Why have we stopped talking about mobile?

Major news conferences are now tackling shiny new tech topics like bots and AI, and mixed, augmented and virtual reality, for journalism. While these are important topics that have their place in the conversation, one essential topic is being dangerously overlooked: mobile.

Sometimes the innovation game is its own worst enemy. Mobile is not a shiny new topic, but its importance hasn’t diminished. Sasha Koren, editor of the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab put out the call to action for news organisations in 2017 (during a keynote at newsrewired in London), warning that mobile is “not so new but critically important”.

While most readers aren’t using VR on a daily basis, mobile devices dominate daily life, and should therefore be prioritised by media organisations. So why has this topic faded into the background of conferences and industry news? Koren explains that news organisations responded to the mobile revolution by developing an app and a mobile responsive site, and stopping there. It may also be that mobile strategy is becoming synonymous with social strategy. While the overlap is undeniable, the small screen has much storytelling potential outside of social platforms.

Push it real good

Push notifications are not a new technology, but one that deserves a fresh look. Most organisations already use them, so it’s an easy way to experiment, observe, and develop more meaningful engagement on mobile. On a panel at newsrewired, Des Shoe, editor at The New York Times said, “The lock screen is the new home page.”

Testing the possibilities of this new home page, NYT experimented with its first double push alert back in May (analysed at length by Nieman Lab). Their mobile team was inspired by threaded tweets and wished to apply this storytelling format to the lock screen, in an attempt to get more people to engage with the content. One alert was a quote and the other was to give context, giving the reader more opportunity to swipe in, or simply have more thorough information at their fingertips. The notifications were designed to be able to stand alone, or to be read in any order.

Shoe said that only a year ago they were just sending alerts for breaking news. NYT is now sending about eight times more alerts, yet much more personalised. And it seems that personalisation in push notifications is only going to get narrower. Eliran Lazar, CEO of PushApps (a 2017 Startups for News finalist), also notes this trend: “I believe that the push notifications will become more pre-programmed in the future and AI will learn your reading habits and send you the notifications based on that instead of the editor sending it manually.”

Source: Nieman Lab

For publishers, the personalisation of push notifications does not just focus on targeting people based on their reading habits, but also on adopting a certain tone of voice, which resonates with readers. BuzzFeed, having an audience of mostly young people between the ages of 18 and 34, know that their alerts need to be informative as well as conversational, sometimes using emojis, in order to have maximum impact. Another factor to consider, according to Madeleine Welsh, associate editor at the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab, is that push notifications appear just as spontaneously, and in the same place as personal messages and phone calls. It is therefore important to consider exactly how many push notifications your readers would want to receive, and which tone of voice, and content, are appropriate for such a personal medium.

While gaining use for pushing featured content based on user preferences, the push alert’s immediacy lends itself naturally to live and breaking stories. The Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab just rolled out a collaboration with The Wall Street Journal on live alerts for their US jobs report analysis. Users were notified when new coverage was available, and were able to jump to the latest update. The Lab’s research as to how users engage with push notifications is still ongoing, underlining the experimental nature of this collaboration. Seeing whether people swipe in or reject the alert will determine how The Wall Street Journal deals with its live coverage in the future, and make room for any other experiments regarding mobile engagement. The collaboration also underlines the value of sharing tips and tricks within the industry.

Expanding the notifications, the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab

Some organisations have been using live video in push notifications, which are enabled in iOS 10. The Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab experimented with this format for Trump’s inauguration in January. Although it was a limited roll-out (620 users), the response was positive: generating high levels of engagement and satisfaction (according to a survey).

Video (both live and not), and multimedia push notifications are not yet mainstream and remain in audience testing phase. One issue is that only delivering to iOS 10 will leave out much of your audience. PushApps addresses this problem with a tool that allows delivery of multimedia push notifications with photo, video and survey features to Android as well as iOS.

Metrics in push notifications are tricky. On the newsrewired panel, when asked what a good clickthrough rate was, Shoe struggled to give a precise stat. She finally said that 50% is very good. Success is indeed hard to determine by clickthroughs. Are more clicks good because you got the reader interested in learning more? Are fewer clicks better because the alert was informative enough to satisfy the reader? In push alerts, success will be different across news organisations, and across different notifications. Lazar also recommends paying attention to Android vs. iOS user response: “It does not matter in which has more downloads, but which OS users interact with your push notifications more. The publishers should consider the different UX and measure the user’s reaction.”

‘Mobile-first’ still holds true

Lately a ‘mobile-first’ approach has been eschewed for ‘content first’. Fair point, but with some news organisations seeing more than 50% of their traffic coming from smartphones, editors should be thinking of their content first on mobile.

Apart from push alerts, what are other ways to experiment and innovate mobile storytelling? The Guardian is also looking at how to do more with audio storytelling on mobile, offline reading geared towards commuters, and keeping track of a user’s progress on a topic, and only serving them new information on that topic. Furthermore, at GEN’s Editors Lab Final 2017, the winning team from BBC News Visual Journalism came up with a tool to simplify news on mobile. Appy Helper is a conversational interface, which sits alongside long-running and complex news stories, to help readers understand, and catch up with recent related developments.

Appy Helper by the BBC Visual Journalism team

When it comes to testing a new feature on mobile, Koren suggested experimenting short-term and on a small scale, like using a sporting event. You don’t need an innovation lab to make progress: she advised finding people in the newsroom with similar interests and complementary skill sets to yours, and seeing what you can build together. And always, Koren said, “Be the person in every project who asks, ‘But what does it look like on mobile?’”