Fiona Spruill, previously The New York Times' mobile editor, tweeted in August, "Wonder how long before we see media companies regularly starting with the phone for their big launches."
It is a fair question. Mobile makes up a significant -- and quickly growing -- portion of traffic for publishers. Mobile traffic exceeds desktop traffic during certain times of the day at The Guardian, some 45 percent of BuzzFeed's traffic comes from mobile, and The New York Times averages 52 million mobile visitors per month.
The changes mobile forces on the media industry are eerily similar to the transition brought about by the web. While this time around media executives are accepting the permanency of this change instead of treating it as a passing fad, they are faced with the Herculean challenge of innovating for mobile while executing on the web and in print. Innovating for mobile is especially challenging given that print publications still struggle with effectively monetizing the web and a shrinking newsroom staff.
In spite of the challenges, there are companies innovating in the mobile space, including Hearst, a century-old publishing powerhouse that infused mobile into its subscription business; The Atlantic, a venerable traditional publisher that launched its own tablet-first magazine with Quartz; and Circa, a new app reimagining news for the mobile consumer.
Hearst, the publisher of titles such as Harper's Bazaar and Marie Claire, is an example of a traditional publisher successfully innovating in the mobile era.
To develop mobile strategy and products, Hearst set up the Hearst App Lab, where it brings together technology and media innovators. Hearst was also one of the first publishers to make its digital magazines available in the Apple store for the iPad, and now its magazines are some of the best-selling digital titles on the market. In addition to building robust apps, Hearst reengineered its magazines' sites with responsive design to optimize the mobile user experience. Editorial also curates for mobile users by positioning bite-size pieces of content and news for mobile sites and long-form content for the web.
Hearst's efforts have had a significant impact: Nearly 40 percent of the unique visitors to its websites now come from mobile, according to David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines. Just as impressive, Hearst now has more than 1 million paid digital subscribers on mobile devices, and the majority of these subscribers are new to Hearst brands.
Hearst has stated that its goal is to have 3 million digital subscribers by 2016. With a commitment to mobile and innovation, it is on track to achieve that goal.
The Atlantic is another traditional publisher that has adapted well to mobile. Last year, instead of just optimizing its site, The Atlantic launched Quartz, a premiere business publication for a global audience, built specifically for mobile with responsive design that enables the site to work beautifully on any mobile device, including tablets. Quartz Editor-in-Chief Kevin Delaney cited the reasons for building for tablet devices, including the large and growing mobile user base as well as that there are "tremendous opportunities" to innovate on mobile platforms.
For revenue, Quartz built new ad experiences, native to digital and mobile, into the product from the get-go. From the beginning, Quartz did away with banner ads and instead introduced the Quartz Bulletin, which brings branded content right into the news stream. "We're not the first to do sponsored content, but what's interesting is the fact that we're building it into the foundation," said Justin Smith, former president of Atlantic Media. Brands were on board early on, with launch sponsors including Credit Suisse, Chevron, Cadillac, and Boeing.
Quartz's digital only, mobile-first approach is paying off, at least in terms of traffic: It closed out July with more than 2 million UVs in the U.S. In contrast, The Economist (one of its primary competitors) had 1.6 million UVs in the U.S.
Hearst and The Atlantic excelled in print publishing and are successfully transitioning to mobile. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Circa, a two-year-old app that is reimagining news for mobile devices. Circa's editors break down stories into critical parts, including salient facts, photos, quotes, and maps. To read a story, users tap on it and swipe from one critical fact to another, and at the end they have a good understanding of the story's essential elements.
The story design and user experience is perfect for mobile -- especially phone -- devices where users want to understand the essence of the story while on the go.
Lessons for publishers
Perhaps one of the best lessons for publishers comes from Facebook. In 2012, it became clear that a growing portion of the social network's users were logging in from mobile devices. Facebook was a desktop-centric company, struggling to adapt both on the product front, where the apps were clunky, as well as with monetization.
Over the last year, Facebook has infused a mobile mindset into the company culture from top down. Last June, Mark Zuckerberg announced to the entire staff that mobile was Facebook's most urgent priority. The entire organization was reconfigured to make that urgency come to life. Mobile engineers were embedded into product teams, product managers were held responsible for mobile numbers, and a mobile training program for engineers was created. And instead of just fixing bugs in existing apps, they rebuilt the apps from ground up.
Facebook's focus on mobile paid off. For the second quarter of 2013, mobile revenue made up 41 percent of Facebook's total revenue, up from 30 percent from the previous quarter and 23 percent from the fourth quarter of 2012. The 2013 Q2 report led to a 30 percent increase the company's stock price.
As Facebook illustrates, the most senior executives must champion mobile while building avenues for executing against their goals, including retraining staff, incentivizing and rewarding teams for excelling, and coupling mobile product evangelists with editorial teams. To align goals with rewards, sales people who generate the most mobile revenue can receive special bounties while product managers whose products illustrate the most impressive mobile growth can receive additional resources.
Mobile, however, also gives publishers an opportunity to create entirely new products and experiences. Mobile-enabled new products include geo-targeted news updates and advertising messaging, maps overlaid with relevant articles that help readers navigate a city, as well as long form, multi-piece stories bundled into e-books.
Newly imagined mobile products can provide additional revenue streams, each bringing in incremental revenue, which in aggregate can be significant.
The web brought about the first major transition of the century to publishing. Mobile brings the second. While the first time around, it was a mistake to ignore the web, this time around, not innovating for mobile is a choice -- one that will have tremendous consequences for publishers already challenged to survive.