This is a guest contribution from Andrew Grant, owner and author of The Freedom Blog.
Two weeks ago I made a shocking discovery.
I found out that my youngest child, barely out of nappies, has been infected by a terrible virus with the sinister name of SASS.
SASS spreads at an alarming rate and is highly contagious. Prevalence has doubled in the last year alone and the most frightening thing is that SASS is propagated by one of our favourite modern technologies; the smartphone!
OK, don’t worry; I’m not talking about real children. You don’t have to hygienically dispose of your iPhone, just yet. SASS stands for Short Attention Span Surfing and I just made it up. But this fictional disease does represent a very real threat to something very precious to me; my young, fresh-faced blog.
If you are a fellow blogger, you’ll know exactly how I feel. Just like a real baby the birth of a blog is often protracted and painful, yet at the same time, strangely moving. Once mine entered the world, I was anxious to show it off, but also curiously shy in case people thought it was ugly. I dressed it in a pretty theme, fed it with the freshest content and showered it with unnecessary plugins on the slightest pretence.
At the same time, I anxiously monitored its vital signs, reacting to every burp and hiccup; even getting up in the middle of the night just to make sure it was still breathing.
The Danger Signs
It was during one of my nocturnal check-ups that I noticed something was wrong.
At first everything appeared normal. I noted, as usual that mobile visitors represented about twenty percent of my overall traffic, split roughly 50/50 between tablets and smart-phones, which is exactly what I would expect from reading the latest tech news headlines. Mobile is growing like crazy.
The latest report from Monetate for example, shows that mobile share of web traffic has doubled in the last year alone from 10 to 20% (in line with my stats) and businesses with retail sites now get a better conversion from their tablet users than they do from desktops. It seems we’re happier to buy on our iPads than our Dells, these days. Smart-phone users aren’t quite so keen to buy stuff, yet. But that will change as web designers catch up with the opportunity.
Therefore, it seems perfectly feasible, as Morgan Stanley have predicted, that in less than two years, more than half the people who visit my site, or yours, will be on some sort of mobile device. So, what’s the problem? Mobile users are as good as any others, aren’t they?
Well, yes, but also a big, No.
Like most blog-parents I had been careful to choose a nice warm, mobile-responsive theme, so that my baby would look his best on any browser, but I was beginning to suspect that it wasn’t enough. When I started looking at my analytics for visitor engagement, I found a disturbing dark shadow on the X-Ray.
Although my desktop stats were holding steady, mobile user-engagement was significantly lower. In fact, the figures were remarkably symmetrical. Twenty percent of my visitors were reading twenty percent fewer pages and leaving twenty percent sooner than everybody else.
Except for one visitor, who spent 25 minutes browsing my blog on a Motorola phone. But I don’t think he counts. I think he was asleep!
Why don’t they like my baby?
I wanted to figure out why my content wasn’t working for mobile users, so I took a critical look using my own smartphone. I could see the problem straight away. Even though my nice, responsive theme was doing its best to optimise the presentation, there were bigger issues.
The site took too long to load, the font was difficult to read indoors and impossible in daylight, the graphics were too big and the layout looked uninviting. Clearly, my mobile readers were receiving a second rate experience. It was no surprise they were bouncing off to go and play Angry Birds.
I could see it was time for a change, but the real tipping point came when I read this piece by Amy Mischler at mobithinking.com
“Building a dotMobi site means that your URL will automatically feature on the ‘zone files’ that we maintain for ICANN, which are regularly requested by mobile search engines, directories and other sites as ‘seed lists’ for the indexing of mobile-centric web sites.
In other words, the use of a dotMobi domain will automate the beginnings of your search engine and directory submission process – in fact each month these log files are requested by around 5,000 interested parties.”
Does that smell like free traffic to you? Bear in mind that was written in 2008, so imagine how much opportunity there is now!
Note: Dot mobi is a top level domain (TLD), just like dot com or dot org, which was introduced in 2006. It is intended to allow sites to differentiate themselves from their desktop counterparts and indicate that they are focused on a mobile audience. You can register a dot mobi domain with any of the usual domain name providers.
Can Anybody Help Me?
So I began looking around for advice on how to ‘go mobile’. Surely, I thought, there must be plenty of other bloggers who are way ahead of me on this one. Mustn’t there? Well, as it turned out, there weren’t. What I found was lots of advice in two areas. Neither of which was much help.
Firstly, there were dozens of articles advising the use of responsive themes and secondly, I found plenty of suggestions for apps allowing me to post on the move. Since I already had a responsive theme and no desire to write my articles from the inside of a whale’s belly, I was disappointed.
Nowhere could I find anybody talking about things like user engagement, mobile content optimisation or multi-media repurposing, except as a means of building backlinks. It seemed I was on my own.
But then I discovered something even more shocking.
Someone is stealing my money!
Let’s see if you can spot it too. Here’s a little challenge for you. If you have a responsive theme on your blog, take look at it on your smartphone. Looks nice doesn’t it?
All your posts neatly lined up, one on top of the other. Lovely, slidey, scrolly action. See those front-page extracts whizzing past your fingers. Wheee!
Now look a little closer. Notice anything missing? No? Are you sure?
OK, I’ll give you a clue. Think of the word ‘sidebar’. Are you getting it now? Where is your sidebar? Not there is it? I don’t know which responsive theme you’re using, but every single one I’ve tried has dumped my sidebars like a cheap date, as soon as it spots a hot, new smart-phone.
And what are the three most important things that most bloggers keep in their sidebars?
- Recent posts widgets
- Opt-in forms
- AdSense ads and banners
Those clever boffins who designed your, oh-so-elegant, responsive theme have completely forgotten to include the three most important elements of your blog; the elements responsible for reader engagement, visitor retention and monetization.
Programmers are pilfering our pocket money! Of course, it’s not deliberate. I hope. But it is bad design. It solves one problem but creates a bigger one.
Really! Can Anyone Help Me?
Once again, I turned to the heavy hitters to find some answers. Surely, the big bloggers are not so dumb as to let 20% of their readers go by without showing them a single ad? They must be doing something really creative to get round this problem. Mustn’t they?
Well, once again, not exactly. Out of five big names chosen at random and viewed on my smartphone, three showed less than ten percent of their normal number of ads and two of them had no ads at all! Sorry, Problogger, I’m afraid you are one of the latter. The ones who did manage to squeeze some in, were usually settling for a single banner at the top of the front page and maybe a box ad at the bottom of each post.
The most effective solution I came across was to make the advert into a post. That way it would appear as part of the front page scroll and carry the same visual weight as a post I’ve since discovered this is called ‘native advertising’, though I’m not sure why.
Despite these small pockets of advancement, it was clear that the mobile interface is a problem that we’re all wrestling with. What we need is an action plan to inoculate our babies against SASS. Since no one else seems to have got round to it yet, here’s mine.
Mobile Action Plan – Mark 1
Optimise everything; mobile users may have slow, 3G connections
- Cut down the number of images
- Compress the ones you keep
- Install a caching plugin and learn how to configure it
- Compress your CSS and JS code by installing Minify and Gzip . Don’t worry. I know that sounds like a technical nightmare, but it is really easily achieved with a couple of plugins
You probably don’t want to write two sets of content, so use the same posts as on your main site, but mobile-ise them, like this:
- Write a three bullet summary at the top of each post in a larger font. This will appear in the post extract, so mobile users can see immediately what they’re getting
- Offer them different ways to consume the post
- How about a recorded version so they can listen while they drive?
- Give them the option to email the post to themselves and read it later – that way they can sign up to your email list at the same time
- Or turn the post into slides or a video, upload it to Slideshare or YouTube and embed the player on your blog – that way you get a couple of backlinks into the bargain
Get clever with your adverts
- Find out if you can configure your theme to display sidebar content to mobile users
- If not work out ways to embed ads into the body of your posts
- Turn the ads into posts ; advertorial style is great for product reviews or A vs B, type content. That way they will have the same visual weight as any other post and show up in the middle of the front-page scroll
- Find smart ways to integrate your money links into the body of your content – it’s more compelling that way anyway and you may well find that click-through rates increase.
Visitor retention and list building
- Buy some low-cost PLR ebooks and offer a new one every week or month, as an opt-in gift. Then you can write a review post of each book, with your opt-in box in the middle of the text. (PLR stands for Private Label Rights and basically means you buy a licence to do what you want with the book – sell it, give it away or even pretend you wrote it.)
- Try embedding your opt-in form into other posts as well, so that it shows up a couple of times a week
Ultimately, mobile users should really have their own gateway
- At the very least you should install a responsive theme and test it on a smart-phone
- Think seriously about building a satellite blog on a dot mobi domain, with an auto-switching plugin that detects the visitor’s device and serves up the most appropriate version.
- Consider building an app as well as, or even instead of, your blog. This has cost implications, but also advantages. An app is a walled garden that engenders loyalty and push notification blows email out of the water, when it comes to open rates (up to 60% for push vs around 20% for email).
Once you put your mind to it, the mobile challenge starts to throw up all sorts of new opportunities and new ways to deliver good content. In fact some of those ideas might work well on your main site too.
The real question is; will doing all this cure our babies and let them grow big and strong again? The simple answer is, I don’t know. But we have to try something, or blogging as we know it, is in danger of disappearing.
Maybe the future blogging model is virtual and distributed, rather than site-centric. Imagine that your content is everywhere and readers simply access it via an app which draws in articles, slides, videos and audio files from all the different places you uploaded them.
Rather than getting hung up on the framework of our site, we should be focused on creating multi-purpose content, ready to be delivered, via whatever medium comes along. Right now we’re thinking about mobile. Next year it might be a wristwatch, or Google’s Glasses or a flexible screen sewn into your jacket.
Ultimately, the biggest lesson for content providers is that we need to separate the intellectual property from the real estate. Whatever it looks like, people will still want content and we need to be ready to give it to them. Or someone else will. For a list of useful test sites, plugins and tools to help you go mobile, you’ll find a page called ‘Mobile Resources’ on my blog.
Let us know what you think. What steps have you taken to mobile-ise? What solutions have you come up with to monetise on smartphones?
Andrew Grant is the owner and author of The Freedom Blog a site where aspiring bloggers and internet marketer can find inspiration, practical advice and food for thought.