“Freemiums” and “Ambience”: the Future of Mobile Content?

A paidContent conference recap

PaidContent hosted a conference in New York on Tuesday entitled “paidContent Mobile: Leveraging the Smartphone Boom.” Software developers, media honchos, and tech investors spent the day musing over how best to distribute, market and profit from mobile content. This includes everything from traditional news media articles reduced to little bite-size portions, to the “SpongeBob Tickler” app that is currently one of the most popular apps from Viacom.

This SpongeBob app was the topic of a conversation in one panel about how best to monetize apps. Should developers try to sell a large number of apps for a small amount of money, or is it better to give away free downloads and then offer upgrades that would cost money later? It depends on whether their goal is to make money up front, or to simply invest in a giveaway that will help build the brand. That is, are you selling an app as a product? Or using an app as a marketing device?

A third option is the “Freemium” model, which snags customers with a free download and then tries to make some money a few steps down the line by offering updates and upgrades for a fee.

What these business experiments with apps will mean for actual news organizations is still unclear. One recurring theme throughout the day was that “content providers”—people like us—shouldn’t just throw money at app development and wait for the magic to happen. One speaker compared the current “gold rush” of mobile apps to the early days of the Internet, when companies scrambled to put up Web sites just because they knew they had to, without investing the time or money to make them good.

This sentiment was best summarized in a presentation by Alan Wurtzel, R&D guy at NBC Universal, that “just because you can do it technologically doesn’t mean the consumer wants it.” Especially if your content is dry, or if the app is at all cumbersome to navigate.

Several speakers emphasized that media companies should always keep their readers’ behavior in mind, and with mobile phone and tablet apps, “fun” is key. John SanGiovanni, co-founder of the design company Zumobi, said “If you’re a content professional, and you’re not interested in [video] games, you should be.”

Perhaps the most interesting moment of the day was an interaction between Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, and Michael Zimbalist, vice president of R&D for The New York Times Company. Zimbalist seemed pretty excited about the possibilities of a partnership between the two companies, where Foursquare could be populated with capsules of content from the Times’ archives, available to Foursquare users depending on where they were in the world. This is an idea Zimbalist called this content “information shadows.” (I discussed this idea previously on CJR.org in relation to The Wall Street Journal’s experiment with Foursquare.)

Panelists disagreed over what the experience of these “shadows” should be like for users, however. Crowley talked about the shift in behavior he has seen lately, from people turning to their smartphones for answers to questions or curiosities, to a more constant interactive experience (like Foursquare) where people expect to be alerted by their phones to points of interest, news alerts, social updates from friends, and so on.

Crowley said he would like his phone to be “passively aware” at all times: aware of his physical location, his tastes and interests, and his social relationships, and then “look out for his best interest” with suggestions and updates. But Luke Williams, creative director of Frog Design, said that mobile content should perhaps be more “ambient” and “calming”; that is, information should always be available if necessary, but that it should not demand our constant attention, should not make us anxious.

Crowley also said that location-based social networks have the potential to really improve people’s lives—or at least help them improve themselves—by awarding points for volunteering, or going to the gym, or reading books, and so on. But what I’ve noticed is, if you log on to Foursquare today, most “tips” you read will be about restaurants and coffee shops. How else can mobile content networks “look out for you” in a more substantial, rather than a purely consumeristic, way?

These are questions that news organizations should be considering, as they discuss when and whether to participate in these types of location-based social networks. Sure, this is a new way to distribute old content, but what else is it good for? Collecting feedback from readers in a more streamlined way, organizing breaking news alerts by the readers’ current neighborhood, learning individual preferences not just by looking at the reader’s behavior but at the behavior of her friends and colleagues, for instance.

One audience member got a few dark laughs when he stood up and remarked on how limited his generation’s thinking was, not having grown up with the Internet, and how gosh-darn difficult it was to un-think the traditional ways of content distribution. He predicted that the real revolution in mobile content will only come when everyone in the room is dead and “the kids” have taken over.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner