Ask any radio or television news organization, and they’ll tell you “mobile is the future.”
So why aren’t any broadcasters acting that way?
Most news bosses have read the headlines — more people are consuming news on mobile devices, so news organizations need to make their content easy to view on phones and tablets.
Responsive mobile sites accomplish the important goal of ensuring a user can view and navigate stories and advertisements.
Yet, all these organizations that unveil a new site and consider their “mobile strategy” done are missing half of the opportunity — to harness and harvest the audience’s infatuation with always having our phones in our hands, and our tough-to-quench thirst for having our say.
About a year ago I drew up some really rough thoughts and notes on what I called an engagement app for WTOP, where I work as a reporter and am the Technology Editor (see my rough mock-up below-right).
This would be a native app — downloaded onto a smartphone from the App Store or Google Play — as opposed to a mobile website, which works through the mobile device’s web browser.
The goal was to let people listen to the news station and browse the website, with the ability to easily contribute content and feedback — studio-quality audio, video, photo, text — with the touch of a button on the phone.
Sure, radio stations, TV stations and other online news providers have been soliciting audience input for several years, yet most put up countless hurdles that frustrate the user.
Think of the way most radio stations solicit audience feedback:
- “Call our listener line at 1-888-555-1212”
- “Go to our website, search so-and-so and upload your pictures”
- “Tweet us your kitten photos with #cutestthingever.”
Each makes it very difficult for a listener to get involved.
These solicitations require remembering, writing, waiting, downloading, typing with one hand, searching — any of which is enough to make most people give up.
And if the person does call the listener line, the comment generally is via a hard-to-hear cell phone call.
There’s got to be a better way. There is. Yet few, if any, are improving upon the way it’s always been done.
Native + Responsive
The answer is combining a native app with a responsive website, and more importantly, giving users the tools and reason to more actively listen and participate.
Of course, the naysayers will say “mobile isn’t generating enough money to pay for a separate native app.”
The answer to that is: “This engagement app will supercharge and improve our on-air and website content right now, making it easier for our salespeople to sell what is making money now, while paving the road for future mobile sales.”
Instead of having listeners’ cell phone-quality audio on the air, by using the app they can record their viewpoint studio-quality, and instantly transmit it to the newsroom, where a reporter or editor can decide whether to include the comment on-air, online or on social media.
A listener who wants to contribute a video of the potential news event he or she just shot on their phone can send the video and audio to the newsroom with a single push of a button, rather than trying to figure out how to download the video when they get to the office, and upload it with their desktop computer.
Photos submitted through the app can go directly to web editors, for consideration and possible cropping and posting.
Creative news directors can cultivate quick, fun and effective ways to take the pulse of its users, by posting a basic poll on the engagement app — and anchors in the studio can report results almost instantly.
Engagement app: Is it possible? What would it cost?
It would not be terribly difficult or expensive to build an engagement app, says Pete Johnson, president and CEO of Apollo Matrix in Washington, D.C.
What it would require is an easy-to-download, configure, and simple-to-operate application for a busy mobile user.
Enabling listeners to authenticate the app through a Twitter or Facebook account makes the process easy: “Do this once, and done,” said Johnson.
Not only can the listener now provide content, the station’s newsroom and marketing department benefits, too.
“This establishes roughly who the listener is and in many cases provides good demographic data on the listener,” said Johnson.
Making it easy for a listener to provide studio-quality audio is a goldmine for news and talk stations, especially in the digital age when audio lives forever online.
In response to a question posed on-air, online, or through social media, “The user could press a button and the app will take control of the mic, advise the listener that they are ‘on WTOP,’ and they can record their message. And they’d have the option to include a photo,” envisioned Johnson.
In an email interview, Johnson said the app developer and news organizations would need to think about how listeners would likely use the app.
“Design considerations would include things like getting the user to mute the radio while commenting, possibly muting the car radio if the user is using Bluetooth, confirming the quality of the audio and using a reminder to prompt a re-recording or email later,” Johnson said.
Johnson estimates the range of developing such an app as between $20,000 and $40,000.
The time to change mobile behavior is now
Some news organizations are taking strong steps toward the future.
CNN’s iReport feature enables users to contribute video and photos, and explains and encourages users on techniques and strategies for creating content on their smartphones. Other stations make it easy to send photos directly from Camera Roll to the newsroom.
In my opinion, there is still a lot more to be done to get people to think “I’m listening to WTOP, so let me grab my phone because I want to be part of the action. I want to hear and see everything in one place, and now it’s easy for me to be an active contributor to the coverage and conversation.”
That will eventually require creative ways of letting radio listeners and web readers know that if they hold their phone in their hand, their experience can be even more eventful and informative, and they can almost effortlessly help shape the content they’re hearing and reading.
While social media was initially pooh-poohed as another task for an already burdened news staff, social is now acknowledged as an important part of your brand. In the same way, the “hyper-engagement” of engagement apps will produce “super fans” — those who not only crave your content, but crave the involvement that the app facilitates. They feel like they are part of your news team. Maybe they even fantasize about helping break a story.
I want them to think: “I can’t wait to tell and show WTOP about what I’m witnessing.”
That two-way sharing energizes the kind of brand loyalty broadcast programmers and marketers dream about.
It’s an exciting time — the future of mobile is at hand. And, in your hand.
For the past 18 years, Neal Augenstein has been an award-winning reporter with WTOP-FM, and is the Technology Editor with wtop.com, in Washington, D.C. He’s the first major-market radio reporter to do all his field reporting on an iPhone. His iPhone is part of the permanent collection of The Newseum. Neal is a frequent contributor to CBS News Radio. Born in Connecticut, he graduated from American University in Washington, with a degree in broadcast journalism. On Twitter, follow @AugensteinWTOP.