There’s a common objection that comes up among marketers when I talk about the incredible rate at which mobile is eating the world. Many say that these trends are all well and good, but they don’t actually change the tactics of web marketing beyond the need to make your website mobile-friendly.
For a long time, I’ve felt strongly that there was more to it than this, and that there was a real answer to this question, but I’ve struggled to lay it out clearly. I tried, in a post entitled Why You Shouldn’t have a Mobile Marketing Strategy but mainly ended up describing a mobile-centric future without really getting to the implications.
In preparation for our SearchLove London (where I was to give a presentation entitled The Threat of Mobile), I put in a ton of work to try and map it out more clearly. This post is the result of that work – I look forward to hearing all your thoughts.
What is “mobile first” thinking?
At its simplest, “mobile first” is a design philosophy that seeks to build a great experience on mobile devices and then considers ways to make it work well on larger screens, rather than the other way around. Dr. Pete did a great job of outlining the external signs of Google search going mobile first.
If you’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to the thinking within many tech giants in recent times, you’ll have heard a lot about this approach. Google and Facebook have embraced it particularly strongly – Facebook largely through opportunity and Google largely through necessity.
Although we can argue about which is the chicken and which is the egg, it’s easy to see why this is such a focus.
Mobile is an opportunity and a threat for Google.
The upside story is similar for Google – there is a huge opportunity to make money from existing mobile usage, a fantastic growth rate in mobile and the whole of the developing world coming online via mobile (and, largely, through Android).
There’s also a risk, however, as mobile search begins to cannibalise desktop in developed markets (read: those with high AdWords spends). If Google can’t monetise searches as well on mobile as they can on desktop, the growth of mobile may not be sufficient to keep their cash cow growing.
Should all marketers be thinking mobile first all the time?
If you aren’t operating as an effective monopoly, reliant on developing market growth, or seeing your core market saturated, you may still have significant upside on the desktop. Couple this with the (typically) lower conversion rates and monetization potential on mobile, and it’s easy to see why mobile first isn’t a panacea for all businesses.
On the other hand, the growth of mobile in email and social in particular means that there is one area of your business where you probably should be thinking mobile first – and that is in creative content.
Depending on the exact channels you use to promote your content, you could well be seeing >50% of visitors to your most creative content coming from mobile (even if mobile use is way lower on the rest of your site). Crucially, if you’re not seeing this, you are likely to be missing a trick – because it means your content isn’t being shared enough via these mobile first channels. Here are some stats from a B2B client of Distilled showing the low mobile usage of the main site and the entirely different story on a successful creative piece:
What does content look like “mobile first”?
Once again, we may encounter the argument that as long as our core website template is responsive, “mobile first content” just looks like regular content. I think, however, that this leads us down the wrong path.
Don’t build things differently, build different things
So, building content mobile first is easier if your core website template is responsive, but it’s definitely not a case of just publishing the same content you would have published previously in a different template.
Don’t be fooled by your analytics
There’s another common objection to this story: “but mobile is only 10-20% of my traffic, and even less of my revenue, why would I design anything for mobile users first?”
I partially addressed this in showing the common difference in traffic breakdown between creative content and the rest of the site, but some webmasters are still seeing relatively low mobile traffic even for their more creative work.
This is where I do want to invoke the chicken and egg – I believe that in the majority of cases, those website owners are missing out on potential visitors because of their poor mobile experience.
The short version of the argument is: people who may share your content are disproportionately likely to encounter it on mobile
Much of the actual sharing will happen on mobile
When something is shared via a mobile channel (email, Facebook) it is disproportionately likely to be received on mobile as well. This loop accelerates when it works well and decelerates when the content performs poorly on mobile
What happens to viral loops when content works poorly on mobile
Imagine a simplified viral loop where, on average: For every 10 people who see the piece, 2 share it. Each share reaches 30 more people. 20% of these click through. This means 12 new people see it. Because 12 is greater than 10 (which we started with) this means the viral coefficient, k is greater than one (1.2 in this case) – this is key to anything spreading virally.
Now, let’s look at what happens to the same simplified loop when a piece of non-mobile-friendly content is shared on a platform like Facebook where (let’s say, conservatively) 50% of users are on mobile:
10 people see it and 2 still share it – but this time they share it on Facebook. Each share reaches 30 more people. 20% of these click through. 50% of these get a poor experience and navigate away without considering it. This means 6 new people really see it. This time, 6 is less than 10 (which we started with) meaning that k < 1 and the piece will not spread virally.
The upshot of this simplified example is that a lack of mobile friendliness coupled with the mobile-centricity of key networks can cause an otherwise great piece of content to fail to go viral.
This means: The risk is not losing 10-20% of visitors (based on your site’s average mobile usage). Nor even losing 50% of visitors (based on Facebook / email usage). You could be losing 90+% of potential visitors by breaking the viral loop
How do you make creative content mobile first?
How to make creative content is a big topic – too big for this post – but it is something we think and talk about a lot at Distilled. I recommend checking out these two presentations from our VP Creative, Mark Johnstone:
How to produce better content ideas
How to produce content people will share
Much of the framework is built around the Made to Stick idea of telling:
In other words, right at the conception phase, you should be asking yourselves if this story is suitable for telling in the medium and via the channels you are planning. Of course, to implement this in the real world takes a myriad of skills and activities across design, development, and QA but that’ll have to be the topic of another post.