Book Review: “Content Strategy For Mobile” by Karen McGrane

I recently began teaching a class in mobile content marketing for MarketingProfs University, taking over for the user experience expert and content strategy pioneer Karen McGrane.  At the time, her book, Content Strategy for Mobile, had not yet been released, so I relied on other resources when putting together material for the class.

First I gathered what I knew about adaptive content from her online writings and presentations. Then I added some information gleaned from my own experience with content marketing to mobile users. My goal was to present a well-rounded overview of solutions that content and mobile marketers have at their disposal to effectively reach mobile users with content.

This weekend, I read McGrane’s book to get a better understanding of her philosophy toward mobile content strategy. I would recommend that others who’ve seen her dynamic presentations or read her writings on mobile content strategy do the same. It is a short book that effectively gives a better understanding of where she stands when it comes to mobile content, and of how to evangelize for mobile in your organization.

However, I found that in general, it was so focused on myth-busting that it deliberately ignored useful and potentially lucrative mobile content opportunities, in order to fit the argument that it made.

A true content strategy for mobile will understand when adaptive content is most appropriate and when it’s not. This book, however, is just about adaptive content, even when it’s not appropriate.

Introduction To Adaptive Content

NPR’s “Create Once Publish Everywhere” CMS is frequently cited by McGrane as an ideal model of adaptive content.

If you’re not familiar with Karen McGrane, she is an evangelist of adaptive content, which means content that “works everywhere, all the time,” regardless of the device used to access it.  This solves for the problem of content forking, which she argues, is a big problem with separate mobile sites today.

In the responsive versus mobile Web debate, philosophically, she aligns more with advocates of responsive design, as she believes that content should be available on all platforms, and that mobility is not the only use case for accessing content from a mobile phone. Yet, she is not exclusively an advocate of responsive Web design, as adaptive content can exist on mobile templates as well, regardless of whether the site is responsive. It all ultimately should be handled by a good content management system (CMS), supplying adaptive content where needed.

The book does a good job of delineating exactly what adaptive content means, breaking it down into content that is structured, reusable, and presentation-independent, with meaningful metadata and a CMS that allows writers to enter text as “chunks” rather than “blobs” so that the content can be displayed in context according to device limitations.

The idea espoused by the book of making content available to all platforms is a good one, and will become more important as mobile devices are used more than desktops and laptops to get online — which IDC has predicted will happen in two short years.

Anyone who has used a mobile device to find information that’s not available on a mobile site will see the value in adaptive content immediately. Too often, mobile users are an afterthought among marketers, and adaptive content levels the playing field by giving those users access to everything on the website, regardless of platform.

This approach might be easier for some organizations to swallow than maintaining a separate mobile site, and the book gives strategies for organizing teams and structuring workflow that many marketers can use to help them adapt to an audience that’s increasingly mobile.

Adaptive Content Doesn’t Negate Mobile-Specific Content

What the book does not provide, however, is any advice on mobile-specific content, as the author doesn’t believe in creating it.

Paradoxically, the first sentence of this book, called Content Strategy for Mobile, is “there’s no such thing as content strategy for mobile.” The author believes, instead, that content shouldn’t vary significantly by device, and that content that’s not reusable in a different context is not worth creating.

So, QR codes, ringtones, mobile wallpaper, podcasts, apps, mobile coupons or other types of mobile-specific content that many mobile users are looking for are not part of this particular content strategy for mobile. Also, any content that’s geared toward a mobile context is disavowed since it doesn’t speak to 100% of the mobile users 100% of the time.

It’s true that just because someone is using a smartphone doesn’t mean that they are on the go, but that doesn’t mean that a large portion of a site’s audience couldn’t benefit from mobile-specific information architecture, and sometimes, yes, content.

Super-Successful Mobile-Specific Content

Google’s mobile playbook has many examples of brands that have created content based on the specific device features that provide real value for the consumer. One example is Chase, which uses the camera on smartphones to allow consumers to deposit checks via their phones in their mobile app. They do not have equivalent content on their desktop site, and this feature is available only to mobile devices and tablets, as PCs aren’t traditionally used to take pictures like smartphones are.

QuickDeposit by Chase is one example of successful mobile-specific content that isn’t created in an adaptive content world.

This has been an unqualified success for Chase, which reports that, since launching Quick Deposit in 2010, consumers have used it to deposit more than $4 billion, and the number of active Chase mobile customers increased 42% between 2011 and 2012. The app now has 15 million registered users, and several awards including a 2011 Webby Award. And those 15 million registered users have expressed their gratitude with 4.2 out of five stars in Google Play with over 70k reviews as of this writing.

Another example is E-mart in Korea, which built a shadow QR code to engage their customers during lunch time and not only met their business goals but won 5 Lions at Cannes in the process.

eMart is one example of a business that used mobile-specific content to its advantage.

These things are mobile-specific, and they provide value to consumers and help marketers meet their business goals, so they are worth doing. I understand that Ms. McGrane is reacting to all the bad mobile-specific content that has been chronicled in blogs like WTF QR Codes and WTF Mobile Web, but that doesn’t mean, as McGrane seems to think, that no mobile content is worth creating.

A better strategy for marketers would be to think less about the effort content forking requires and more about the value to the business and the consumer. Yes, content management systems should take on more of the burden when it comes to presenting readable content to mobile devices and tablets. And yes, content forking for its own sake can cause maintenance headaches for the organization. But, if there are legitimate opportunities that mobile devices create that engage consumers and help us meet business goals, why wouldn’t we as marketers use them?

Serving Mobile Users With The “Database of Intentions”

One of the big themes in the book was McGrane’s contention that users, rather than designers, should decide what goes on a mobile website. Historically, mobile designers have created slimmed down mobile websites that foreground the information they think will be most useful to mobile users, and leave a link to the desktop website for content that they don’t think will be essential to a mobile use case.

McGrane is in favor of allowing all users to access all content on the site, as mobile devices do not imply a mobile context. This is bad for the user, she argues, who may want access to content on a mobile device that designers have made inaccessible to those mobile users. “Mobile experts and airline app designers don’t get to decide what ‘actually matters.’ What matters is what matters to the user,” she argues.

To illustrate her frustrations, she takes a scenario from search, in which she Googled [united club membership] on her phone in order to get access to the United Club while waiting at the airport. United redirected her from a search results page that contained the answer she was looking for to a mobile website that did not.

United did not follow the mobile SEO best practice of sending the search engine user to equivalent content, whether it’s mobile formatted or not; but instead redirected the query to their mobile home page, with a link to their full site in the footer.

To combat problems like this, she argues that all content should be made mobile-friendly.

Not All Content Can Be Made Mobile Friendly

There are problems with this potentially, as you run the risk of giving the majority of mobile users something they can’t use or don’t want. For example, there are astronomically few mobile users who have the ability to print coupons or play Flash games, yet this type of content is rampant on the Web today. If you make a page like this available to mobile users, what should that page say? “Sorry, you’re on a mobile phone and have no way to perform this activity?” What’s the point?

But, aside from the problems, McGrane takes her argument one step too far by claiming that data shouldn’t be used to prioritize what mobile users should see, because “you don’t have good data.” I understand her point about not using analytics data to prioritize, as analytics data is a measure of the activity of people who are already on the site, and not the larger relevant Internet audience; but, there are other types of data that we can use to help solve this problem.

For example, if United had used search data to evaluate the types of content that should be on their mobile site, they would know that they absolutely need a page dedicated to the United Club. The keyword that McGrane used, [united club membership], has nearly half of its searches coming from mobile devices. In a world in which mobile searches are predicted to be one-third of all searches at the end of this year, this keyword overindexes for mobile searches and should definitely be included on a mobile site.

What I don’t understand is: what’s wrong with this data? It’s user data that doesn’t come from site logs that gives us insight into what the broader Internet population is looking for from Web content, and it gives us the exact keywords that those users enter when they’re seeking this content.

Wired founder and author of The Search John Battelle has called it the database of intentions, and search marketers have been using it for years to drive more, and more relevant, traffic to their sites. Regardless of what happened with Microsoft’s experiments with Windows personalization, regardless of whether the mobile device user is at home or on the road when accessing a site, this is good data that can be used to build a user-focused mobile website.

If we look at keywords that United searchers are using and compare it to their mobile website, we can see where it falls short in meeting the user’s needs. When you visit, you can clearly see that they’ve chosen to foreground four features: the ability to book a flight, the ability to check in to a flight, the ability to check a flight status, and the My Account feature.

United Mobile site is used as an example of why content should be separated from display.

They also offer a tab with “More Options” that currently goes to a page that lists the United Club as an option. I fly American, generally, so I have no idea if this was added after McGrane’s book was published, but it took two clicks for me to find it today.

Clicking on More Options in United mobile site brings you to an option to buy a United Club pass.


And clicking on United Club allows you to buy a one-time pass.

When we look at search data to get a better sense of user intent for United Airlines searches, and how it compares to the site’s information architecture, we can see the features that the majority of searchers — and the majority of mobile searchers- are interested in.

United brand keywords sorted by total search volume, including the mobile percent of total metric.

If we categorize those searches, we can see at a glance the types of features that United searchers are looking for from the United Airlines site, both on mobile devices and on desktops and laptops.

Categories show us exactly which concepts need to be included on mobile site and how prominent they should be.

The above chart shows each category of searches for United brand keywords on desktop and mobile devices, along with the number of searches per month in Google on mobile devices, on desktops and laptops, and in total.

I’ve also included the mobile % of total volume, which is simply the percentage of mobile searches relative to the total number of searches. I’ve color coded them based on the opportunity relative to the average mobile % of total for all searches as of last year, where 14% is the average, and greater than 30% represents a mobile % of total higher than the restaurant category, which is highest of all industries.

Greater than 30% is indicated by green coloring, and represents a category where there are a lot of mobile searches relative to the total number of searches. This is done so that we can see at a glance whether a concept overindexes with mobile searchers, regardless of whether the search volume is there.

The chart was sorted by total number of searches and given a priority based on the most consumer interest per concept. The priority index is simply an index of total search volume, but if we were to do this for a real client we would take other factors that affect revenue into consideration. Based on total volume, we can see that most consumers are simply putting in the navigational keyword to access the site (e.g., [united airlines]), and expressing a desire in search to contact the airline.

The prominence column is indicative of how close to the top of the first page the concept appears. Because “Book Flight” is the first listing on the first page, this was given a prominence score of 1. Because there are six listings on the first page, the first listing on the second page was given a prominence score of 7.

Match Mobile Content To What People Are Searching For On Smartphones

Clearly, there’s a disconnect here between the concepts that people are searching for around United Airlines and what’s included on the mobile site. To McGrane’s point, there are a number of searches for content that’s not included on United’s mobile site that searchers using mobile devices are looking for.

The example that she used, however, is not one of them. In fact, United Club is more prominent than it should be relative to demand for the concept.

A better example to use would have been Careers, as there are almost 5,000 searches per month for related keywords on mobile devices, yet United does not have a page devoted to job listings on their mobile site. If someone on a mobile device were looking for information on careers at United, it’s unlikely that they would find it, on the site, or in search.

The point is, though, that information architects and designers don’t have to guess when it comes to deciding what information should appear on their mobile site, and they don’t have to include everything, either, just because there’s an infinitesimally small chance that some user somewhere could be looking for it on a mobile device.

If they really want to listen to their users, their Google keyword data tells us exactly what the majority of people are looking for when it comes to the brand, and it helps us as information architects and Web professionals help them find it. Of course this data can’t tell us how profitable an action is, and it can’t tell us things about our users that only analytics can; but, as data goes, there’s nothing bad about it.

I understand that too many decisions are made arbitrarily when it comes to Web design and these decisions affect the users adversely, and agree with her point there. But to say that user data can’t help information architects provide a better experience for the majority of web users is just not true.

Misguided Take On Mobile SEO

Easily, the worst part of the book, in my mind, was the section on mobile SEO. I’ve been writing and speaking about mobile SEO for about eight years, and I know all of the people who write and speak regularly on the topic, even if I don’t agree with them, and McGrane is not one of these people.

Still, her philosophy of adaptive content is legitimately challenged by certain aspects of mobile SEO, and it would have made the book that much better if she had addressed these challenges, so I understand why the chapter is included. Unfortunately, all McGrane did for this chapter was to quote an article that has since been thoroughly discredited which says there is no such thing as mobile SEO, that mobile is not necessarily local, and that the best strategy to help your content be seen by searchers in mobile search results is to do nothing.

So, let me get this straight: this is a mobile content book that argues there is no mobile content with a mobile SEO chapter that says there is no mobile SEO? Is this a Zen koan or a content strategy book?

It’s especially strange because, in a previous chapter, she explained a scenario in which a brand (i.e., the United example above) does mobile SEO wrong, and yet she later presents this claim that the best strategy for mobile SEO is to do nothing. You can’t have it both ways.

Incredibly, McGrane wouldn’t have had the experience that she did if United had done mobile SEO correctly. Redirecting to relevant content would have been a start, but United also could have put bidirectional annotations or switchboard tags in the code of their page, alerting Google to the fact that they should show the mobile URL in their mobile search results. Because United does have a mobile page related to United Club, the mobile URL would have appeared in search results for the keyword, providing the best possible searcher experience.

There’s a brief section on mobile keyword research, and McGrane does say “Mobile users may use language differently. Understanding how their keyword and search term use changes might tell you that you need to assign different SEO keywords, or even modify the labels and ordering within your navigation system.”

She stops short, however, at recommending mobile-specific content. Google supports this if it’s best for the user, so it appears as though McGrane didn’t recommend it mostly because it’s more difficult for content strategists, and it’s against the premise of her book. It would have been much more interesting, however, if she would have addressed the potential conflicts between adaptive content and mobile SEO, rather than pretending that they don’t exist.

In closing, this is a fantastic book for understanding adaptive content, an incomplete book for understanding mobile content strategy, and a misleading book about mobile SEO. Pick it up for a good lesson on how adaptive content can help users, but don’t expect it to be the last word on mobile content strategy or mobile SEO.

TL;DR Recap

About The Author

Bryson Meunier
Bryson Meunier is the SEO Director at Vivid Seats, is an SEO veteran with more than 14 years experience both agency and in-house, and is a thought leader in permission marketing as a columnist and a frequent speaker on SEO and mobile marketing.