Build Different Things – Why You’re Not Done When Your Website is Responsive

There’s a common objection that comes up among marketers when I talk about the incredible rate at which mobile is eating the world. Many say that these trends are all well and good, but they don’t actually change the tactics of web marketing beyond the need to make your website mobile-friendly.

For a long time, I’ve felt strongly that there was more to it than this, and that there was a real answer to this question, but I’ve struggled to lay it out clearly. I tried, in a post entitled Why You Shouldn’t have a Mobile Marketing Strategy but mainly ended up describing a mobile-centric future without really getting to the implications.

In preparation for our SearchLove London (where I was to give a presentation entitled The Threat of Mobile), I put in a ton of work to try and map it out more clearly. This post is the result of that work - I look forward to hearing all your thoughts.

What is “mobile first” thinking?

At its simplest, “mobile first” is a design philosophy that seeks to build a great experience on mobile devices and then considers ways to make it work well on larger screens, rather than the other way around. Dr. Pete did a great job of outlining the external signs of Google search going mobile first.

If you’ve been lucky enough to be exposed to the thinking within many tech giants in recent times, you’ll have heard a lot about this approach. Google and Facebook have embraced it particularly strongly - Facebook largely through opportunity and Google largely through necessity.

Although we can argue about which is the chicken and which is the egg, it’s easy to see why this is such a focus:

Facebook is increasingly a mobile platform (source: Ben Evans)

BtVVJSbCMAA67X2 (1).png

This manifests itself not only in usage, but also in their financials - check out the growth of the different streams of Facebook revenue:

See Evans' full deck here.

Mobile is an opportunity and a threat for Google

The upside story is similar for Google - there is a huge opportunity to make money from existing mobile usage, a fantastic growth rate in mobile and the whole of the developing world coming online via mobile (and, largely, through Android).

There’s also a risk, however, as mobile search begins to cannibalise desktop in developed markets (read: those with high AdWords spends). If Google can’t monetise searches as well on mobile as they can on desktop, the growth of mobile may not be sufficient to keep their cash cow growing.

Should all marketers be thinking mobile first all the time?

If you aren’t operating as an effective monopoly, reliant on developing market growth, or seeing your core market saturated, you may still have significant upside on the desktop. Couple this with the (typically) lower conversion rates and monetisation potential on mobile, and it’s easy to see why mobile first isn’t a panacea for all businesses.

On the other hand, the growth of mobile in email and social in particular means that there is one area of your business where you probably should be thinking mobile first - and that is in creative content.

Depending on the exact channels you use to promote your content, you could well be seeing >50% of visitors to your most creative content coming from mobile (even if mobile use is way lower on the rest of your site). Crucially, if you’re not seeing this, you are likely to be missing a trick - because it means your content isn’t being shared enough via these mobile first channels. Here are some stats from a B2B client of Distilled showing the low mobile usage of the main site and the entirely different story on a successful creative piece:

What does content look like “mobile first”?

Once again, we may encounter the argument that as long as our core website template is responsive, “mobile first content” just looks like regular content. I think, however, that this leads us down the wrong path.

Let’s look at a counter-example which will hopefully make the point more clearly. This is a piece of content from the NYT in 2012:

Screenshot 2014-10-23 21.50.38.png

Because it’s a couple of years old, there’s no criticism implicit in this analysis - the content was entirely appropriate for the state of the web at the time. It’s quite incredible just how much the world has changed in two short years.

So - it’s a visualisation of the fastest 100m runners throughout history - and it’s presented in the form of an animation. If we look at it on a mobile, we see this:

(Once again, this is not a criticism - this was made in 2012.)

Now, to simply make this content responsive, we would end up with something like this:

or even this:

Maybe this would still have been a great piece of content on mobile if published responsively, but I think that it would have been relatively hard to follow, and difficult to consume. It would have been hard to read the annotations, have required focused uninterrupted attention on the screen to get the full story, and would not have done a good job of letting you know what you are committing to watching before you hit play.

The critical insight here? If you were thinking mobile first, you would have presented this story very differently - you would have built something else.

We’ve summarised this as:

> Don’t build things differently, build different things

(Hat-tip @hannah_bo_banna who put the phrase in my head so cunningly that I thought I’d come up with it.)

So, building content mobile first is easier if your core website template is responsive, but it’s definitely not a case of just publishing the same content you would have published previously in a different template.

Don't be fooled by your analytics

There’s another common objection to this story: “but mobile is only 10-20% of my traffic, and even less of my revenue, why would I design anything for mobile users first?”

I partially addressed this in showing the common difference in traffic breakdown between creative content and the rest of the site, but some webmasters are still seeing relatively low mobile traffic even for their more creative work.

This is where I do want to invoke the chicken and egg - I believe that in the majority of cases, those website owners are missing out on potential visitors because of their poor mobile experience.

The short version of the argument is:

  • People who may share your content are disproportionately likely to encounter it on mobile

  • Much of the actual sharing will happen on mobile

  • When something is shared via a mobile channel (email, Facebook) it is disproportionately likely to be received on mobile as well

  • This loop accelerates when it works well and decelerates when the content performs poorly on mobile

What happens to viral loops when content works poorly on mobile

Imagine a simplified viral loop where, on average:

  • For every 10 people who see the piece, 2 share it

  • Each share reaches 30 more people

  • 20% of these click through

  • This means 12 new people see it

  • Because 12 is greater than 10 (which we started with) this means the viral coefficient, k is greater than one (1.2 in this case) - this is key to anything spreading virally

Now, let’s look at what happens to the same simplified loop when a piece of non-mobile-friendly content is shared on a platform like Facebook where (let’s say, conservatively) 50% of users are on mobile:

  • 10 people see it and 2 still share it - but this time they share it on Facebook

  • Each share reaches 30 more people

  • 20% of these click through

  • 50% of these get a poor experience and navigate away without considering it

  • This means 6 new people really see it

  • This time, 6 is less than 10 (which we started with) meaning that k < 1 and the piece will not spread virally

The upshot of this simplified example is that a lack of mobile friendliness coupled with the mobile-centricity of key networks can cause an otherwise great piece of content to fail to go viral. This means:

  • The risk is not losing 10-20% of visitors (based on your site’s average mobile usage)

  • Nor even losing 50% of visitors (based on Facebook / email usage)

  • You could be losing 90+% of potential visitors by breaking the viral loop

How do you make creative content mobile first?

How to make creative content is a big topic - too big for this post - but it is something we think and talk about a lot at Distilled. I recommend checking out these two presentations from our VP Creative, Mark Johnstone:

  1. How to produce better content ideas

  2. How to produce content people will share

Much of the framework is built around the Made to Stick idea of telling:

  • Simple

  • Unexpected

  • Credible

  • Concrete

  • Stories

I like thinking of mobile as just one of the factors that goes into another “S” before “Stories”:

  • Simple

  • Unexpected

  • Credible

  • Concrete

  • Suitable

  • Stories

In other words, right at the conception phase, you should be asking yourselves if this story is suitable for telling in the medium and via the channels you are planning.

Of course, to implement this in the real world takes a myriad of skills and activities across design, development, and QA but that’ll have to be the topic of another post.

This post is the first in a series for January's mobile month. Sign up to our email list to hear about key mobile trends of 2015, our updated SEO mobile guide, and more.

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About the author
Will Critchlow

Will Critchlow

Will founded Distilled with Duncan in 2005. Since then, he has consulted with some of the world’s largest organisations and most famous websites, spoken at most major industry events and regularly appeared in local and national press. For the...   read more