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Hyperlocal media and mobile engagement

Senior lecturer in future media at Birmingham City University Mark Brill, who also ran a Twitter hour on omnichannel for hyperlocal publishers back in December, shares his advice.

Last year, a picture was widely shared on Twitter with the caption "Wtf is wrong with this dude? What is he looking at? The World?" It pretty much sums up the world that we are in. ‘Normality’ is being constantly connected via mobile. Of course that’s just one picture, but it was apparent by the start of 2015 that mobile was our single most important media device. One indication of this is that the web has become mobile. comScore reported that 60% of all web browsing was from a phone and Google identified that most web searches were now from smartphones. This trend is reflected in hyperlocal site users.

Wtf is wrong with this dude? What is he looking at? The world? pic.twitter.com/lTpCF5Y5QW

— Cameron Power (@cap0w) February 5, 2014

Instant, mobile, hyperlocal communities

In the summer of 2015 as the Syrian refugee crisis began to unfold, press reports identified the high level of smartphone use by those travelling to Europe. The New Scientist pointed out that these were essential tools to make the journey. It was not just about maps or basic communications. Refugees were also creating WhatsApp groups to share information and experiences. They also received support from local communities along the way. Not only food or shelter, but also power, and where possible, free WiFi using 4g hotspots. The refugees are using smartphones as more than just an information device - the mobile phone has also become journalistic tool. One Syrian refugee, Abdul, blogged his journey using WhatsApp, which was published on Buzzfeed

Shifting audiences

How these refugees are using mobile is just one illustration of how it is changing the way audiences consume and make content. For a few years Ofcom has mapped a trend away from traditional media, such as newspapers and TV into emerging mobile-led social channels. Older audiences are generally accessing news sources such as the BBC or (sadly) The Daily Mail. Often they are prompted by feeds on Facebook or Twitter. In contrast, younger audiences are finding new, less traditional channels. Buzzfeed is an important example of a media site that is covering serious news and has become the trusted news source for many Millenials. 

But it goes deeper than that. Mobile devices are also changing the type of content accessed by that audience. It’s become more visually driven by photos and increasingly by video. In a world dominated by smartphones with HD cameras, younger people prefer to express themselves through a visual medium.

The opportunities

It’s probably a little daunting to hear that there’s yet more channels to consider, especially as hyperlocal organisations have limited resources. However, it’s often a case of understanding where your audience is going and tapping into existing platforms. It’s a test-and-learn approach. Try a new channel, if it works, build on it and if it doesn’t quickly move on and try something else. And the benefit? It can create a better user engagement and, for those relying on advertising revenue, it can increase its effectiveness.

Core mobile hygiene

Rather than a separate adaptive site, responsive design is currently considered the best way to deliver a mobile web experience. Most hyperlocal sites have already implemented it, but if you haven’t already, platforms such as Wordpress have some very workable templates. If you are building from scratch, frameworks such as Bootstrap are ideal tools.

The main challenge for responsive design is with loading speed. It impacts on both the user experience and is a factor in search engine optimisation. The key elements to consider are the image resolution and the way in which external feeds (such as social or ads) can slow the site down. There are plenty of tips online but a good starting point is Google’s mobile-friendly tool.

Emerging channels

Most hyperlocal sites already have a presence on Facebook, Twitter and possibly YouTube. However, with a shifting audience it’s important to and test the engagement in emerging channels. The following are the current mobile trending channels most relevant to hyperlocal:

  • WhatsApp offers potential as a place for messaging and sharing. Unfortunately there are no brand feeds and no management tools such as Hootsuite. It is largely a case of creating a personal account and asking users to join – although there is a hack around using a mobile number. During our recent Twitter chat, Jamie Summerfield from A Little Bit of Stone mentioned that the app will typically drive around 30-40 shares. These shares can be hard to track back to WhatsApp, so the best approach is to use specific URLs on your site to measure the effectiveness of the channel.
  • Snapchat exemplifies the shift in audiences to more visual formats. It is particularly useful if you are targeting younger users. Don’t think of it simply as frivolous chatting and ten-second content. The FT reported that the app had six billion video views per day – that’s a three-fold increase in seven months and rapidly approaching Facebook’s figure of eight billion views per day. Snapchat’s Stories and its brand-focused Discover feeds - from Buzzfeed to The Daily Mail - are pushing more and more content to their users. For hyperlocal audiences it can be a way to engage with a younger audience and drive users to a website. There’s an excellent blog, by Damian Radcliffe, that looks at the opportunities of Snapchat for brands.
  • Snapchat also exemplifies the growth of short form video. Short video is a real opportunity for hyperlocal organisations to create more interesting audience engagements. Vine’s six-second looping videos have led to a new raft of social media stars, largely comedy-based. For hyperlocal organisations, Twitter’s live streaming app, Periscope, probably offers the greatest potential. Streaming events such as council meetings are an obvious application, however, Periscope is an opportunity to get far more creative with content. Spotify has used it well, by streaming exclusive performances and band interviews. In addition to its live views it also creates a long tail with even more viewers on the reply channel. In hyperlocal media, Periscope can be used to connect a mobile audience to a whole range of live events, especially if there is an element of exclusivity.

Monitising mobile

Of course the shift into mobile begs one big question – where’s the money? There is no doubt that this is a challenge. The smaller screen space, shorter dwell times and slow loading speeds means that revenues from mobile sites are inevitably smaller than desktop. Google, for example, sees less revenue from mobile, as do major news sites such as The Guardian and The Daily Mail. For hyperlocal, the solution is to build audiences in mobile. Although the likes of Snapchat or Periscope may not offer new advertising streams, they are another engagement channel that can be an effective way to send traffic to websites or other revenue generating properties.

The one social media channel that has successfully increased its revenues from mobile is Facebook. The reason for this is that its advertising is more ‘native’. By embedding highly relevant ads within news feeds it creates a less incongruous engagement to the audience. It’s not just Facebook, Buzzfeed and Huffington Post are also making good use of native advertising to drive revenue. Some people in the industry see this reformatting of ‘advertorial’ as short lived and could lead to yet more advertising fatigue. However, for hyperlocal organisations working with sponsors to create relevant and engaging content is probably the best way at the moment to make money from mobile.

You can get in touch with Mark on Twitter at @brillthings.


Kathryn Geels

Kathryn Geels

Kathryn Geels

Programme Manager

Kathryn was the Programme Manager for Destination Local. The project aims for the UK to have the most advanced public understanding of hyperlocal media and its potential for market gro…

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