How Publishers are Improving the Mobile Reading Experience

By: Taylor Hill

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News publishers will remember 2016 for many reasons—not least of which was the outright attacks from a new administration on U.S. newsrooms’ qualifications for disseminating information.

While the jury’s still out on whether a nearly 200-year-old industry has forgotten how to publish news, one thing that was cemented this year was the takeover of mobile. Forty-four of the top 50 U.S. newspapers now say their websites get more unique visitors from mobile devices than desktops—at least 10 percent more, according to the latest Pew Research State of the Media report. And 35 of the top 50 newspapers saw at least a 10 percent increase in mobile unique visitors compared to 2015.

The sea change was expected. Last year, comScore’s Mobile App Report revealed a jaw-dropping number—people were spending 68.2 hours per month engaged on mobile apps, spending 87 percent of their time within apps and only 13 percent on the mobile web. That’s left publishers searching for ways to adequately invest in mobile technology that offers audiences an interactive, captivating experience on their phones while also taking into account the shortcomings advertisers are seeing in the mobile realm.

News groups making the move online through desktops, tablets, and mobile phones are greatly expanding the reach of many newspapers, but the attention span of those getting the print edition and those viewing stories online is vastly different.

A new study found that the news-reading public read the print versions of British national newspapers for an average of 40 minutes per day, against 30 seconds per day online and via apps.

The study by Dr. Neil Thurman of City University of London is the first research to comprehensively account for the time spent reading newspapers via mobile devices. It found that 89 percent of time spent reading national newspapers is in print format, while 7 percent is on mobile and just 4 percent is on a computer. Scale those numbers up, and they’re not far off from what American newspapers are seeing in advertising revenue splits. According to the Pew Research Center, print ad revenues brought in $16.4 billion in 2014, while digital ad revenues tallied around $3.5 billion—a number that’s barely budged since 2006 due to the steady decline in digital ad rates.

It’s in this unstable environment that publishers are attempting to get a steady foothold in the mobile news market. Here, we look at three publishers in different phases, taking different approaches to launching a mobile app.

 

Deseret News

Salt Lake City-based Deseret News lays claim to Utah’s largest Sunday circulation, and also is the state’s oldest continuously published daily paper. It’s under those auspices that Deseret News general manager Burke Olsen and product director Christian Ross embarked on revamping both the paper’s website and mobile app last year. So far, the work appears to be paying off, as the group just earned a Local Media Digital Innovation Award for DeseretNews.com—but the bigger test will be how the public reacts to its newly designed mobile app. Since mid-2016, mobile unique users consistently surpassed desktop users visiting Deseret News.

Christian Ross
Christian Ross

“Apart from bringing a more modern look and feel to DeseretNews.com, we knew from the outset that mobile had to be a priority,” Ross said. As users have moved toward mobile, product development has increasingly focused in that direction as well, our new design dramatically improves the mobile user experience and our ability to generate revenue from mobile users. In the months since our redesign, we’ve continued to enhance the site, and that work will continue.”

The changes include a move away from pinned footer advertisements that limit users’ scrolling ability on articles, and a shift to inline ads on article pages.

“The scroll-depth we see on many of our mobile pages is impressive, and it’s helped to make our inline display ad units viable,” Ross said.

Still, the challenge is to get the mobile users to stay on the site and on the app once they get there. One of the major successes for the paper has been live streaming of high school sports—a mainstay of the paper—whose stats archives for some sports go back more than 50 years.

Burke Olsen
Burke Olsen

Another tactic the paper is using is to focus on optimizing long-form stories for mobile device consumption. It’s an idea that seems paradoxical. The smaller screen sizes and multi-tasking tendency of mobile phone users seems like a hard sell to try and lengthen user engagement. But according to an online reading behavior study from the Pew Research Center, consumers do spend significantly more time with long-form stories than short articles. In fact, articles 1,000 words or longer averaged about twice the total engaged time compared to short-form stories: 123 seconds to 57 seconds

So far, Deseret News is seeing similar results. “Last year, we built out a feature story called Everyday Angels,” Ross said. “The average time spent on that story was double the time on a regular story. That trend hasn’t just applied to projects with special design. We recently published a 5,000 word profile on a state political figure. Mobile users spent an average of seven minutes on the page — almost a minute longer than desktop users.”

Overall, the team is still seeing shorter average session times for mobile web users compared to desktop users, but there are some encouraging trends. The average time mobile users spend on individual article pages is actually longer than desktop users, and for the users coming to the Deseret News through the mobile app, “the average session length and screen views per session far surpasses what we see from mobile users on the website,” Ross said.  “We have a loyal app user base, and that’s something we’re working actively to grow.”

As far as a response to ad-blocking, Deseret News is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“We have a system in place to track ad blocker usage, but we are currently just observing trends and gathering data,” Ross said. “Over the past three months we have noticed that ad blocker usage has plateaued on our site. We will continue to watch that data closely as we evolve a strategy to combat the problem.”

 

La Presse

Montreal’s French-language daily paper stopped the presses—literally—last January when it went all-digital on weekdays, ending a 131-year run of publishing its weekday edition.

For some, it marked the end of an era. For La Presse president Pierre-Elliott Levasseur, it was the natural progression toward focusing on what the news site now viewed as its flagship product—the tablet.

Launched in 2013, LaPresse+ (the tablet version of the newspaper) became not just a digital extension of the La Presse’s print product, but a replacement.

Pierre-Elliott Levasseur
Pierre-Elliott Levasseur

“We had a decision to make,” Levasseur said. “In 2010, when we started working on the formation of La Presse+, we were trying to capture what historically made newspapers great. We had the great brand recognition, great storytelling, and over the last 20 years, some great ink, design, and graphics improvements. We had people spending 30 to 32 minutes a day with their paper.”

Looking at the mobile landscape and the limitations of web content and smartphones at the time, the team decided to put its efforts into building a unique news reading experience specifically for tablet devices.

“We saw the lean-back nature of the tablet, versus the quick-hitting nature of mobile, and we thought we could replicate the advantages of print onto a new medium,” Levasseur said.

Three years in, and it looks like the experiment has paid off. Prior to the shuttering of the daily paper, La Presse+ was getting about 190,000 unique openings on tablets per day. The newspaper estimates about half of the paper’s print readers transitioned to the app, and its daily openings now stand at about 272,000. At the same time, they’ve been able to retain nearly 90 percent of their print advertisers, with ad revenues only taking a small dip in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the previous year.

That type of ad retention is unheard of at most daily newspapers—where ad revenues have declined steadily for years. The trick in luring advertisers to stay onboard with the tablet, according to Levasseur, has been maintaining engagement.

“We’re getting readers staying on La Presse+ 50 minutes on weekends and 40 minutes on weekdays,” Levasseur said. “Our advertisers are getting a tremendous brand lift when we deliver those types of results.”

The trick has been in creating a news product unique to tablets—not trying to cram the same content agnostically across web, mobile and print platforms.

“You can build software that allows you to press one big ‘publish’ button, and all your content goes across all your distribution channels, but it’s not going to serve any of those platforms well,” Levasseur said. “Every one of our actions backed our decision—from sales, to storytelling, to communications strategies, to marketing… everything was geared towards the tablet.”

Currently, the company has a mobile app, but it’s basically a direct mirror of content put on the website. Now, thanks to bigger screens, quicker load times and an ever-growing user base, La Presse is looking at taking its La Presse+ tablet model to the mobile phone. Levasseur said he expects to have a working mobile app prototype in the next few months.

“We’re white-boarding it the same way we did the tablet,” Levasseur said. “We’ve got 110 people on our tech team and they’re involved in getting this going from the ground up—thinking about the navigation of it, getting the right design and functionality.”

The main goal will be to bring the type of engagement La Presse+ has championed in the tablet realm to mobile. One of the focal points will be figuring out how long-form stories can be optimized in the mobile app.

Additionally, the team is looking at how to get users into the app even before they unlock their phones. Push notifications can be set to send to mobile users even when their phone is still in lock mode—one tactic in the increasingly competitive attempts to snag mobile users’ attention. These notifications often resemble a tweet-sized text block publishers hope will lure readers into the app. But Levasseur says the team is toying with creating video options viewable as a notification.

“We are trying to make our notifications richer, so that users don’t just see two lines of text and they get more of an idea of what we’re trying to communicate—more of a reason to want to click,” Levasseur said.  “We want to create a very engaging mobile experience.”

As people are starting to spend more time on mobile reading longer articles, there’s perhaps an opportunity for La Presse’s tablet framework to break through, where they get a lot of people engaged for a long time.

“It’s not going to be the same time as a home device like a tablet, but if we can really build an experience optimized for mobile phones, and get the average 4 minutes of engagement we see on our mobile app today up to 14 minutes, then that could be a game changer.”

That type of engagement could put La Presse in a position to compete with the likes of Facebook and Google in the cutthroat digital advertising world.

“We’re telling advertisers we can give them a million impressions, and then Facebook says they can give them 100 million at a cheaper per-click rate; it’s dangerous to try and compete with that,” Levasseur said. “But if we can create an engaging app on your phone—and keep our traffic from becoming beholden to Facebook clicks—that’s a start.”

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The Guardian

In 2014, the Guardian rolled out completely redesigned native apps for Android and iOs users, streamlining all of its international properties under one digital roof. The site threw out the single-column, same-sized row of stories that app users would scroll down, and instead moved to a layout of different sized “cards” for each story, aimed at signifying a stories’ perceived importance.

“The new layout better enables editors to curate stories according to their perceived importance, elbowing aside algorithms for the Guardian’s own ‘editorial voice’ on the news agenda,” The Next Web wrote at the time.

This year, the Guardian utilized President Donald Trump’s inauguration to try out mobile-based news experiments through its recently established Mobile Innovations Labs app. The Guardian’s Innovation Lab app is separate from its main mobile news application and allowed the news group to test out iOS 10’s expanded push notification features without disrupting its core user base—so users had to download the lab app to see the new experiments.

The first new feature involved testing a live stream of the inauguration inside a push alert. Users who had downloaded the app beforehand would get the push notification, tap on it, and immediately be able to watch the live stream of Trump’s swearing in ceremony right from their lock screens.

“So far as we know, this is the first time anyone has used notifications this way,” the Guardian Lab wrote in an announcement.

App users also saw a “rolling summary” on their lock screens of inauguration events as they unfolded. Updates came automatically, with the most recent happenings displayed first, creating a sort of running diary of the events of the day.

And finally, Guardian’s lab app gave users a glimpse into what future live event coverage could look like in mobile, with its “Shifting Lenses” feature. A video feed showing the presidential inauguration allowed users to swipe left and right on their screen to bring forward different camera angles of the podium, and the surrounding fanfare.

“Shifting Lenses allows you to swipe left and right between two views to get the latest on what’s happening in each narrative line,” the Guardian wrote, clarifying that the features are still in the “experimental” phase and might not have functioned as planned. “After the experiment, we’ll follow up with a survey about most features to get your reactions, and will use your feedback to help shape future experiments.”

The Guardian’s tinkering with lock screen, push notification, and video functionality in early 2017 is just the latest experimenting for news publishers trying to figure out mobile. Expect more tinkering from many more publishers throughout the year.

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Published: March 13, 2017

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