Tips: How to adapt your stories for mobile devices

Apr 19 2013

For anyone who creates content for the Web – articles, videos, press releases, blog posts, cat pictures or the like – here’s a sobering thought. Every day, more of your audience is consuming your content on a phone screen just a few inches wide. In fact, a survey last year showed that nearly one in five American cell owners are now mostly going online using their phones.

So you can no longer assume that your readers will pore over your photographs or words on a huge desktop or laptop screen. Your audiences might be only half-reading your work as they await the end of a boring meeting or watch a television show on another screen.

My employer, the Reese News Lab at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill, has been exploring how content producers can adapt to the rise of mobile phones. Last summer, we launched, an experimental mobile-first news site. As our student team of designers, programmers and reporters created content for the site, we tested techniques for optimizing our work for our mobile users. We recently released an e-publication, “News On The Go: Field Notes On Storytelling For Mobile Devices,” that summarizes our findings so far.

The mobile environment is still a bit like the Wild West, with many rules yet to be written about how to write, shoot and design content. But here’s a bit of what we’ve learned.

Keep it short, but don’t stress about length
A mobile phone’s small screen means that your reader will only see a few lines of text at a time. So when we began the project, we assumed that most of our audience members would only read short, to-the-point content that wouldn’t tax their scrolling thumbs.

But our data told us a more complex story.

Our analytics allow us to track how far down on each page our visitors are scrolling. We examined that data to find out whether our mobile visitors are less likely to scroll to the end of articles than our desktop visitors. To our surprise, we found that about 17 percent of mobile users finish our stories, compared to 22 percent of desktop users. In addition, mobile users spend an average of three seconds longer on each page than desktop users. So on our site, at least, a long piece of content doesn’t always deter readers.

Write entertaining headlines
It seems obvious, but it’s worth remembering the most important difference between content on a desktop site and content on a mobile site: Readers are looking at mobile content anywhere, anytime, but especially when they’re bored.

In fact, 42 percent of cell phone owners use their phones to fight boredom, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Writing highly engaging headlines can help you attract those bored readers. If you consistently offer compelling headlines – and great content – they will begin to trust your site as a place to alleviate boredom.

In photos and videos, skip the subtleties
Videos and photo stories typically include three types of frames: wide shots, which show the setting of the video; medium shots, which show the subject and some of the background; and tight shots, which show close-ups of the subject.

All of these shots look beautiful in a movie theater. But when you display a wide shot on a phone screen, your viewers might have trouble seeing the subject of the image, even on retina displays. It’s just too small.

So when you’re putting together a video or a photo gallery for mobile devices, favor close-ups and medium shots.

As Reese News Lab photojournalist Kathryn Carlson said, you can compare the difference between selecting images for mobile and desktop to the difference between acting on stage and in movies. “Actors in movies can use subtle eye movements or small shoulder shrugs to convey a particular emotion to the audience,” she said. “On stage, actors use grandiose gestures and make their body language as obvious as possible. That is because small gestures are lost to the people in the balcony. This concept applies to videos on mobile devices. A smaller screen means that subtleties must give way to more obvious frames.”

Think beyond shrinking
When you’re creating content for mobile devices, it’s easy to spend time thinking about how the devices limit you, and how you have to shrink your content to fit the screen.

But the truth is that the devices offer opportunities to communicate your message in ways not possible in other media. Start thinking about how you can take advantage of the mobility of the devices to offer content about your user’s location, or how you can alter your work to take advantage of swiping, tapping and touching. A mobile site can be so much more than a simplified version of a desktop site. It’s a storytelling medium in its own right, and it’s time for content producers to start thinking that way.

Seen any examples of great mobile-optimized content? Share it in the comments.

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