The mobile takeover and what publishers need to do about it

As mobile browsing now accounts for over half of web traffic, publishers need to rethink their content and marketing to deal with the small screen.  A version of this article was previously published in InPublishing Magazine.

Only a couple of years ago, a publisher’s mobile strategy was something of an afterthought, maybe simply creating a replica edition on the app store. But now, as mobile accounts for over 50% of web browsing, and the smartphone-addicted millennial generation forms the majority in many audiences, digital strategies have to be mobile first. In this article I take a look at how some smart pioneers are experimenting with mobile content and share a simple must-do checklist to rethink your digital publishing strategy.

Why the mobile takeover?

In the last 5 years, the time US adults spend per day on their mobile devices has grown from under an hour to almost three hours a day, now contributing 51% of total time spent with digital media.  Already mobile drives 65% of the BBC’s web traffic. Enders Analysis predicts that in another 5 years web browsing will be 75% mobile.

Worldwide smartphone ownership is rocketing, building new consumer habits that fit in with time-pressured, travelling lifestyles. And as the Millennial generation (under 35s) become the majority in the workforce in the US, their serious smartphone addiction (87% agree, “my smartphone never leaves my side, night or day”) means that any provider of digital content has to consider mobile devices first, not last. The recent RISJ Digital News Report highlights a stark difference across the age cohorts in news sources: 60% of 18-24s consider online their main source of news, compared to 22% of over 55s.

Mobile also enables people to connect with each other in real time, across borders. There is phenomenal growth in social and messaging apps worldwide – Whatsapp is growing at 60% pa and now has 800 million users, sending 30 billion messages per day. WeChat from China, at 549 million users and Line from Japan, at 205 million, are not far behind. And these Asian digital platforms are rapidly adding games, commerce, food delivery and user content, making them an essential tool for busy, urban young people worldwide.

The forms of content are also changing. Images are increasingly captured on mobile with the express intent of sharing on social networks, and curated user-generated collections on platforms like Snapchat can reach over 30 million people in a matter of days. Video content has the highest share rate: Facebook now has 4 billion video views per day, 75% on mobile. And shared audio content (e.g. via Sound cloud) or live streaming on platforms like Twitch, are also growing fast.

Platforms becoming publishers

Social media platforms are now becoming a major source for discovering news stories: 28% of UK readers find online news stories via social platforms, predominantly Facebook, each week, according to RISJ. And among the under 35s, this rises to 41%, with smartphones their predominant device.

Even more concerning for traditional content creators and publishers, the big online platforms, who are hugely dominant on mobile, are starting to develop proprietary content which tips the balance of power in their favour. Facebook has already signed up large publishers like National Geographic and The Guardian, to provide content for their “Instant Articles” where users don’t have to leave the app to view an article.

Apple have recently announced that Apple News will feature content provided by established media brands, to be displayed in a Flipboard-inspired environment – and no doubt prominently promoted across their extensive phone and tablet customer base. This will shift the emphasis of reading from entire branded publications to single articles.

SnapChat Discover is also being developed as a platform to showcase third party content. And finally, let’s not forget LinkedIn Pulse, where published posts are sucking business blogging onto the B2B networking platform.

The funding challenge

Only a minority of more specialist publishers are successfully charging for digital content subscriptions, and most also have free, ad-funded content. Smaller screens create special problems for advertising revenue – as ads can appear more intrusive. No surprise then, that already 39% of UK consumers and 47% of US consumers use ad-blocking software. And the use of distributed content platforms forces content to be free – plus Facebook and Apple want to take a 30% share of advertising they sell around publisher content. So many publishers are exploring native advertising, where they create content on behalf of an advertiser, and then distribute it widely. But even this new revenue source is fraught with problems, as consumers can feel deceived by sponsored content that isn’t explicitly labelled, or doesn’t match up to the media brands’ usual standards.

So how can a media brand carve out a strong independent position on mobile without being sucked onto the proprietary platforms of the internet giants? I’ve looked at the mobile strategies of some pioneering publishers, and identified a simple checklist.

Learning from mobile pioneers

How are other publishers working out how their content can reach a fickle, fluid and flighty mobile audience? Here’s some pioneering experiments to inspire you.


The BBC World service tested out mobile messaging platforms with customised content around the Indian election, publishing text headlines, audio and video and political cartoons to Whatsapp and setting up a dedicated channel on WeChat with headlines that clicked back to the news website. They have also developed some “mobile first” content types: simple visual data-driven images and short video clips, which are designed for social sharing.


Populist news site Buzzfeed has set up a dedicated team creating customised content for third party platforms including Instagram, Snapchat, Vine and messaging apps, that will never appear on, and don’t even link back to the mother ship. This may seem crazy, but as Buzzfeed learns how to propagate content on mobile, they will then be able to replicate this for paying advertisers who want to run native campaigns across these channels.

Quartz/Economist/Emerald Street

The Quartz Daily Brief is a designed-for-mobile email newsletter, providing a round-up of daily news for the morning commute.

The Economist Espresso is a smartphone-centric concentrated shot of news issues and analysis, reminding readers of the quality of their content. It is now read by 175,000 existing subscribers, and has attracted 25,000 new subscribers.

Emerald Street provides classy distraction for urban career women, and a stand-alone advertising proposition.

What all have in common is a mobile first design, dedicated editors and an obsession with the insights from data on the behaviour of their time-pressed readers.

Mobile publishing checklist

So what should the average publisher with limited resources do to avoid being side-lined on mobile? Here’s a simple checklist to get you started.

  1. Mobile-friendly design

Ensure your website works on smartphone and tablet. People are particularly unforgiving on smartphones – text has to be readable without zooming in, and simple, pictorial navigation with endless scrolling down is a lot easier to manage with one thumb. Plus large links for clumsy fingers, very simple forms and sign-in, and streamlined slide in or native menus to find the right page. Given that the peaks in smartphone use are the morning and evening commute, where wifi and even 4G are scarce, don’t overload the images, or require users to load multiple pages to reach their destination.

Tablet use is more likely to be on wifi, at home in the evening or possibly when out and about at work, so the constraints are not so tight as smartphone, but be aware that many users will be on old operating systems or low-cost android devices, not the latest iPad iOs, so keep it simple and remember to test.

Here’s some good current examples:

RCNi new website for nurses is easily navigable on phones and tablets.

Independent niche mag Karting Magazine shows that a small budget is no barrier to a simple mobile-friendly site

  1. New content types

Design content that is easy to view – and share – from mobile platforms. Publish on your own site, with simple sharing tools, and also actively promote through your proprietary social platforms. Take a look at these examples for inspiration:

  • BBC Go Figure – image plus simple stats
  • BBC Shorts – 15 second news videos with simple captions
  • Vertical video – suits portrait screens of smartphones
  • Economist charts – easy to share on twitter/ Linkedin/ Google+
  • Audio – BBC Minute news round up, Economist radio
  1. Mobile email

Work out when your audience might be attentive to a smartphone-delivered briefing – and provide them with content of genuine value – and a reason to visit your website immediately or later.  

  1. Distributed content

Consider creating a new category of content specifically designed to be shared on mobile platforms. Like the BBC’s short videos or stats-based visuals, or the Economists’ chart of the day. Maybe create short articles that work on LinkedIn’s Pulse blogging platform, or Facebook’s Instant Articles, or Apple News, intended to be read, enjoyed, valued and shared by a wider audience. Just make sure they are well branded and have a link back to your own website. And track the results of your experiments to see what works best.

  1. Sponsored content

Test out some high quality, clearly labelled sponsored content, and monitor the feedback from readers – and the reach you can deliver to advertisers. If well executed, this is less jarring than ads.

  1. The app conundrum

With the demise of Apple Newsstand, and the introduction of Apple News, publishers have a choice. Either create a stand alone mobile app edition, that is readable on smartphone as well as tablet, and be prepared to invest in proprietary marketing on the App Store, using your own web-site, email database and cross-promotion. Or focus on a great mobile website, and publish well-branded, individual articles in Apple News.

Perhaps the mobile takeover isn’t so terrifying a prospect after all, and by rethinking content cleverly the smart publisher can use this trend to get even closer, more frequently, to that elusive, impatient, demanding mobile audience.

If you know of some good practice in mobile publishing, please share your experiences.

If you need some more ideas and tips on developing your mobile publishing strategy, please get in touch.


About the author

Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events. Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on the topic of digital publishing strategy for media sector publishers and events.