by Dan Lindley

As American newspapers continue to seek salvation beyond print, the Newspaper Association of America has released a new guide to connecting with users of mobile phones. “Moving to Mobile” (online at www.naa.org/mobile) covers subjects from nuts-and-bolts technology to strategies, tactics and case studies that explain how to get the most out of editorial and advertising, including classified. The NAA bills the guide as a “comprehensive development and growth guide that details how newspapers can harness mobile technology from setup to successful execution.”

The initiative comes as mobile’s popularity has soared in the United States, especially with younger users – a demographic that’s snubbed traditional print media as it’s embraced the digital world. As more Americans use iPhones, Blackberries and other smart phones that can browse the Web, mobile offers a rich market for newspapers, according to the NAA, which reports that nearly 119 million wireless subscribers in the U.S. are using data services. Spending on mobile advertising could grow from $1.7 billion this year to $6.5 billion in 2012, according to the Internet media research company eMarketer.

Plenty of American newspapers have already launched mobile efforts, according to Beth Lawton, NAA’s manager of digital media analysis, who describes mobile as past its infancy but still “in its adolescence.” And the portable and personal nature of the mobile Web poses unique potential for classifieds, especially in real estate, where there are “great opportunities,” according to Pili Linares, NAA’s director/marketing & advertising – classifieds.

Several big metro dailies already have rolled out ambitious mobile efforts, some of which are described in detailed case studies available on Moving to Mobile’s Web pages. The New York Times, for instance, which launched its mobile site in September 2006, introduced its mobile real-estate listings a year later. Text codes in the paper’s print classifieds can be keyed into mobile phones by readers looking for more information about residences, including descriptions, photos, floor plans and click-to-call buttons. Users of Web-enabled phones can search via mobile for properties by ID number or location, while computer users can send listings they find on NYTimes.com to mobile phones. Mobile makes good sense for real-estate listings, Lawton and Linares noted, because searching for a home is an inherently mobile activity. As prospective buyers drive or walk around neighborhoods looking at houses, they can use their mobile phones to get more information on places that appeal to them.

Similar potential exists in automotive verticals, Lawton noted. Car buyers visiting a dealer’s lot after hours might punch in a code for an automobile they’re thinking about buying, for instance, and get instant information on the vehicle via their mobile phone.

Papers like the Chicago Tribune meanwhile have made advances in mobilizing the jobs vertical. Last month, the Trib began linking a new mobile QuickText feature to abbreviated QuickFind help-wanted ads in the Trib and in its free daily sister paper aimed at younger readers, the RedEye. Users can quickly browse through the brief job ads in print, then punch in text codes to get more information about positions they like.

Opportunity also exists in the merchandise category. With their rich databases of advertisers, newspapers are in a strong position to help consumers comparison shop via their mobile phones while they’re in stores or driving from store to store looking to buy, say, a new TV or a piece of furniture.

The NAA hasn’t estimated how much of a share of classified advertising mobile could eventually claim. But it could be “a very big piece of the pie,” Lawton said.

Though prospects look bright, a few stumbling blocks remain on the road to monetizing mobile. Privacy is one concern. “Mobile phone users say that the cell phone is very personal,” Lawton said. “It’s with them all the time. Not only are spam ads annoying, but mobile users also have to pay for them. That’s why newspapers will have to stick with the opt-in plan.” The NAA’s mobile guide contains detailed information on privacy.

For some papers, setting up back-office technology for mobile could be a problem, Lawton conceded, but it’s “not that difficult.”

Yet broader imponderables remain. Will mobile classifieds, like online advertising, command a lower price than print? And what about Craigslist, already a killer competitor in classifieds online? Will it move to mobile and, if so, when?

Mobile may not cure all the newspaper industry’s ills, Lawton said. But given the sad financial state of many newspaper companies in the U.S., mobile could provide many media companies a badly needed infusion of users and cash. “This is kind of like personal finance, where you need a diversified set of investments,” she said. “Mobile is a way for newspapers to diversify their tech investment. I think mobile’s going to be an enhancement to the total package. It will be a complementary solution.”

The new NAA report, she added, will serve as “development guide for any newspaper large or small that wants to get into mobile or expand their mobile.”

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