I got one of those digital wake-up calls last week when my obsession with data turned to mobile traffic. In April, we had the same number of readers visit our home page via smartphone as we did the desktop. The same was pretty much true for our popular Billionaires List. We also delivered streams of headlines for mobile readers partly determined by their consumption patterns. Briefly, we even crossed the newest digital divide. During the first weekend of May, 51% of visits were mobile — 39% smartphone, 11.5% tablet. What’s it all mean?
I’ve actually been focused on the flow for some time. It started at True/Slant, the startup I founded. Then, at FORBES, I’ve watched as news enthusiasts move across our magazine, its app and Forbes.com via desktop, tablet and now smartphones (cell phone usage is regularly 30% of our traffic, up from 5% four years ago). New insights came 10 months ago when we launched streams on Forbes.com, first on desktop, then on smartphones. Now, I see the content flow — mainly on phones — as a new opportunity to serve both consumers and marketers. If done right, editorial, native ads, marketing messages (text and video) and promotional elements can live together, even serve one other, all within the flow.
In some ways, Facebook and Twitter paved the way. Together, they buried the adage that ad agencies recited like lemmings: readers don’t scroll. Facebook now makes tons of money from smartphone scrolling. The trick for news outlets is how to construct a mobile flow with content modules. They must appeal to visitors, but also support video, sponsorships, interstitials, galleries and more. It’s not easy. It takes the right publishing tools, collaboration with the sales and marketing teams (perish the thought), and integration with an ad server. Maybe most challenging: getting editors to think like marketers of content, not simply creators.
The task fits nicely with the newest trend. Text-based social feeds, a popular kind of flow, are becoming more visual (think Facebook’s Paper app and TwitPics). We started to lay the ground work with headline text modules within mobile streams. In the last months, we’ve used our ad server to supplement these headlines with visual modules promoting ebooks written by staffers and contributors (the link to Amazon financially benefits both the author and FORBES.) Soon, we’ll get channel specific. Example: Data shows that BitCoin stories attract smartphone audiences. When that story gets hot, as it frequently does, we’ll drop our BitCoin ebook module in our mobile technology story stream. For a small cost, readers can dive deeper into the BitCoin story. Soon, we’ll do the same for newsletters. Many text headlines will also be replaced by modules containing a video player or a photo.
We can do much the same in support of sponsored events. We recently used a visual module in mobile streams to promote this week’s FORBES Women’s Summit (so far, it got the highest clickthrough among our now limited set of modules). I see doing much more for the event we unveiled today: the Under 30 Summit in Philadelphia on Oct 19-22. We expect more than 1,000 attendees — a group that lives and breathes communicating, consuming content and, yes, checking out marketing messages via smartphones.
I’ve bookmarked 35 sites using a Chrome browser on my iPhone. I do my best to look at 10 a day on a rotational basis. Overall, I see little to no effort to monetize the experiences. The most common ad: a sticky banner at the bottom of a screen. Recently, a scaled down 300 x 250 pixel desktop rectangle has made its way onto smartphones. FORBES does both, along with programmatic selling of other units.
The relentless consumer migration to smartphones presents news organizations with interlocking challenges. Sticky ads and units like it can be bought on computer exchanges for less than a dollar. On the desktop, equivalent inventory goes for $3. Both are a far cry from premium digital ads sold by humans — $15-$30 on desktops, $40-$50 in print. That means the cost of product quality content must come down. At the same time, journalists must get creative about programming small screens.
Print to digital. Narrowband to Broadband. Desktop to mobile. They should pay attention to the smartphone flow. It might help save their jobs — maybe even jolt their metastasized culture into change.