Mobile content strategy: It’s really about being adaptive by: Amy Gahran

Posted on September 18, 2013


The medium is still the message — and even though Marshall McLuhan is long gone, his truism applies to mobile media, too.

Whether you’re making your community news/info website more mobile-friendly, or perhaps creating your own smartphone or tablet app, it helps to consider how to optimize your content, not just your design and user interface, for mobile devices. A new book, Content Strategy for Mobile offers some options and lessons that community site owners might put to use in order to better serve their communities.

Written by Karen McGrane, a leading global expert in user experience design, this book ($9 e-book, $18 plus shipping for paperback) is a must-have resource for any website owner or editor. While it recommends some strategies for breaking content up into smaller chunks (to be friendlier to small screens), the book emphasizes that quality and relevance will succeed with mobile audiences.

And mobile audiences are huge. Pew Internet reported that as of June 2012, 31% of Americans who access the internet from a mobile device say that’s the way they always or mostly go online — they rarely or never use a desktop or laptop computer. And that number is growing; especially among lower-income demographics, immigrants, and Hispanics.

While this book was primarily written with business websites in mind, it does address concerns of publishers — and some common themes that apply to any site.

Mobile devices, especially smartphones, are crucial if you publish any long-form content (which could mean 500 words or more). According to McGrane, March-April 2012 data from Readability (an online service where users save webpages, to strip away design and ads for a cleaner offline reading experience) shows: “Users are even more engaged in reading on their [smartphones] than on the desktop — and, surprisingly, on the iPad. The average time readers spent on the mobilized article view was even longer than the time people spent reading on both the desktop and on tablets.”

What does it take to create a mobile content strategy? In the introduction, McGrane notes: “How are we going to get our content to render appropriately on mobile devices? This isn’t a superficial problem. The solution requires you to look closely at your content management system, your editorial workflow, even your organizational structure. You may need different tools, different processes, different ways of communicating. [But] by taking the time now to examine your content and structure it for maximum flexibility and reuse, you’ll be (better) prepared the next time a new gadget rolls around. You’ll have cleared out all the dead wood, by pruning outdated, badly written, and irrelevant content, which means all your users will have a better experience.”

And new gadgets do keep rolling around. In the recent holiday shopping season, small tablets such as the iPad Mini, Nexus 7, and Kindle Fire HD were hugely popular gifts. But the size of these touchscreens falls between the common size of both smartphones and larger tablets — which means that many websites (even those with responsive web design) may not “fit” quite right, from the user’s perspective. Whenever users have to take extra steps — zooming, scrolling around, etc. — to understand what content is on a webpage, that’s an obstacle.

Such design challenges will always happen as devices evolve — which means that focusing on creating content that works well on almost any device will help build your audience in the long run.

Making your content adaptive

Adaptive content is at the core of a mobile content strategy. According to McGrane, this means your content is:

  • Created with the goal of making it reusable, rather than by someone who imagines that it will “live” on a particular platform.
  • Structured (with the help of HTML5 and other semantic tools) so it can be combined in different ways for different platforms.
  • Presentation-independent, which means it hasn’t been styled and formatted for a single display.
  • Metadata-rich, to allow platforms to “query” your content and display the content elements best suited to a particular display.
  • Supported by a content management system with a user interface that encourages writers to create content elements and variations within a package, instead of tying content to specific pages.

To write reusable content, McGrane recommends:

  • Write standalone headlines that work in any context.
  • Where one headline won’t work in every context, write a compelling headline and also specify in your CMS some context-independent link text to be used to link to that story. For instance, an article entitled “What’s Eating the NYPD?” might correspond to the link text: Why the NYPD Is Turning on Ray Kelly
  • Put the most important content in the lede; story-style leads don’t repurpose as well.
  • Recognize when content probably won’t work well on mobile devices. This is especially true of Flash video, but also some interactive features such as data visualizations. Avoid such content where possible, but where necessary, swap it out with mobile-friendly alternate content.

These adaptive content basics can be incorporated into a typical CMS used by a community site. Beyond that, a process called content modeling is crucial in adding useful structure to your content. This is a process you can go through when planning a new site, or when upgrading or replacing your site’s CMS. It involves going through your content to identify:

  • Content types. What kind of content is it? Is it an article, event, review, photo, slideshow, etc.?
  • Attributes. What fields or content elements can or must be entered? Does the content include headings, body text, images, audio files, author name, or author bio?
  • Data limits. What limits are set on each attribute? Does the field require a specific numeric format, image specification, character limit, or date format?
  • Relationships. How are different content types connected? What attributes and data limits can be shared among different content types?

Content management systems are part of the problem that community news/info publishers face in making their content truly adaptive. While popular CMS tools like WordPress offer themes and plugins to create a mobile-friendly or responsive display, and support a variety of content types, out of the box these tools generally don’t easily support reuse of that content — such as integrating it into niche microsites, syndicating it across a network of sites, repackaging it into ebooks, etc.

Ideally, each attribute identified in your content model becomes a field in your CMS interface, so when your contributors enter content into your CMS they’re focused on creating “chunks,” not pages. In turn, this makes it easier to remix stories and other content into “content packages” that could be delivered to a variety of devices, websites, or apps — again, something that opens up revenue and engagement opportunities. Content packages are just another way to create relevance — which from the user’s perspective equals value.

Most of the people who operate or contribute to community news/info sites are, first and foremost, writers. They’re used to word processing programs that combine the formatting (or presentation) of text with content itself. This is why most community news site CMS’s include a “what you see is what you get” toolbar on the fields where you enter the text for the body of your article. According to McGrant: “The best evidence that we’re crossing our fingers and hoping we can make the web more like print is the WYSIWYG toolbar.” The book covers a variety of strategies for making a CMS that yields truly adaptive content.

It takes some significant programming work to customize a WordPress site in this way. Drupal offers more options for such custom configuration — but it’s also generally a more challenging CMS to set up and use, which is why it’s less popular with community news/info sites.

NPR Digital has created a Drupal-based CMS which accomplishes much of this, called Core Publisher — but it’s only available to public broadcasting stations.

If a similar CMS focused on content reuse were developed for use by networks of community or niche sites, that might support both more robust mobile-friendly publishing as well as a variety of new engagement and revenue opportunities. This might be a worthwhile project for funding partners of community news/info sites to consider.

Talking to advertisers and partners about mobile content

One benefit of this book’s focus on business websites is that it can give you tools to discuss mobile better with advertisers. Most local business websites are not optimized for mobile, which means that even if they ran ads on your mobile sites and people clicked on them, the destination would be a site that’s difficult or impossible to use on a small screen.

But if your site offered a package of services to create a mobile-friendly presence for advertisers or partner organizations, rather than just placing banner ads, that might benefit everyone and help build your site’s business.

Reading this book will help you understand mobile content and audiences from the advertiser’s point of view. It’ll help you convey to them why they need a stronger mobile presence, and how you can help them achieve that and realize benefits from it.

This book also explains how to use analytics and research into your users and competition to hone your adaptive content strategy.

See, we’re not even calling it a “mobile strategy” anymore — and that’s the point. In the long run, the way to grow your audience, and to usefully join forces with other related content publishers and websites serving your community, is to be adaptive rather than mobile. It’s a big leap, and you might not be able to get there all at once. But it’s probably much easier for smaller, digital-first operations to make this journey than it is for large sites and publishers rooted in print and broadcast media