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Playing Favorites with Your Mobile Audience (Part 1)

Playing Favorites with Your Mobile Audience (Part 1)

Nobody likes playing favorites, and no one likes being the last person picked for a game of kickball. Times have changed, though, and while you can avoid getting picked last by creating your own team, there is still a need to play favorites. This is especially true when it comes to defining, targeting, and delivering a video experience to your mobile audience.

Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, the first Android phone in 2008, and the iPad in 2010, publishers in the U.S. have been faced with a slow and painful transition from feature phones to smartphones to tablets. Despite the growth of the smartphone (which is even predicted to--finally--outpace feature phones) and tablet platforms, many publishers continue to strive for maintaining feature and content parity across all mobile platforms.

Publishers need to ask themselves: is this the right strategy in a fragmented landscape of mobile platform capabilities?

Playing Favorites

We must accept that the fragmentation and consequent disparity within the mobile landscape is here for the foreseeable future; publishers must optimize their video experience based on the mobile platform capabilities. This means prioritizing features, content strategy, and marketing for specific audiences. Rather than forcing a standard of parity on a mobile landscape and inviting failure, publishers should acknowledge and accept the disparity by playing favorites and thus embrace the future of mobile.

In the late nineties, I worked for a software company that developed enterprise software for Fortune 50 companies. During this time: Netscape’s Communicator was the browser of choice; we were still debating DCOM vs. CORBA vs. Java RMI; and Apple had recently buried Cyberdog in the virtual backyard.

The company launched a new product that enabled companies to create a dynamic pricing model for a myriad of products and services from computers to helicopters to life insurance. While the tactical value of the software was its ability to quickly and accurately model a complex set of pricing rules, a key strategic value was identified by a management consulting partner. The consultant noted that the value wasn't necessarily in the accuracy or efficacy of the pricing model, but instead in identifying the customer segments that were of long-term value. Some of the seemingly "best" customers were actually the least profitable due to the discounts needed to retain them.

Publishers should view mobile platforms (and their associated audiences) through a similar lens to determine which platforms--audiences--are worth the investment. Catering to a mobile audience segment may not be in the best interests of a publisher if they cannot effectively and efficiently monetize, measure, and deliver to that platform. The common trend over the last several years has been for publishers to use a "least common denominator" approach for implementing their mobile video strategy across platforms. This includes:

  • Delivering a single bitrate rendition encoded only for compatibility--but often non-optimal bitrate, format, protocol, or codec
  • Statically stitching pre-roll, mid-roll, and post-roll advertisements server-side (easily skipped by the user)
  • Syndicating content via URLs instead of monetized, measurable, and branded video experiences
  • Exposing premium long-form content via progressive download

What Should Publishers Expect?

Despite this, the needs of publishers have evolved faster than the capabilities of most mobile platforms. The minimum requirements typically includes adaptive bitrate streaming for video on demand (VOD) and live stream content, content protection (e.g., DRM, encryption), user entitlements (e.g., TVE), and consistent playback in context of advertising and measurement.

Based on these fundamental needs, publishers should expect hardship until they segregate their mobile audience based on platform capability and adoption. For capability, platforms should be assessed by their support for native applications and HTML5 (mobile Web). In terms of adoption, platforms should be measured by their current footprint and their potential for growth.

Best in Show: iOS

In the mobile landscape, iOS has proven itself both in capability and adoption as the de facto standard, and iOS is now considered "table stakes." 

iOS provides a rich set of video capabilities for mobile Web--including adaptive bitrate streaming for VOD and live content via HTTP Live Streaming (HLS). iOS also features AES-128 content encryption, strong support for HTML5, AirPlay, and embedded closed captions extended through an established native application ecosystem (such as DRM, in-app purchases, local and push notifications). While some have whispered that the byzantine native application approval process has led to a draconian system of gatekeeping, there needs to be "law" in the mobile Wild West, and Apple's process remains one that benefits all.

The most challenging aspect is whether a "mobile Web only" strategy is sufficient. For publishers where the video experience is secondary to another content type or another mode of operation other than video content consumption (e.g., interactive games, person-to-person communication, content creation), then HTML5 support on iOS is reasonably complete:

  • Adaptive bitrate streaming of encrypted VOD and live streaming content
  • Inline playback (on the iPad) for branded UX (e.g., custom UI elements), rendering of sidecar DFXP for closed captions, and non-linear advertising
  • In-stream advertising (pre-roll, mid-roll, post-roll)
  • Analytics and QoS

While a significant amount of effort is still needed to remedy the device and operating system fragmentation that exist even within iOS, the adoption rate of new iOS versions as well as a relatively well-defined set of hardware profiles make HTML5 support not just approachable but a must-have minimum for most publishers.

Moving to Native

Despite all of this, publishers should view mobile Web on iOS as an absolute baseline--but not sufficient for differentiation. As we've seen over the last 12 months, practically every major media publisher has launched one or more native applications. The challenges to developing native applications are considerable (e.g., building an Objective C skill set or finding a hybrid or alternative development approach, maintaining and operating a new consumer touchpoint, building awareness for a new touchpoint that augments--rather than cannibalizes--existing desktop usage, etc.), but native applications provide a plethora of capabilities.

Pertinent to video consumption experiences is the ability to support, specifically: 

  • Online and offline DRM
  • Immersive and unique advertising experiences
  • Greater control of the UX (including social identity, sharing, subscription and related user entitlements like TVE)
  • Sophisticated video experiences including pseudo-linear playback, multi-camera playback, dual screen via AirPlay

Establishing a footprint optimized for iOS will remain de rigueur over the next 12-18 months despite news that Android is gaining market share based on 2012 Q4 tablet sales. While we can’t presume that the iOS consumer is “better” than others, publishers should acknowledge that iOS presents the most compelling mobile Web and native application platform.

Mobile Web support on iOS will ensure the publisher can join the race, but truly utilizing the capabilities of the platform--especially the native capabilities--will be crucial for establishing and maintaining a closer relationship with consumers and differentiating content and brand amongst competitors.

Phone vs. Tablet

And if publishers are debating the smartphone vs. tablet form factor, the transformative nature of the iPad--while only several years in the making--has affected the video consumption experience in ways we are only just beginning to understand. The device has transformed how (leanback), when (anytime), and where (planes, trains, and automobiles) we purchase, share, and consume video. Bottom line: the iPhone is a great device, but the iPad is a great platform.

In the next post in this series, I'll discuss where Android, Windows, and feature phones fit--or don't fit--into a mobile strategy.