As traffic on mobile devices increases — often making up half of a site’s total page views — publishers are struggling to monetize those mobile visitors. See Mobile Readers Abound; the Ads, Not So Much.
The problem is fairly straight-forward. You can squeeze more ads into a desktop page view than you can on a mobile page. Also, some of the analytics and tracking options a website can use on desktop don’t work as well on mobile, if they work at all.
The very same article, viewed on a desktop, might generate twice the ad revenue it would get on a mobile device. That paints an ugly revenue picture for publishers, since more and more traffic is moving to mobile.
Supporting content with ads was a questionable decision to begin with, in my opinion, but investing in a mobile platform only to see your ad revenue drop …. That goes beyond “questionable” and might even qualify as self-defeating, except that it’s not as if the publisher has much of a choice. People are going to read on mobile devices — while they stand at the bus stop, or (unfortunately) while they’re walking into a telephone pole.
That’s just the way things are. The web has moved beyond the desk, and publishers can’t change that, even if they wanted to. However, they might be able to change their strategy so this trend doesn’t destroy their revenue.
Why not do something different on mobile?
Publishers could go all in and set up a paywall for mobile readers, but there are steps short of a full-on paywall that might tip the scales.
For example, why not require mobile users to register? An email address can be more valuable than an ad impression.
I asked a few of my publishing colleagues what they thought of this concept.
Andy Kowl from ePublishing says that many of their clients successfully gate their content, but none of them currently make a distinction between desktop and mobile visitors. Depending on what content management system you use, Andy points out that there could be some technology challenges in putting a paywall on mobile but not on desktop. This is because the part of the system that runs the paywall is often separate from the part that triggers the responsive design. E.g., the paywall has to connect to a user database.
My tech colleagues here at Kiplinger say that’s one of the reasons it can be a good idea to put the mobile site on a different domain so you can control things separately. You simply redirect mobile users to the other site.
Another reason to use a different domain for mobile is there are simply different things going on — like swiping. It’s already hard, and is going to get increasingly harder, to make one site, using one technology, that addresses all the possibilities.
Besides, even “mobile” is a becoming an unhelpful word. It’s not just smart phones and tablets. People are going to be accessing your content in their cars. Screens are becoming ubiquitous.
Ed Coburn from Mequoda reminds me that sponsorship is another option for monetizing content on mobile. I haven’t heard whether that option provides enough of a boost to make up for the drop in revenue on mobile sites, but it’s certainly worth considering.
Ed also points out that most people assume they can get your information on some other site, so if you make it hard to access on yours, they’ll just go elsewhere.
That’s very true. Publishers need to make their content unique — either in what they say, in how they say it, or in why they are a more trusted source. Anybody with a keyboard can write about anything. The trick for publishers is to write in a way that people would rather listen to you than the other guy.
It’s tempting to say “mobile is here to stay.” But with the rapid change in technologies, who really knows? Maybe a decade from now we’ll all be fitted with an implant that displays visual information straight to our optic nerve, and creates a little voice in our heads for the audio content. (Many years ago I mused on such things in The Intruder.)
Wherever technology takes us, there will be a market for intelligence, wit, style and … yes, plain old hard work. Content will still have value, but we’re going to have to be flexible and creative in how we make a living off selling it.