Editor’s Note: Mobile: The Web All Over Again?
In the feature "21 Tips for Developing Your Mobile Game Plan" (page 10), Merriam-Webster President and Publisher John Morse makes a really interesting point: He suggests, "Be as bold with mobile apps today as we were with the Web 10 years ago." The Web was a new frontier, where questions abounded and risk lurked around every corner. It is, in its premise, very similar to mobile.
In 1996, 15 years ago, I spearheaded the launch of the website for the publication where I worked at the time, learning html (as an editor), coding copy myself, deciding not to put all of our print content online (it was a paid publication: subscription and newsstand), but most importantly, conceiving of products that tapped the Web's unique nature. We set up a discussion forum in 1997, events listings for shows, a clickable map that showed shows and galleries in each state. The forum was the most popular; in fact, we received so many comments every day, it became nearly impossible to moderate. Within two years, at most, our site traffic exceeded our print circulation by about 300 percent. Our ad revenue was significant.
Arguments abounded in the industry about whether to put print content (mainly newspapers and magazines) online for free, and doing so was, in fact, all that some publications did. We know where that landed the publishing industry.
Book publishers struggled with questions about whether or not to sell books directly from their sites, what content to feature, whether to just put up an online catalog. Then they began to offer "see inside" types of features, and video and audio clips of authors, and other ancillary information that could help a consumer "connect" with an author or book more directly.
John Morse's comparison between the Web and mobile is an eye opener. It also screams "caution!" to me. So many publishers messed up on the Web, ignoring it or doing very little with it, while the rest of the information world went Web-wild. Other publishers jumped in head first, though sometimes blindly, but got a head start on their competition and built a strong online foundation for growth over the past 10 years.
Some are just maximizing the Web's benefits today, launching communities for their audiences to meet authors and each other, and even involving readers in story plots (the newly launched FictionExpress.co.uk/en).
While Andrew Brenneman cautions, in his Digital Directions column (page 34), against diving into mobile without a set strategy for delivering real value, he also offers the three keys to an effective mobile strategy. And they seem clear and simple enough.
Morse, on the contrary, suggests that proceeding without a clear business model is OK, as waiting will make you late to market.
A combination of these two philosophies seems to be what successful Web ventures did in the past, and what some successful mobile ventures are doing now. While Merriam-Webster may not have had a set business model for mobile, it has developed, for the most part, products that utilize the benefits of mobile (including its portability, content salability and even advertising revenue) and that tap the company's existing assets—two of Brenneman's main points.
This strategy has worked with print and websites, and surely makes sense for mobile. It worked for TV (after realizing that creating "visual radio" was not tapping TV's capabilities). The Web's interactive capabilities enable publishers to connect with audiences in new ways, and mobile has so much potential that it's confusing to figure out the best way to tap it. Plus, the best way will be unique for every publisher. So, hopefully the tips and strategies in this issue will help you develop a successful strategy that won't hold you back from innovation and timeliness to market.