Mobile Done Right? How National Public Radio Embraces the Mobile Web and Apps

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on May 21, 2010

Branching out into the mobile space can have big rewards for media organizations that take the time to do it right. However, recognizing the right moments, investing in the right technology, and marketing to the right audience are tough to do. To learn how one mainstream media organization is doing it we called Robert Spier, Director of Content Development for NPR Digital Media, to talk about NPR’s mobile strategy.

Five years ago, NPR first entered the digital media space with podcasts. According to Spier, the lessons NPR learned from this first foray into the 'new' media world provided the jumping off point for later content dissemination and engagement via the mobile web and mobile application. He says,

We started podcasting at the right moment - we couldn’t have timed it better. And I mention that because it demonstrated a couple of things. It demonstrated that we really could play in the digital space – up until then we had been using mainly as a radio archive, with not a great deal of success. So we thought we were doing the right thing, but it wasn’t really translating into any great visibility or industry breakthrough. And podcasting did achieve that breakthrough for us. The second thing is that it showed us, in a very big way, that our core product – audio – could be very competitive not just in the digital space but in the portable space. That really fired our imagination.

Building off the success of podcasting, NPR began investigating how it could use mobile technology to reach out to the current audience while attracting new listeners. In the summer of 2007, the organization launched NPR Mobile as an experimental partnership with ten member stations around the country. Since then, NPR has greatly diversified its mobile strategy with apps (the NPR iPhone app had 1 million downloads in its first month) and in December 2009, NPR released a new version of its mobile website with a number of new features. Spier says that NPR’s mobile strategy is all about connecting with users:

It gives us an opportunity to reach our current audience where they are, and it gives us an opportunity to reach out to new audiences who may not know us. Our mission is to make our content available as widely as possible, so that piece squares very clearly with our mission. And frankly, it’s been a good business opportunity for us. When we say business we mean something different than your average media company, but we do need to pay our bills. […] We also want to be seen, among media companies and especially among news companies, as innovative in the digital space. This is very good for us in terms of our image, in terms of our relationship to our audience and our relationship with potential funders and underwriters. Being innovative and with it in the digital space and the mobile space is important.

To build the revamped site, NPR’s internal development team partnered with the Finnish mobile software company Conmio. NPR had already had launched a successful iPhone app, and wanted to replicate that experience on the mobile website – before the relaunch, some phones didn’t have good access to the site (especially not BlackBerries). In addition to being accessible to all web-enabled phones, the new version of the site also includes features such as live-streaming content and local public radio news alerts.

Developing each aspect of the mobile strategy took time; the iPhone app and the mobile web redo both took roughly three months to complete, while the time for the Android app was donated by a Google employee through Google’s 20% program. According to Spier, the updates weren’t easy since different mobile devices run different audio codecs. Developing a site that could play audio on all mobile devices meant the developers had to target a wide audience. 

However, targeting a mobile audience could have big returns. Says Spier, “Our mobile audience is much more loyal, they engage much more deeply with us, than our audience.” He reports that both the iPhone and the Android apps are generating approximately six times more page views per visitor than visitors logging on to from a computer. Furthermore, he reports that mobile users engage more continually and for longer than users on Explains Spier, “We also know that it’s a much more 24/7 audience. We see our traffic hold up 18 hours a day [from users on apps or the mobile web], whereas on it’s always been a workday, workweek phenomenon. […] We’re seeing an average session time among people using the iPhone news app currently at about nine to ten minutes a session right now, which is substantially longer than”

Although NPR worked with Conmio to expand the reach of the mobile website, the organization also added a focus on in-house development for its mobile branch. Spier explains the reasons behind this move:

Conmio helped us [create a solid mobile web experience]. The reason we wanted to bring it more in house is that mobile web, from a programming point of view and a back-end point of view, is not dissimilar from regular web. It made sense for us to bring some of that in-house. It also was a way of telling ourselves that even in the present environment of apps, a good mobile website should still be your foundation. It represents an effort on our part and an acknowledgment that mobile web is a very important part of our strategy, so much so that we want to have more control in-house.

Spier would not release the total cost of NPR’s mobile strategy but said, “It is a small but growing portion of our digital budget overall, and it’s one that you don’t want to try to do on the cheap. You want to commit the necessary resources, and we’re doing that.” However, all the apps are free to users, a decision that Spier said was made in accordance with NPR’s mission to be a public and widely accessible service. Digital media as NPR's core operations are funded through underwriters and donations. Spier said that some of the local stations choose to charge for their local-centric apps, but that the nation-wide service was free.

Although NPR currently receives more monthly page views from users on the iPhone app than the mobile web, Spier says that for long-term sustainability, it's important for organizations to develop a strong mobile web presence. He advises other media companies to focus their development on the mobile web before focusing on apps saying, “Make sure your mobile web is in good working order before you get too far down the road in terms of apps. Apps are very compelling right now, they’re very sexy, they’re very appealing on any number of levels. But they’re hard, they’re very demanding, they are different from one [device] to another […] Your mobile website will enable you to serve all audiences, so I would argue that you should start by making sure you have a good, solid mobile website and then from there be very selective and mindful about whatever apps you deploy.”

These latest upgrades to the mobile site are not the end of NPR’s work in mobile. Spier says that the organization is now looking at how to develop the mobile website in order to better target international audiences, and that NPR is going to launch a music app for the iPhone this summer. He also mentioned that NPR is working on developing closer relationships with their local affiliates to create a more user-centric and personalized experience with users accessing news from their local public radio station while still accessing national broadcasts through the same portal. 

Spier concluded by commenting on how quickly the mobile industry has taken off and on how this rapid rise has created new opportunities for media organizations like NPR. Learning from NPR’s example, the best way for media organizations to break into the mobile market is to focus on accessibility across a wide range of devices, offer fresh content that users can easily consume on the go, and keep the content affordable for users. 

Anne-Ryan Heatwole is a writer for

Image courtesy Flickr user Mr. T in DC

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