Is mobile advertising journalism's saving grace?

Catering to an online audience can be a daunting task for news organizations that are used to producing newspapers or traditional broadcasts.

With fierce competition to impress local, national and international demographics (depending on the target market) via cyberspace, many newsrooms struggle to find the right formula to feed web content to their users.

The fact of the matter is newsrooms aren't only dealing with competition, they're dealing with their audience's split focus. A Nielsen study conducted in early 2013 suggests nearly half of all smartphone and tablet owners used their devices while watching TV.

According to Nielsen’s Q1 2013 Cross-Platform Report, smartphone users spent 87 percent of their “app/Web” time using mobile apps; they spent the remaining 13 percent of their time on mobile Web. Women’s usage outpaces men by over two hours a month, but both sexes spend more than four hours a month on the mobile Web.

iPad users spent half the number of hours on their iPads than smartphone users spent on their smartphones. While users were on their iPads, however, they were three times more likely to be using apps than the mobile Web.

Both smartphone and iPad users love social networking. In fact, smartphone users spend over nine hours and iPad users spending nearly four hours a month on social networking platforms.

We all know the newspaper industry is drying up quickly and we already knew TV shows were struggling under the weight of web-streamed broadcast, but to know that the audience remaining is preoccupied by its gadgets should be worrisome to news organizations.— Unless they start focusing on that market rather than spending thousands (if not millions) on browser-only publications.

You should be jealous of the smartphone

According to Matt Gillis, the executive vice-president of global product and platform at Millennial Media, mobile platforms are where developers and advertisers should be focusing their attention. This is what he said during a panel discussion at MobileBeat2013, a VentureBeat conference that took place in San Francisco between July 9 and 10:

In recent years — particularly since the arrival of the iPhone — advertisers have questioned the status of the so-called "second screen," the device dividing people's attention. Gillis argues mobile devices are the first screen, that people are far more enthralled in what they see emanating from their small handheld devices than what the now-traditional web pages splash across computer screens.

Sure, give me ads

Not only are people glued to their mobile devices, they're also more willing to deal with advertising as long as the content is free.

(Could it be that LaPresse has put money in the right place by developing a huge, free iPad publication?)

According to Jeff Drobick, the chief product officer for Tapjoy, a mobile advertising and monetization agency, the mobile advertising industry remains largely underdeveloped compared to its full browser counterpart.

He told VentureBeat that "the advertising industry spends roughly $40 billion on web advertising each year," while "only $4 billion of that is directed to mobile ads."

"How do you take a traditional display ad and make it relevant without distracting the audience? That's something we all struggle with every day," he said.

Sure, I'm throwing around advertising numbers without necessarily looking at news content, but knowing that the mobile industry is the place to be in terms of ads (a.k.a. revenue) means that news organizations should be running — if not throwing themselves — toward mobile platform development.

Local news? Local ads!

A report compiled for the Pew Reasearch Centre's Project for Excellence in Journalism in 2012 argued that, though ads placed on news sites were relatively weak at making good use of online market data, more news organizations were beginning to adopt targeted ads — a part of a business model that Google and Facebook have fronted for, well, years.

"Overall, the analysis finds that while news organizations have tried to persuade their advertisers to buy space across multiple platforms, there was little evidence that they had succeeded. The kinds of products and services being advertised online were quite different from in legacy platforms, and often were seen across multiple websites. On CNN cable television, for instance, the top three advertising categories were motion pictures and television, insurance, and telecommunications companies; on they were financial ads, toiletries and cosmetics, and job search."

— Katerina Eva Matsa, Kenny Olmstead, Amy Mitchell and Tom Rosenstiel of PEJ

After tracking some of the conversation at MobileBeat, one can notice that the advertising industry still hasn't mastered mobile marketing — nor have news agencies.

However, mobile devices pack a solid punch: they track users. According to Jeremy Stoppelman, the co-founder of reviews app Yelp, ads on mobile are outperforming desktop ads due to location targeting.

To tap into this geo-located goldmine could put many news organizations at ease.

Back to basics

Focusing on mobile platforms first may seem like a bad idea considering the high demand for value-added content and interactive multimedia news features.

But, targeting an industry that holds a secret (and holds relatively everyone by the balls) could be the saving grace to the defunct traditional journalism business model based on subscriptions and old-school advertising.

Would news need to go back to basic? Maybe.

Newsrooms may have to start focusing on creating good, original journalism that will attract users to their mobile platforms and start thinking about ways to bring storytelling back. This doesn't mean videos, multimedia features and radio hits need to go, it simply means they have to be re-imagined to work right out of someone's pocket and on a five-inch screen rather than sprawling across a desktop screen.

Then, once the fight for "the second screen" has been launched, we can discuss what comes next.