Mobile Content Apps Need not Suck

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Most traditional publishers have realized that another major change in the way the masses consume their content is well under way.  They learned well a decade ago when the internet wave hit shore that it is better to at least think  about technology cresting on the horizon to avoid being soaked when the wave hits the beach.

I think they get the truth:  people don’t read, browse, and watch the way they used to a decade ago.  I am writing this blog post while riding on the Acela Express from New York to Boston.  I am sitting at a table with three other travelers.  Between us we have 4 mobile phones (3 are iPhones), a Macbook Air, 2 iPads, 1 iPad2 and a Kindle.  They are all reading something, I am writing on a notebook connected via a 4G wireless modem.  Clearly, it doesn’t take a lot of market research to understand that if you want to be in the game of providing content to consumers, you have to be in the mobile business.  The second wave of change is the mobile wave characterized by location ambivalence, intermittent connectivity, small screens, slower download times, and even smaller attention spans.

Publishers get this, but most attempts at making their content appealing to the mobile generation are fairly lame.

Right now, I imagine pitch to a publisher’s or brand’s management by the coworkers tasked with looking at mobile,  sounds something like this:

“Let’s take the content we used to syndicate via RSS/Atom, make sure it has a picture in it, and then, let’s write an app that displays that feed and stick it in the App Store.  We can say that we are cool and hip and the kids will go for it.  We can track how many people download our app.  We can eventually [sparkle in the eye appears] put a paywall or subscription on the service.  We will let people swipe and flick.  Pinch and zoom.  YouTube.  Portrait, Landscape.  Social, friends, FaceBook.  It will be great.”

Then there are companies that understand that this is what goes on behind publishers’ doors (or at brands that, for some reason, feel compelled to share “content” about their shoes, hairspray, cold medicine, whatever).  They placate the above mentioned crowd trying to make money in the process.  Instead of saying “isn’t what you are trying to do kind of lame and boring”, they create applications that read RSS feeds and either present them to the reader or even package them up into applications (that are just RSS readers) so the iPhone screen can get just a bit more cluttered with yet another icon no one cares about touching.

So, wading through the pool of lame, branded content applications on my iPad’s App Store… I found an application that really shows off what content publishing in the mobile world can be.   I saw the History Channel’s Civil War Today App and my mind was, officially, blown.  The application launched on April 12, 2011 — 150 years to the day since the start of the American Civil War.  The application delivers a daily “news briefing” that collects stories, facts, maps, and images from a day exactly 150 years back in history.  It even includes scanned newspapers from the given date.  It lets history buffs like me gradually re-live a period of history in an entirely new way.  You see, I have been doing a lot of thinking about what a four year (Civil War) or a six year (WWII) would feel like from a media consumer’s point of view (really, no, really, thinking about it for years).  And this app is one of the first media apps that I will open when getting into a cab in the morning and need to kill the ten minutes it takes me to get to work.  I will use this app almost every day.  Don’t know if I will keep using it for the entire four years of the war’s duration, but I will certainly come back to it often.

What’s the magic here?   It is just content.  It is just content re-published.  But the concept and the packaging are an insanely clever twist on the “This Day In History” snippets in all the papers combined with fabulous graphics, combined with a compelling reason to keep using the application.   It has quizzes, it has maps, it lets me share things with my friends.  It lets me flick, zoom in, and swipe and pinch.  But this application is different:  it is NOT lame.  Just content that always existed — retargeted and made interesting again.  It is not only about what is in the application (the content) but also about how it is presented and what is done to it (the application).

What other applications can be created using existing content?  Many, I am sure;  it takes thinking.  And people always hate to do that.  But if we keep thinking of mobile, “branded” content as a glorified window into an RSS feed…  we are going to be missing on the key elements of what puts the “app” into the mobile “app”.  The mobile app doesn’t have to be B2B, it doesn’t have to focus on productivity.  It can still be content.  And it doesn’t have to suck.


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