  

And that’s where it gets difficult, right, Ross? Because the companies are made up of journalists who want to write 1,500 word articles and don’t think mobile. How are they going to change their approach?

Well, it’s interesting you say that journalists want to write 1,500 words. There’s still a very, very vibrant market for that. People still want to read long, in-depth editorial. 

But the delivery of that content has changed radically, as does the way audiences access it [Side note: hear more about this not only in Ross’ session at FIPP London, but a number of others too]. The front door of distribution is changing completely so you need to have your journalists involved in understanding how content is consumed today, not just how it’s produced. So responsibility for encouraging content consumption, which would normally sit in the marketing department, is now the a central tenant of what a journalist’s job should be, meaning they need to understand and act upon those mobile behaviours. If you can start to embed that, which requires a complete skilling up, then you have a chance to change the organisation.

Ultimately all these journalists, all the people creating the content, are mobile users outside of work. They are using chat and all these wonderful services themselves in their home lives, they’re just not thinking about this when they open the office door in the morning in terms of the content they produce. And that’s where people like BuzzFeed, which is one of the good examples of trying to rethink how distribution works and indeed how the commercial model behind that operates, has been so successful. 

It is purely about the understanding of distribution channels and making sure the journalists understand and live that behaviour, and can see how their content is consumed and have responsibility for driving this consumption.

So they’re going to need to be more like strategists, as well as people who understand the topic and the subject matter, right?

Completely. Look at the independents who are posting on to Medium. They’ll be driving traffic to these posts directly on LinkedIn amongst their followers, they’ll have followings on Twitter – as individuals, not necessarily as the mother brand they work for. And the interesting thing there is the mother content brand has always been the be all and end all. But that’s flipping on its head now that the individual and their voice becomes increasingly important and the brand becomes the verification, trust and validation that this is a quality piece of journalism that comes out of it. 

Now I’m not suggesting the mother brand is subjugated to the individual’s brand, just that the importance of the individual’s brand has increased with the fragmentation of mobile distribution. The individuals, the journalists themselves, have to start to think about how they create their followings and their distribution channels to add into what the mother brand can do, because the mother brand will simply not be able to take 100 pieces of content a day and distribute them efficiently – the mother brand should concentrate on the distribution of the 2 per cent of content that drives the brand’s equity.

And the other issue is the loss of control. If they’re moving stuff into social channels and audiences are coming in the side door, do they have to get over that loss of control?

Entirely. This is gradual. It doesn’t happen overnight. There is a gradual degradation of control that we have had with desktop over the past decade. The value of the home page is becoming minimal. People are accessing content on an article-by-article basis and saving it to read elsewhere, often on other devices at other times. 

I look at how my consumption patterns have changed, for example. I save stuff up for the weekend through Pocket, to read later on my tablet, although it’s all done through the week on my phone. So the actual consumption of the content’s going to change on different platforms and we have to understand that cross-platform movement. 

Also, if I read an individual article, the real behavioural question for me is going to be ‘what’s going to get me to read the next one from your brand or individual journalist?’ And that’s the big challenge.  

Let’s be clear – it’s not an A and B polar opposite, right? People are still going to go direct to the mother brand and read The Sunday Times, and read sequentially through all those in-depth articles and that analysis. There’s still immense value in great brands. But there’s an increasing percentage of individual articles being read, from which the behavior is people firing off into something completely different. So the question for me to the mother brand is ‘how do you get someone to read the next article?’ 

That’s not solved by purely adding Outbrain or Taboola on the bottom of content, although it’s a useful first step. But it doesn’t solve the whole problem because the context is what’s going to take me from this article into the next article. That’s about getting to know and understand the user a lot more. It’s a case of being able to add value to that user contextually at that moment. The complexity is that we have multiple different curators that we follow and if we can start to understand a user across this fragmented consumption, we can start to understand a little bit more about what that user wants and provide them with a sequential read or save experience.  

Then we have the whole issue of new technologies like immersive content through virtual reality, which is in a completely different world in terms of how people are going to be entertained and how people are going to be exploring different subjects in a novel but incredibly enthralling environment. We’ve only just begun that journey but we need to address how content is produced for these formats, be it 360 video or VR or mixed reality like Augmented Reality. [A side note from us: Sam Dolnick, Associate Editor Digital and Lead Editor VR at The New York Times, will also be in FIPP London, speaking about The NYT’s dive into VR.]

If the way we consume content has changed, does that impact the type of content we produce?

Yes definitely. And I think for me the big thing is that there is a move away in that consumption of text, into more visual content, and I don’t think we’ve understood how important visual is. If a picture says a thousand words, a video can say a thousand pictures.  Visuals are emotionally instantaneous as well, and provide an instant hit. [Side note: hear from the likes of Martha Stewart Living, Golf Digest and Unruly about video.]

The distribution platforms change as well – if you’re doing something in the DIY, the crafts, the home environment space, then Pinterest is far more important to get engagement for your content over any other format or distribution channel at the moment. And these distribution platforms have the analytics to immediately identify what users are engaging with, meaning behavior can be understood in a near real time way. The hard part comes in terms of being able to link people across those siloes up, so that you can understand what someone’s looking at on Instagram and what someone’s looking at on Pinterest, and start to get an understanding of what that user likes. 

That’s the real challenge for us as an industry because we are not connected across the many, many different siloes.

You’ve mentioned BuzzFeed as having grabbed your attention. Who else is doing good stuff at the moment and who has really grasped the mobile way?

I think Quartz [Side note from us: Hear from Quartz’s Simon Davies at FIPP London] has understood the behaviour change massively. Just their introduction of their summarisation email, first of all, and then their movement into messaging front end on their new App, and I’m eager to see the development in this area – especially as WSJ have just launched a Facebook messenger bot and CNN and NBC have been working with chatbots on different platforms. 

A lot of the other content publishers have moved towards aggregation and summarization, and have had great success particularly with monetization through a paywall. 

But there’s the other issue to consider of monetisation. The rise of programmatic and the way in which advertising is sold has got us thinking ‘how do we even monetise what we’re doing?’ And it takes a lot to understand that. The monetisation issue has been holding back the industry because once you start to put content out on to other platforms you’ve got a problem with monetisation and it’s not going to be fully answered by third party platform solutions like Facebook Instant articles or Twitter Moments or Snapchat Discover [Side note from us: also hear more from and about third party platform distribution in other sessions at FIPP London]

They’re going to be a part of that solution and it means that the people who are successfully innovating are the people who have got the content that is, well, exclusive enough in order to be able to charge for it as it provides an immediate return on investment.

There will be more from Ross at FIPP London. You can sign up here to join Ross and others in London.

More like this

The Daily Beast’s John Avlon on mobile, news, metrics… and Donald Trump

Your FIPP London agenda and speakers update

Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x