What Follows the Great Mobile Unbundling? Unholy Alliances

Social-Media Companies and Publishers Consciously Uncoupling Products in Quest for Mobile Users

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Behind all the headlines about native advertising, programmatic buying and every other significant media topic of note, one macro trend looms large: the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets. This transformative shift in how content is now consumed is reshaping dozens of industries as people do quite a lot with small screens -- even more than most expected.

According to eMarketer projections, time spent online via mobile devices this year will reach 2 hours and 51 minutes. This significantly exceeds the 2 hours and 12 minutes via desktops.

This dramatic uptake in smartphone and tablet usage is encouraging some companies directly in the mobile center of gravity to unbundle their services. This includes publishers. But while this strategy is viable for some, it may not be prudent for media owners.

Breaking down the parts
Over the last several months many of the more established players in social networking have started to see that large, monolithic experiences that work great on desktops simply don't on handhelds. The mobile space tends to be more transactional. As a result, Facebook, FourSquare, Google, Twitter and others are either splitting off parts of their core functionality into discrete single-purposed applications or creating new accoutrements as stand-alone experiences.

Facebook, for example, has moved the messaging function out of its flagship app and into a dedicated experience. It is also building out free-standing services like Instagram, rather than incorporating them into the fold. FourSquare, meanwhile, has announced that will divide its experience in two. One app will focus on local discovery, while another will be for social check-ins.

Online-collaboration services are also undergoing a great unbundling. Google recently split its Google Drive application into four distinct apps -- one for files and three for document creation. Dropbox, meanwhile, is investing heavily in newer apps specifically focused on mail and photos, even as it builds out its flagship product.

Naturally, some publishers are following suit. They're joining the conscious uncoupling craze by creating highly focused, nimble news services that are built for mobile. The New York Times, for example, recently launched NYT Now. The pared down, yet highly engaging smartphone offering also creates a lower-priced subscription tier. The Economist and CNN are reportedly developing mobile-first a-la-carte products as well.

Surely other publishers to do the same, but perhaps with a focus on marquee micro-brands such as individual journalists like ESPN's Bill Simmons and/or specific sections.

Going it alone?
Unfortunately for publishers, pursuing such an unbundling strategy alone may not be wise. Social networking and online collaboration services are built around networks and therefore have a perceived "switching cost." That's not the case in mobile media where content is a commodity and app discovery remains a challenge.

What's more, scale is the fuel of the media business. By breaking apart their apps into smaller a-la-carte offerings, publishers are only making it harder to aggregate large audiences.

This creates another headache for publishers. Audiences want apps that do one thing well and are more transactional, but it makes it a challenge for media owners to secure digital surface area -- a requirement where social networks loom large.

There is a solution, however. But few so far seem willing to pursue it. Publishers will increasingly need to get smaller but also be comfortable forming alliances with other media owners.

Some of this is already underway. The New York Times and the Financial Times have both decoupled their content from their own apps by allowing Flipboard owners to authenticate and consume it there. But that's just an evolution of syndication.

The mobile future for publishers may look more like the recent collaboration between Deseret News and The Atlantic. The two teamed up to collaborate on a special series on the changing role of fatherhood -- a pairing The New York Times called "an odd couple."

This is the kind of thinking that publishers need to have in an environment where supply of content options is infinite yet time is finite. Some of these pairings may even be "unholy" in nature because they will be with the competition.

However, don't hold your breath to see MSNBC and CNN or Forbes and Fortune aligning at an atomic level anytime soon.

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