News as procrastination in the age of mobile first

“Know your enemy” – the first rule of everything competitive. But we’re mostly doing it wrong – speaking with my MSN hat on, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of assuming that our main competition is Yahoo, Buzzfeed or the Huffington Post, and base strategy on what they are/aren’t doing to get ahead of the competition.

But if you’re in publishing, no matter what kind, your competition isn’t other publishers – it’s anything and everything that competes for your audience’s time and attention. And this is only getting more obvious for anyone in the online world now that mobile is one of the key entrypoints for news.

What do we use mobile phones for? Communication, obviously. Information, naturally. But mostly? Proscrastination. Have a few minutes to kill waiting for a bus, for someone to turn up for a meeting, for the line and the checkout to run down, and what are we all doing? Pissing about on our phones. Some read ebooks, some play games, some do work, some watch videos, some learn a language, some catch up on the news and lastest gossip, look for lifestyle tips, browse recipes, check holiday destinations – all the other stuff that broad-catchment websites like the one I work on offer up to attract readers.

Even news itself is as much about wasting time as it is about getting information – because, let’s face it, most news doesn’t directly affect most people. Even the most horrific news – terrorist attacks, mass shootings, kidnappings, wars and natural disasters – only directly affect the tiniest fraction of our audiences. They are effectively entertainment to readers – macabre entertainment, perhaps, but entertainment nonetheless. Diversions from their daily lives. Time-wasters.

It’s obvious once you realise it, but it still seems strange to hear the managing editor of the Financial Times name Candy Crush as the paper’s main competitor.

So we as news publishers need to think about how we make *our* product the most attractive time-waster:
– Is it snackable enough?
– Is it engaging enough?
– Will it keep me coming back for another hit like those addictive game apps?
– Do I get any rewards or points or prizes?
– Does it give me things I can share with my friends to show off or entertain them?
– Is it respectable enough that I wouldn’t mind the people behind me on the bus seeing what I’m looking at?
– Is it always fresh?
– Does it have depth to dig deeper if I want to, or does it simply finish and leave me with nothing to do?
– How long will it entertain me for?

These questions are the same for games as they are for media. As everyone carries on catching up with the concept of mobile first, we need to keep reminding ourselves that the questions are the same no matter what kind of mobile product you’re creating.