Mobile publishing options today

Publishers these days have several options to deliver their content to people using mobile devices.  Some are more elegant than others, but most all publishers fall into one or more of these categories:

1. Do nothing.
2. Build a separate mobile site.
3. Build native mobile apps (iPhone, Android, etc)
4. Convert your standard website to use responsive design

1. Do nothing. A lot of small to medium sized publishers present their standard desktop website to mobile browsers with no display changes whatsoever.  Usually this is because they don’t have the time, resources or knowledge to deal with it. However, that isn’t always a bad thing.  If their website is mostly text-based, it won’t look too bad in a modern mobile browser.  Most mobile browsers (I’m talking about Android, iOS, Blackberry, etc) will handle text-based sites pretty easily.

David Eggers‘ popular McSweeney’s website is a good example of this “do nothing” strategy.  They present their standard website to mobile browsers and then prompt you to download their iPhone/iPad app. This is mostly likely a sales/marketing decision for McSweeney’s – as pinching and zooming in a mobile browser isn’t much fun. However, I could purchase their weekly articles inside their iPhone/iPad app for a much better user experience.  I suspect this “do nothing” strategy for their desktop content prompts many of their fans to do just that.

2. Build a separate mobile site.  Many large publishers (as well as smaller tech-savvy publishers) fall into this category.  In most cases, when a reader visits the publisher’s standard website with a mobile browser, she is automatically forwarded to the mobile-friendly site.  This option isn’t as easy as the “do nothing” approach, but it’s not much more difficult.  Finding the right mobile vendor or the right mobile publishing plugin to make this happen isn’t as difficult as it sounds.  Many newspapers and magazines relying on advertising as their main source of revenue decide to go this route for mobile devices.

Many blogging platforms like WordPress and Blogger have easy-to-install plugins that do all the heavy lifting in this case. There are also services like MoFuse that will take a simple RSS feeds and create a mobile sites on the fly.

3. Build native mobile apps. More and more publishers are opting to build specific iOS and Android apps for their content.  If done well, this can be a great experience for the reader to engage the content in ways that a browser wouldn’t previously support.  It can also be another source of revenue if they decide charge for the app (or content within the app) as the New York Times has done with their mobile subscription service.  This is a difficult option for smaller publishers because mobile application development is very expensive right now. Publishers that can afford to drop tens of thousands of dollars on a app will also need to update the app on a frequent basis when Apple and Android periodically release new versions of their operating systems.

The cost of building and maintaining native mobile apps put them out of reach of many small publishers.  (Although, that is changing as more and more mobile app developers are charging a smaller monthly fees or even revenue sharing for mobile apps as the market becomes flooded with mobile developers.)

Native mobile apps also reach a smaller percentage of the public (those who use smart phones), than the mobile web. Because of this, I think this option is best paired with a mobile-friendly website to reach the widest audience.

4. Convert your standard website to use responsive design techniques. Responsive design is a fairly new concept in web design.  It works by determining what kind of device you are using to access the website and delivering content best suited to that device.  If you are using a desktop browser, the site will deliver a content-rich site with photos, video etc.  If you are using a smart phone, the site will scale that content to fit your screen and bandwidth limitations.

There are pros and cons to this strategy. Unfortunately, the concept is so new we don’t have a lot of data to measure the success yet.  On the pro-side, a publisher only has one site to manage and one content management system on which to train their staff.  There isn’t a separate mobile site or separate apps to worry about marketing, etc. On the con-side, building a website with responsive design techniques seems more difficult than building a standard desktop website. Ethan Marcotte recently redesigned the Boston Globe to use responsive design principals. This is one of the first major publishers to experiment with responsive design and I am eager to see how they fair in the coming months.

I hesitate to say that responsive design is the best option available, but it certainly seems like the most efficient way to deliver optimized content to any device, regardless of screen size or bandwidth connection.

I think it will eventually become a very popular option for publishers and will keep my eyes on the Boston Globe to see how they fare.

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