Special Report: Mobile, Part 1

Responsive Design: App Killer?

Responsive design, which ensures a consitent user experience across various devices, may be a hot topic at media companies these days, but the strategy does not necessarily mean the end of the road for apps. While some executives think that responsive design is a must, others warn that it’s not a catchall solution and apps still have a place in the media quiver. Part one of a two-part special report on local media's mobile strategies.
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There’s no question that responsive design is the next potential game changer in local media companies’ mobile strategies. But is it sounding the death knell for their apps and optimized websites?

Yes, no and maybe seem to be the answers according to those within media companies, digital agencies and the vendors who build apps and mobile sites. While they agree that responsive design is likely to have a major disruptive impact because of its built-in advantages for publishers — namely its streamlined approach to pushing and form fitting digital content to all devices — factors like the cost and labor of transition will have a hampering effect.

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And while responsive design starts the shot clock on the need for most mobile optimized sites, experts say that apps are likely to coexist much longer owing to their unique use cases and native advantages.

Allen Klosowski, senior director of social media and mobile for Digital First Media, is among those who subscribe to the gospel of responsive design.

“The Web has to work everywhere,” he said. “You have to be able to adapt to all of those different places where consumers are reading your content and interacting with your products. If you’re not on responsive Web within the next 12 months, then you’ve got a major problem.”

Ed Morrissey, partner and chief creative officer with Integrity, a St. Louis-based digital agency, said that for every redesign project his firm has taken on since last year, they have advised clients to switch to responsive design as long as they understand its scope and relatively higher cost.

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“The development expense to convert to a responsive experience is higher up front, but it is much more effective and much better for the life of the website,” he said. “Responsive design is a far more effective approach to addressing the fragmentation of screen sizes that are accessing your website.”

Sandy Martin, mobile director for Schurz Communications, is equally bullish on responsive design’s impact. “I think it will be one of the biggest drivers in audience growth for us,” she said. “It’s pulling a lot of energy back to the Web.”

But Bryce Moore, director of digital media for KMOV, a St. Louis-based, Belo-owned CBS affiliate, said there are caveats to consider among the cheerleading. “Responsive design is a great idea and the target that everybody needs to be shooting at,” he said. But it’s also really hard to do in the TV world, he added.

“I can’t sit down and start recoding my site, and chances are nobody has anybody on site at the station level who can do it, so it falls back on the corporate level,” he said.

And then there’s that cost factor again. “Just from a TV perspective, do you think anybody’s budgeted to do any kind of major responsive design overhaul on any of their platforms in 2013?”

Beyond cost, others argue that responsive design isn’t a catchall solution for mobile. Among them is Martin, who says that discovery in mobile is a cumbersome and lingering problem.

“They have to know our brand,” she said, “They have to type in SouthBendTribune.com on their phone in order to get to our mobile site.”

Responsive sites also lack the native advantage, said Loren Donelson, director of product management at Verve, which builds apps and mobile sites for media clients. “Most HTML-built sites don’t have that same feeling, the smoothness of a native app, so publishers are still wanting to go native when they can,” he said.

And those native properties are still the main selling points of having an app, experts say. “The beauty of an app — the way it works and what it’s designed for — is very strong,” said Chris Hanburger, VP of business development or StepLeader, an app vendor. “So do you want to ignore part of your audience by not offering that?”

Minding those app use cases and the particular itches that apps help to scratch is critical, agreed Jason Gould, senior VP and GM of Inergize, a content management system and app provider. “With apps it’s about short bursts of media consumption,” he said. “Most consumption is in the two-minute or less time period, so navigating to a URL is not something that’s going to be highly sought after versus [something] that you just click into when you’re looking to waste some time as you stand in line.”

Klosowski said that apps cater to a different intensity of user. “A lot of times responsive Web may serve the more casual user, and I think you’ll find that those that have a higher affinity for your product tend to go for the applications,” he said. “People who interact with the applications tend to interact on orders of magnitude more often and consume more content on applications than they do on the mobile Web.”

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