Tuesday 6 December 2016

Steve Dempsey: How does news downsize for smaller screens?

Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30

How can content and advertising coexist on a small screen? (Stock picture)
How can content and advertising coexist on a small screen? (Stock picture)

By 2020, two-thirds of all online activity is expected to be mobile. This is great news for general connectivity, social media networks and mobile carriers. But not for news websites.

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Why? Because according to new research, the smaller the screen, the less likely the user is to engage with news. Connection speeds, variable costs and the near-endless distractions offered by smartphones are also factors.

Mobile vs Computer: Implications for news audiences and outlets is the study. Its author is Johanna Dunaway, an associate professor of communication at Texas A&M University.

"The mobile setting is not as useful for tasks that are more complex or require a lot of cognitive effort," Dunaway says. "Depending on one's level of interest, awareness and education, news attention can require quite a bit of effort. Mobile is great for fleeting tasks such as texting or scrolling, but those requiring more concentration aren't ideal.

"In one of our studies we tested the screen size aspect specifically by only varying the size of the display of video news clips. We found that smaller screens made it harder to stay interested in news stories for longer periods of time relative to large screens."

Dunaway also notes that high-speed internet in the home is a leading predictor of whether people actively seek out online news. Mobile internet access isn't. But there is one cohort of mobile users who buck the trend - news app users. These users' level of engagement is huge. But here's the problem - there aren't many of them.

"Those who are highly interested in news will find it and read it or watch it, while those who are entertainment-oriented will use their choice of content to find entertainment venues," Dunaway says. "It isn't to say that a lot of people don't have news apps, but it is a particular kind of person - one highly interested in news and politics - that downloads news apps and visits them regularly and for longer periods of time."

So what should news organisations that want to evolve for the mobile age do?

"They've got to test their content," Dunaway says. "Audiences are both active and unique. They pick what they like and defect from what they don't. One news outlet's audience is not another's, which means they need to test their content with their own users and track their behaviour. General advice would be to pack as much information as possible into stories and avoid the need for clicks and downloads.

"Well-designed information graphics offer a potential solution. They can display a story relatively quickly and convey detail while not requiring the load times or space of video."

Dunaway also states that mobile news must be crafted with the constraints of the mobile environment in mind.

"Smaller screens and slower connections are the primary constraints," she says. "Even the best wireless can't compete with quality high-speed internet. Users are increasingly impatient with slow loading content and clunky content presentation. They defect if they have to wait seconds for content to load.

"Somehow, news organisations need to present news in a manner that is engaging and informative for shorter periods of time while not requiring too much load time. If at all possible, they need to test the presentation of their news products on mobile devices and find what works for their app-based and browser-based audiences."

But what about the thorny issue of ads? How can media outlets minimise load times when they're reliant on heavy ad-tech and analytics? How can content and advertising coexist on a small screen? Dunaway believes this is an area that's ripe for research.

"We haven't tested ads," she says, "but based on our eye-tracking data, pictures grab attention and hold it longer relative to text on mobile devices. I might also try to keep it simple and avoid the need to click."

Dunaway has one last pointer - newsrooms that are going to succeed in a mobile-first world need financial support and the leeway to experiment.

"News organisations with less economic pressure to perform for shareholders tend to provide better content, because they have more flexibility to invest in the resources that producing good news requires.

"This is really no different in some respects. News organisations need to invest resources to test their content across variable platforms if they want to capture and keep the attention of the mass mobile audience."

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