Learning from mobile-first markets

“Investment in foreign reporting for foreign audiences is the next step for western media.”

My book celebrates African innovation, and doing more with less. It’s in that spirit that I offer two related predictions for news in 2015: First: A push to target global audiences. Second: Product lessons from “mobile-first” markets.

dayo-olopadeMy first prediction doubles as advice for publishers. Growth is an obsession for all new media companies, and in its simplest form, growth means “new.” Leave aside your millennial acquisition strategies, product tie-ins, and paid marketing campaigns — the newest digital news consumers are in emerging markets.

Global expansion as business strategy is gaining traction: Quartz and The Huffington Post both launched India properties in 2014; Politico is headed to Europe. BuzzFeed is hiring reporters in Nairobi, Lagos, and San Paulo. The New York Times has deputized editors to focus on international audience development and, after 125 years, The Wall Street Journal is committing resources to African bureaus. The wire services have long maintained outposts around the globe, but investment in foreign reporting for foreign audiences is the next step for western media.

I predict that 2015 will see additional expansion into the largest emerging markets where English is spoken — India, Nigeria, South Africa — and eventually, those where it’s not: Brazil, Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia. For years, North American media salivated over China’s huge population denominator, despite the controlled information economy. It’s smoother sailing in these other countries, with millions of eyeballs, significant print traditions, and an accelerating digital culture. Add to the mix the access-to-knowledge investments from large technology companies like Facebook and Google and you have a massive expansion of the addressable market.

Transposing content and strategy to new markets requires nuance. As a onetime foreign reporter in Kenya, I know the pitfalls of the lone correspondent model. It’s not clear whether global expansion should target western audiences (with famously low tolerance for “passport stories”) or local ones — nor whether western entrants should aim to complement the existing news ecosystem or serve as outright substitutes. Advertising markets also vary in sophistication and saturation. But global expansion leverages the simultaneity that defines modern media. And strong reporting from truly independent media could transform societies where the accuracy (much less freedom) of the press is in doubt.

What’s assured about the entry into these new markets is that the next billion news consumers will be mobile. With an array of devices on which to consume news, ranging from tablets to televisions, wealthy OECD countries have been “pulled” into mobile. Emerging media markets, by contrast, are born mobile first. Four billion people are still offline — but I’ve seen firsthand how data and hardware are becoming cheaper and more abundant. Telecoms and handset manufacturers are planning for a smartphone revolution — it’s only sensible for the media industry to do the same.

As a result of both trends, I predict the character of news presentation is going to converge — on developing, not developed market terms. We’ve seen carrier-independent chat and mobile payments explode on mobile in emerging markets and then make their way to the wealthy world. For news publishers, the product and content lessons learned from serving emerging markets could prove invaluable in the quest to build a mobile experience that does more with less.

Dayo Olopade is author of The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa and a Knight Law and Media Scholar at Yale.