Strategies for making your newsroom think mobile-first

parMargaret Looney
9 oct 2014 dans Mobile Journalism
smartphone era

In May, CNN staffers celebrated "Mobile de Mayo," where the newsroom dedicated its focus to all things mobile. 

For one week, content decisions were made with mobile users as the primary audience, the mobile site was shown first at editorial meetings, the mobile team held Q&A sessions and offered tips for thinking about mobile display for stories, and more.

And they were on to something. Three months later, CNN’s mobile traffic surpassed its desktop traffic.

“If we did nothing, mobile traffic would continue growing,” said Etan Horowitz, senior mobile editor at CNN, at the Online News Association conference in Chicago, pointing to the inevitability of mobile’s takeover. 

Horowitz joined reps from other newsrooms that have surpassed the 50 percent mark for mobile traffic - Alex Hardiman, executive director of mobile products at The New York Times, and Alice Dubois, director of editorial products at BuzzFeed - to share their newsrooms’ mobile-first strategies.

Even if your newsroom hasn’t hit the #halfmobile mark, it’s never too early to start setting mobile goals for your team. You can use these tips to position yourself for an emerging cross-platform world.

Identify your readers’ usage patterns on mobile

To have an impact on mobile, you need to hone in on when your readers are most active.

When mobile usage is high, you’re going to have a “traffic spike that you’re going to get regardless of what the news is because so much of the audience is coming to you,” Horowitz said.

For The New York Times, whose mobile users surpassed desktop users in August 2014, “mobile is opening up new moments of time in the morning and also in the evening,” Hardiman said. The Times noticed highest spikes of mobile usage in the morning, around lunchtime, evening commute times and then around 8 p.m.

BuzzFeed, which has been receiving half of its traffic from mobile since July 2013, sees a high spike of evening mobile traffic. CNN sees most of its mobile traffic come in at night as well, “which represents a shift for a lot of newsrooms,” Horowitz said.

And as for desktop: “It’s a 9-5 affair at the office” for readers, Hardiman said. Desktop usage drops during the weekends as mobile becomes a go-to device for The Times’ readers.

“It’s not that people are leaving the desktop on weekends and going to mobile,” Horowitz said. “They’re still doing what they were doing on the weekend, which is not going to desktop very often.”

Shift your newsroom activity to match mobile traffic

“Once you start to understand these [usage] patterns, you should use them to rethink your staffing, rethink what’s important, what time of day is everyone shooting to have things [ready] or to promote things,” Horowitz said.

If you finish a story late in the day and feel like you missed your prime time for deployment, there’s still a chance to catch your mobile audience on their way home from work. And in the case of these half-mobile newsrooms, that’s half of your audience that will be there to read it.

If news breaks on the weekend, users will likely be out and about with their mobile devices in tow; it’s likely the first place they’ll see this news break. Meet your audience at the picnic table with a push alert.

Take advantage of the off-beat metric

In CNN’s case, it experienced majority-mobile days on holidays, especially on Christmas. It wasn’t an expected traffic spike, but once staffers realized people were unwrapping their newly gifted tablets and smartphones, it all came together.

“You’re going to find these metrics that may at first not make sense, but once you figure out what’s behind them, there’s a lot of power there,” Horowitz said.

Shifting from desktop-vision to mobile-vision

As mobile traffic increases, your article’s presentation on mobile becomes ever-more crucial.

Feature your mobile homepage rather than the desktop homepage on screens around your newsroom; it can be the easiest way to get mobile display at the forefront of your newsroom’s mind. Include mobile at the top of your editorial meeting’s agenda.

A surefire way to make sure your article looks good on all platforms before you publish is to build in that functionality where you produce the post.

Times’ reporters see a preview of what their article will look like on mobile alongside the desktop preview.  

BuzzFeed also has mobile previews built into its content management system (CMS). The CMS also includes an option to send the mobile preview to your phone so you can see it in action.

In its latest drastic shift to mobile-first thinking, BuzzFeed is tweaking the CMS so the first preview of a post is actually the mobile preview, and writers will have to scroll through to see the desktop preview. If there’s something about your post that wouldn’t work well on mobile, it alerts you to that as well.

It may seem like an extreme measure, but “if a post is getting two-thirds of its traffic from mobile, desktop should be your second thought and not your first thought, and we’re really trying to reinforce that,” Dubois said.

The mobile preview is particularly important since social media drives so much traffic to mobile articles.

Embrace the close ties between mobile and social

BuzzFeed sees the highest amount of sharing from mobile app users, then mobile web users and lastly desktop users.

Plus, BuzzFeed posts receiving mobile-majority traffic were more likely to go viral than posts that received high-desktop traffic, Dubois said, thus making the mobile sharer a “more valuable” member of BuzzFeed’s audience.

Horowitz said CNN’s Facebook page saw a huge mobile traffic spike when a video of a "devil baby" in New York went viral, without ever appearing on CNN’s mobile homepage. Mobile sharers on Facebook drove the traffic; there wasn’t a significant bump on CNN’s Facebook on desktop. “The links from social take you to the mobile web,” Horowitz said.

And don’t rule out mobile-only content. BuzzFeed has a new team called BuzzFeed Distributed, which will make original content specifically for Snapchat, Vine, Instagram and other mobile-only social platforms.

You can catch a live-stream of the panel below, or view all the slides here

Image CC-licensed on Flickr via steefafa