The Guardian's Tom Grinstead on What Scares Him in Mobile


Speaking at Marketing Transformation, a conference in late 2014, The Guardian's Group Product Manager for mobile and devices, Tom Grinstead shares what scares him in Mobile, Wearables and Customer Experience. 

So one of the things that scares me is standing in front of a room of marketers when I’m a Product Manager... So I’m going to try to really talk about some of my phobias. So, I was at one of the big tech conferences in San Francisco, we were an exhibiting partner at Google I/O this year and we were there because of all the wonderful work that we've been doing recently. So we've just relaunched all of our mobile apps and the brand new website is currently in beta; imminently to launch. I was there and I was, what's the word, I was evangelising. So I was evangelising about new technology and I was evangelising about the platforms we are on. I was evangelising my little heart out about all the work that we’ve done on them and then halfway through I kind of had a sudden realisation that everything I was talking about scared me… really really scared me. Because we are in a world at the moment where there are so many comparatively brand new pressures facing us. And they’re scary. They’re scary because they challenge our business models, they challenge how we think about our readers and our audiences. At the very heart, they challenge what it is to be a content company or a marketing company and what the jobs are of Product Managers or marketeers or editors or journalists or producers. Technology, as we face it now, is challenging every single part of what I suspect every single person in this room actually does. And that’s a really really scary thing. And I think if we’re emotionally honest we have to accept that but, and this is going to sound a bit trite, so sorry, but a bit like a rollercoaster or a haunted house being scared and being excited are bedfellows. And being excited and being innovative are necessary bedfellows. So, I’m going to talk to you guys today about what scares me but, hopefully, I’ll also talk to you guys about why this isn’t necessarily a bad thing and the opportunities it presents. I hope that makes sense!

So, let’s take a look at different things that scare me. Cows scare me… so I’m not going to lie, this isn’t technology based, I just feel the need to share. Sheep are stupid, cows are evil. Daisy there on the left, she is plotting your death; she’s just a bit too lazy to do anything about it. So, cows scare me but, to really torture the metaphor, cows are also an opportunity because cows are delicious. Something scary, but something we can benefit from.

So what else scares me? Phones scare me. To be fair, not quite this kind of phone, although that’s a very creepy phone. If you image search “scary phones” this is the first thing that comes up. It’s actually these kind of phones that scare me. Mobile phones scare me because I think that we, and I’m speaking as Group Product Manager for mobile and devices here, continually underestimate the effect that mobile specifically is having on our audiences and on our users. As an industry we tend to lump digital together as if every digital device is created equal and they’re not. Mobiles are the most personal and habitual technology that have ever been invented. I might lend my tablet to my niece and I might be fine with my partner using my laptop to send an email. But, God damn it, I’m not going to lend my phone out to anybody because it’s mine and it’s always on me. Apart from my glasses, and a wedding ring if I’m married... which I’m not, so really apart from my glasses, my phone is the most physically contiguous part of me that I wasn’t born with. I’m never more than three or four metres away from it and I’m not even somebody who grew up with mobiles. So imagine what it’s like for people where this has been around them their entire lives. These are categorically different from any other technology that we work in because they're as close to representing me as a person as we actually get in technology. And that has a fundamental effect on how people consume and how people think and that’s what’s really really scary. And what’s even more scary than that, as an industry, from publishing point of view and also, I think, from a marketing point of view, we are not appreciating this and we are not moving quickly enough. So to elucidate, this is one of Mary Meeker’s slides, do you guys all know Mary Meeker? So she does, got a few nods that’s good, she does a digital port every six months now I think. She used to do it every year and then she realised that it's was nowhere near quick enough circadence, that everything was moving too quickly so now she does it every six months. And this was actually I think from a couple of years ago. And people in the publishing industry describe this as Mary meeker's scariest chart, it’s known as the scariest chart because historically time on platform, or on media, is always a leading indicator of ad-spend. It’s always a leading indicator of marketing spend and in fact, hearing that Channel 4 is pulling out of print almost completely is a good example of this right. So from a publishing point of view, I look at this and go: “this is great, print is still an amazing arresting format for marketing”. But the amount of money that is spent in print vs. the amount of time spent in print is disproportionate. At the other end of the spectrum, the amount of money spend on mobile vs. the amount of time spent on mobile is disproportionate. And this from a couple of years ago and although ad spend on mobile is increasing extraordinarily quickly, I don’t believe it’s increasing as quickly as time in mobile. And this is scary right? That’s scary from a company’s point of view like The Guardian because we need to make sure that we are getting the right ad spend for where our audiences are. More importantly I think it should be scary for you guys because, if you're still looking like this, it means that you’re not putting your dollars where the eyeballs are. And you can only really do that because, if you don't do that, you’re probably not going to have a really successful campaign. And this is why this was the most scary chart for people.

Now, in some ways you could look at that and say, maybe that’s not that scary. We’re still spending, we are still getting people in, why is mobile, apart from just another media form, why is it so challenging? And the short answer is cannibalisation, this is what happens when you search for cannibalisation but you don’t want to have pictures of zombies up. Now, what do I mean by cannibalisation? In written media especially, but not exclusively, we used to tell stories to ourselves and, as an industry, I think we all used to tell stories to ourselves about mobile being additive. So we used to go “it’s great you know, we have people on the desktop when they’re at work and we have people on the laptop when they’re at home and now we have people on the bus! We never had people on the bus before, how great is that! We’re adding to, we adding, were additive, mobile is just adding more and more time on” and it’s true. Mobile has turned into a sum total additive platform. People spend vastly more time with digital content, and content in general, than they ever used to and that’s because of mobile. But what we’re seeing now is that mobile is becoming cannibalistic, mobile is actually eating in to the time and share of other platforms. If we look at visits by device type from TheGuardian over time, then we find that we’ve probably passed peak desktop and probably actually passed it a while ago. I have a suspicion we are going to be hitting peak tablet fairly soon as well. We are nowhere near hitting peak mobile. Now, the reason it’s become cannibalistic is that, as people get more and more used to this, and as a generation grows up having used these instinctively, they become the way that people chose to consume and interact with media. Now when I say “the way”, what I mean is that you get people and, I don’t know if you guys do this but I certainly do sitting at home. And, if you’re anything like me, in the evening you’re sitting on the couch and you’ve got a TV and, in my case, I’ve kind of got two tablets and a laptop. I think “ah I’ve just, I really want to search for that thing” or “I really want to see that thing on YouTube” and I instinctively reach for my mobile despite the fact that virtually every other piece of technology around me is probably better, in principle, to actually consume or search for that piece of content. Why do I reach for the mobile? Because it’s as close to another sense as I have. It habitualness, it’s so much... instinctively what I do when I want to view digital content. And in a world where everybody is like that, mobile becomes the first port of call for any interaction with content. And if it’s first port of call for interaction with content, it starts replacing other media forms. And by replacing other media forms, I mean people aren’t going to tablets, they’re not going to desktops, they’re not necessarily going to their TVs. And I think that we can already see that the really really big players in this market are seeing these trends. So whats the point of Chromecast? So, on the one point, the point of Chromecast is for me to be able to have wonderful interface and chose what I’m going to watch on my TV. The other point of Chromecast is to enable a much larger experience for my phone. The other point of Chromecast is to accept that this is how I want to discover and find content. And if I make it very easy for me to then flick it up to another screen that’s great but, this is still the primary method. This is still the control method and this is still the discovery method. The same is true with Amazons new TV box, the same is largely true of apple TV if we're honest. So these are just a few examples where the very very large tech players are already seeing these trends and are already responding to them. And that trend is mobile is primary, everything else is secondary. And that’s a really really fundamental shift. And it’s a fundamental shift if nothing else because, and I’m not suggesting you lovely people feel this way, but there’s been instinct to say small screens are worse. That the experience is worse on a smaller screen, that the advert is worse on a smaller screen, that the content consumption is worse on a smaller screen. But I think, worse in this case is at best a highly subjective measure. So what’s worst? Someone is consuming content or your advertising or your marketing message on a smaller screen, or that someone is choosing to consume your content on the most personal device they’ve ever had? That their choosing to take out a covenant of trust between your brand and themselves by putting you on something which is more personal than anything else. So for me, persuading somebody to tap an advert or to open up a website on a shared desktop is a vastly less interesting proposition than persuading them to tap on that ad to go to that website to install that app on a mobile. And that’s because the mobile is different, its categorically different, as I’m sure you kind of get now.

This is another random one. Esoteric grammar mistakes share me. And what really scares me is I can’t let them go. What’s wrong with this one? Can anyone tell me? Fewer! Thank you, thank god. Yeah, no this is just a rant, there is no message here.

What else scares me? It scares me that I’m never going to live up to the images of man that’s in this advert. But what actually scares me are wearables. So these. So this, this is one of Google’s/Samsung’s Android Wear ones. You’ve got the apple watch up there. So why do wearables scare me? Well wearables scare me because I think, if they become a big thing, they’re going to fundamentally challenge an entire class of interaction that I currently really really like. And, as marketers, you guys should worry about as well. So, theres a whole category of interaction now, let’s call them micro-interactions because, you know, we have to name everything. So I class micro-interactions as something that’s between 20 and one minute long. And we can tell a story to describe this right, and this story is; you’re waiting at a bus stop you look left and the bus is coming down the road and you know that it’s going to arrive but it’s probably going to take 30 and 40 seconds to get there, before you get on, and we are so used to being constantly distracted that you instinctively get out your phone to do something in those 40 seconds. Now, at the moment, that’s great and, as an app developer, that’s fantastic because that’s exactly where habitual apps fit in. So this is the thing that you get out and check Facebook to see what’s going on or, if I’m lucky, you check The Guardian to see if the world is still there or there is an interesting story. Or maybe check your notification stream or you go to Whatsapp or Twitter. From wearing this for two and a half/ 3months, I think that, if wearables become a big thing, those micro-interactions with phones disappear. Because I instinctively now, if I want to be distracted for 30 seconds, I look at my watch. I don’t get my phone out. Now we’re talking about sometimes hundreds of micro-interactions through the day with users. And for you guys, each of those micro-interactions at the moment represent opportunity and they represent opportunity for us as well. So they might represent opportunity for us to get a story out to someone or to entertain them or to extend the brand or to show an advert. Now, if there all replaced from here to here, the question is, what do we do with people? There isn’t a marketing or advertising format at the moment for wearables and, this might show a lack of imagination, but I’m not certain what that would even look like. I’m pretty certain it’s not an interstitial. And from a content point of view, what does that mean for us as well? Because a two and a half inch screen or one and a half inch screen is not a great experience for scrolling through reams of content. For our news junkies and, especially people who personalise their homepage, then we find that people scroll through sometimes hundreds of stories in a single session. That’s not the way to do it on here. So we need to think up different ways to get content to people and to get the right content to people at the right time. And we also need to think up ways to be able to monetise that content. And you guys need to think up ways to get your brand messaging out to people who are looking at you on one and half inch screens in a way that isn’t going to really annoy them. That whole set of challenges is really really scary and sitting behind it is a piece of technology which is wearables and sitting behind that is mobile. Because wearables at the moment are second screens for your mobile. So you’ve got your mobile in the middle, the most scary object ever invented, and then you’ve got TVs on one side, throwing up to gigantic screens, and you’ve got wearables on the other, throwing down to small screens but the challenges are still based around the impact of mobile technologies. But yeah wearables scare me.

So what are we doing about it? I’m pretty certain this video is not going to work but one of the things we are doing about it is to start looking at the notification stream. So if you look at what Google are doing with the smart notifications, if you start looking at what’s coming in iOS8, things become increasingly obvious that the notification stream is going to become a vastly more and more important way that people interact with content and brand messaging. That becomes even more important on wearables where the primary interaction method, at least at the moment, isn’t through browsing through hundreds of different options, it’s about being given what you want when you want it. So we are experimenting with wearables, kind of being a curation mechanism. So the wearables kind of, showing the different articles that we think you might want right now for instance or breaking news alerts or articles from people you follow. So buzz my wrist when Charlie Brooker’s just published but then extending that back to the phone. So the idea being well, “save for later”, “tell me when I’m back home on my phone and I’m ready to read this” or possibly read it to me right now using computer generated voice, if it gets slightly better, or maybe creating brand new content forms that you guys haven’t seen yet which is created specifically for these types of screens. Now all of these are opportunities but they all challenge fundamentally the way that we have traditionally thought about our users browsing and then choosing to consume this is something different and it’s something different, if nothing else, because it extends beyond other sessions. The idea of saying - here’s an article, save for later, half-an-hour later, pick this up and reads it because now I am sitting down on the bus and I do have time. That’s a mode of interaction that we have rarely investigated before, because we have traditionally looked at the visit not the visitor. We heard earlier today around putting users at the centre of your digital strategy and that is exactly the same thing as your product strategy or your content strategy. So, really nice opportunity but also really scary.

Now I mentioned notification stream. The notification stream, and how picky you are about what goes in to your notification stream, is a good example of the narrowing of choice and this also scares me. So on mobile, the amplification of content means that people are actually consuming fewer known brands. So especially for content organisations, we have research, and there’s public research, that indicates that users probably have 2, at best 3, content driven applications on their home screen and they will habitually open 1. If we are lucky 2. So this is about habit formation on mobile again right? So, if you think about what you do, you start your phone up and your thumb probably instinctively reaches for two or three of the icons on your home screen and that’s it. From a content and marketing point of view, this means that we kind of have two choices: You're either going to be on the home screen, making a really good case for yourself, making an amazing product to justify being there, so people are going there. Or you’re going to rely on other methods of discovery, which is really where social comes in right. Social and search but mostly social. But this is the narrowing of choice, because although people have probably more actual choice than they ever have before but are going to consume on a device, once they've installed apps, they've radically narrowed their instinctive choice when they actually start their phone up. And so you need to be really really aware of this. From a marketing point of view you really need to be aware that either you are going to have an app which is going to be phenomenally successful or possibly not used, so you need to start thinking around how you get into peoples, on to peoples devices. You need to think. I would argue much more about social which I’m sure you guys already know, and you just need to be making really really great products because its only through making really, really great products that you actually have a hope to be on peoples devices in the first place.

So, I mentioned other forms of getting on to people devices, and the next thing that really scares me is recommendations. This is the example of Google Now up there. Now, recommendations scare me because the expectation on mobile devices, I think is going to change very rapidly over the next few years. It’s the most personal device ever invented but at the moment, I don’t get a hugely personal experience from virtually any of my providers. And that’s going to change - and it’s going to change, if nothing else, because very large companies have decided it’s going to change. Google are actively interested in Google Now, they describe it, a bit creepily, as “answering the question that you didn’t know you wanted to ask”. I think a much nicer description of Google Now is as “one of the best PAs that you can get”. It’s, kind of, it’s anticipating your needs just before you know that you need them. And we can image that that Google Now will extend into content. On mine it’s already recommending updates from websites I regularly read. Now we see the same type of recommendation stuff coming out of other companies as well. There were news reports a couple of weeks ago around Twitter starting to look at how the Twitter feed can change to be from reverse-cron into something which is much more personalised to you. If you use the Twitter app on iOS and Android you already have an activity and a discover tab, which is starting to go down the route, not of saying this is latest but this is important. We see the same thing coming out of the likes of Facebook, Facebook Paper. We see the same thing coming out of the likes of Flipboard. So recommendation is going to become a really really big thing, we heard about from Channel 4 just now. The thing that scares me about recommendation is other people’s products becoming the primary route that people get to my content. If I’m brutally honest. And that really really scares me because people who visit the guardian app, the guardian homepage are hugely valuable to me and I believe that I give them a really really good experience. What scares me is keeping up with recommendation from other people. I think that we can, but I think that people are going to go to products that give them the best content at the right time and this means that content companies and, to a certain extent marketeers, now to need to keep up with experts in recommendation machine learning who know more about customs than we do. Now you only have to keep up if you want to bring people directly to your products. Of course the other way to approach this problem is to radically decentralise your content, to atomise it and to make it much more available to services like this. Or, if you’re The Guardian, you kind of do both. So, if you’re The Guardian, you say, you know, what we want to bring as many social refers in as is humanly possible. We are going to construct, at least technically, our content to be able to do that but at the same time we are going in a classic funnel way try to convert them in to our wonderful long list of applications. Now that’s a huge opportunity but it’s also a huge task and as you may guess, huge tasks are scary.

And that brings me to the thing that actually scares me most about this entire thing: There is an instinct in the face of huge change to not move. There is an instinct to try to stay with what you know. There’s an instinct to try to eek out for as long as possible, the business models that you are comfortable with or the products that have hitherto kind of done well or the formats that used to sell really well and now sell just slightly less well. This is inaction and inaction is a very natural human response to things that are very scary. But it gets you literally nowhere. The thing that scares me most is that we don’t respond to these challenges. The thing that scares me most is that we don’t see these huge, scary, monolithic things that are coming down towards us in the shape of mobile phones and see them as genuine opportunities to have deeper relationships with our users and instead we just seem to threats to our old models. Inaction is the most scary thing about the new technical landscape. Now fortunately, it’s the thing that we as a group have most control over because, despite being scared, we can chose how we see the technology in front of us, how we talk to our users and how we treat them.

So that’s really what scares me. I kind of hope that 50% of this has scared you too. I also kind of hope that you’re going to come away with it thinking that maybe there’s stuff you can do about it was well. Thanks very much.