News is a niche product on mobile devices - social rules supreme
Remember Circa? It was a much-vaunted app for mobile news consumption that launched in 2012. Its stories were short and sweet. It garnered plenty of praise. And sadly, it ran out of money - and earlier this year, it shut down.
Undeterred, however, others are taking up where Circa left off. Wildcard is the latest company to try to build a business on quality journalism for a mobile audience. And last week, it launched version 2.0 of its iOS app.
Like Circa before it, the app uses a card- based design.
"Cards are the perfect way to consume the web's content on your phone," says Jordan Cooper, the chief executive charged with the task of getting Wildcard out there.
"They are very simple, highly visual pieces of content that are designed for your phone first. We invested very early in the card paradigm, and have spent years defining both the design language and interaction of moving through content on the phone."
But cards alone won't cut it. So what else does Wildcard have up its sleeve?
Its stories are sourced from thousands of publishers, with each card showing one aspect of the story and linking back to the original source. Readers are served 10 major news stories as determined by Wildcard staff, 20 breaking stories of interest, and 20 more articles tailored to their particular interests.
Cooper is conscious that Wildcard's success is dependent on creating a service that fits the different ways that people use their smartphones.
"I think one of the really unique things about the phone is that free moments come up throughout the day and they are all very different," he says. "Sometimes you have a few minutes online, and sometimes you have a few hours on the train, and we designed Wildcard for both scenarios."
Cooper maintains that design and user experience (UX) are increasingly important for mobile audiences.
"I'm not an expert on the news business, so I'll leave that to those that are," he says. "But we are becoming experts on news and media discovery, delivery and consumption. I am certain that mobile-first readers and consumers have zero patience for bad UX, and that design, technology, and curation are 10 times as important as they were on the PC."
The first version of the app launched last November on the back of a $10m venture capital investment. With this latest version, Cooper aims to act as a mobile portal for more and more content.
"We have a publisher product that we will focus on when we achieve a slightly larger scale," he says. "But right now, we are really focused on building a relationship with a large user base."
So does Wildcard stand a chance? Given that Circa failed to capitalise on its initial promise, what are the pitfalls?
Well, Wildcard has some similar failings to Circa. Firstly, it does very little journalism of its own. Instead it's a platform for discovering others' content and some of the discussion around it.
Also, at a time when successful online outlets like BuzzFeed are focusing on content that elicits an emotional reaction from audiences, it feels a little dry. It's just the facts, Jack. And online audiences tend to want more than that.
But there's a bigger question that new-age media companies like Wildcard need to crack: can they reach a big enough audience for mobile news?
According to Flurry, Yahoo's mobile analytics firm, mobile audiences spend 86pc of their time in-app. But news apps aren't particularly popular. Some 32pc of all mobile users' time is spent on gaming. Another 32pc is spent on social networking and messaging apps.
Poor old news apps account for just 3pc of time spent on mobile devices.
And the most popular apps for content discovery also facilitate communicating with peers.
Facebook owns four of the most popular apps by number of downloads in 2014 (they are Facebook Messenger, Facebook itself, Instagram and WhatsApp. The rest of the top 10 includes Twitter, Snapchat, Skype and Viber).
Admittedly, some of these apps facilitate content discovery - in fact, 88pc of under-25-year-olds in America now regularly get news from Facebook. But mainly, they are platforms for public or private communication with peers. Reading other people's stories is less important than making and sharing your own.
In my mind, this is the central issue for any company like Wildcard that hopes to build a global business on mobile news readership.
Mobile audiences have better things to be doing than passively consuming the news, as they once would have done with a newspaper or magazine. Mobile devices offer too many distractions for that.
If they're not playing games, audiences are using social networks and messaging apps as platforms for communication, self-expression - or even self-promotion.
In this brave new mobile world, news is niche - social rules supreme.
Sunday Indo Business