Why Publishers Need to Start Thinking Mobile-First

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Long before we were harangued into believing that the future of publishing is in the data cloud, we were berated about the modesty of our mobile publishing ambitions. Like many of my publishing colleagues I fought back with ennui: I really don’t see why you think my web site needs to display brilliantly on an iPhone. Given that all of my mobile book sales are from Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble and their ilk, why would I care? My site gets less traffic online than 6th Avenue late on a Sunday night.

Two recent developments make me certain that I’m not merely underestimating the impact of mobile, but that I’m not even in the right ballpark. One is Benedict Evans’ very smart presentation Mobile is Eating the World, Autumn 2013 Edition. The other is a new online service called Flash Travel, which I’ll examine after considering Evans’ startling stats.

Evans’ deck includes 73 slides. Here’s three that stood out for me:


Mobile is eating the world  autumn 2013-2

Mobile is eating the world  autumn 2013-3

Benedict Evans will be speaking at Digital Book World 2014 in New York. Don’t miss out! Register today!

Leonard Cohen famously sings that there’s no good place to stand in a massacre, and Evans’ numbers indicate that a massacre is exactly the condition PC-based online publishing is facing. The chart in his slide #6 graphically illustrates what’s captured in numbers in his slide #10. In 2012 nearly 5 times as many smartphones sold worldwide as did PCs. The result is that in a very short time there have become twice as many mobile users as PC users. But the next data point on that chart is even more startling: PC users replace their devices only every 4-5 years; mobile users every second year. This creates enormous opportunities for hardware vendors. But it also offers software publishers and content creators a fresh start every two years: consider the possibilities of erasing your sins and starting again every 24 months.

The third slide above (Evans #70) has one very strong statement: (while the desktop model for web use is page-to-page linking) the model for mobile isn’t yet clear. It could be web apps, OS integration and/or many more, some still behind startup walls. In this uncertainty lies opportunity. Flash Travel delineates one aspect of the opportunity.

Travel Online

The Internet’s major impact on the travel industry has been to transform long-standing brand loyalty into an addiction to discounts, forcing hotels and airlines to compete using a delicate balance of pricing and brand features. If a hotel brand image doesn’t clearly articulate it unique advantages it will quickly be positioned against the Motel 6 at $49/night.

As with the airline industry, an empty seat is just as destructive to hotels at sea level as it is flying 550 mph at 30,000 feet. For both hotels and airlines the overall imperative is to sell the seat but both have to enforce some regulation on the reselling ecosystem or most sales will be at a loss. Hotels have mostly found that balance. With the merger of American Airlines and US Air stability might soon be found for the airline industry.

Enter Flash Travel

Profiled last week on Newsweek, Flash Travel is predicated on what mobile does best: reach out and touch someone. Right this minute. No, right this second. Daring cosmopolitan traveler that you’ve become in this mobile world, you’re perfectly happy to land in San Francisco on the 11 p.m. New York-SF flight without your hotel room booked. Click on your iPhone: it knows what city you’re in and has your credit card details, and you can book a room for the night at a fraction of the fraction of the price you could have skimmed off Expedia or Hotels.com.

I tried it tonight: the prices via the Hotel Tonight app in three cities were consistently 20-40% lower than anything I could find through a browser.

So that’s a win-win, right? The customer gets pricing below the bottom of the rock bottom, and the hotel still gets revenue at around 30% of rack rate.

But then you realize that prior to the availability of Flash Travel, this cyber warrior would have booked the same room a few days ago for more money.

Unlike web services that bring in new customers and new revenue by offering efficiencies that make reduced pricing still profitable, Flash Travel just disrupts an already disrupted supply chain without increasing demand. For all of the efficiency that the web provides, demand is demand, and if no one else is heading to Boise tonight no amount of price slashing is going to fill that room.

But what grabs me with Flash Travel is that there is one certain beneficiary: the modern business traveler who ain’t worried about nuttin’. There’s going to be a room for him wherever he travels, whenever he lands. If he doesn’t win the low price sweepstakes on this visit he’ll grab a couple more chips off the table on his next visit. He doesn’t care anyway. With rooms this cheap they don’t cost much more than dinner.

Flash Travel isn’t about travel, the industry, the economics or otherwise. It’s about the vast power of the mobile consumer, a power that increases day by day. It makes me realize that any “pure mobile play” – that’s not just a miniaturized version of a browser-based service – stands an excellent chance of succeeding solely on the power of the vast, and increasing, number of solely mobile consumers that Benedict Evans so clearly profiles. The consumer is firmly in the driver’s seat.

In the mobile world there’s not even a warning bell. Either you offer the mobile consumer whatever they want at the moment they want it and at a price that they’re willing to pay or CLICK, they’ve moved on to someone who will.

The lesson for publishers is that a marketing strategy that runs paper to desktop to mobile has become a traffic jam. Try mobile, desktop and then paper. Meet your customers where they truly browse.

10 thoughts on “Why Publishers Need to Start Thinking Mobile-First

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  3. Peter Turner

    The other possible implication for publishers who want to drive sales via social media, content marketing, and e-mail marketing is that mobile users want to discover, sample, and buy in one seamless experience. Put another way, less clicks, more coin.

  4. Julia Hidy

    I agree with your point of view, Thad. I was a speaker at BookCampTO in Aug. 2013. The U.S. publishing industry is definitely having to play catch up. The Canadian publishing industry is a year or two further behind. Tablet users who would like a rich media e-reading experience on their devices only have limited choice. Mobile users want an experience that is designed especially for their devices. Neither the tablet or mobile users are getting enough content choice specific to their devices.

    I’ll be very interested to see how self-publishers, indies and big 5 publishers respond to the current exponential growth in mobile devices. They will all have to get their heads around the nuances of what readers want and expect when they read e-books on their mobile devices.

    I can tell you that if any of the large e-book sales platforms want more e-books to as sell as non-native apps, they are going to have to make the process MUCH easier for self-publishers, or they are going to ALL keep leaving money on the table. They will have to redesign their content upload dashboards sooner vs. later.

    If I have to download and learn a complicated developer SDK — far more suited to folks with technology degrees — I am spending too much time learning the technology and not enough time doing what I’m good at – which is creating content that may sell.

    1. Thad McIlroy

      I’m with you on all points. Since writing this piece a few days ago I’ve been thinking that the rise of mobile has much in common with the rise of the web in the 1990s. Most non-technology-oriented companies were very slow to adapt, and missed some great opportunities. But, slowly they turned their ships around. I imagine it will be similar with mobile.
      The risk concerns reading books on mobile devises vs. other forms of entertainment. Video, movies and games are claiming the bulk of the mindshare on mobile: they’re going to be tough for publishers to dislodge.

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