Should Local Publishers Follow Facebook’s ‘App Portfolio’ Strategy?

Although no one publicly says this it certainly appears that many local publishers have “given up” when it comes to competing for digital consumer traffic with the larger internet brands. Notably, YP has not. The company continues to invest in its consumer brand and functionality, especially in mobile, but it’s the exception.

One could argue that focusing on small business advertising and marketing solutions and “letting go” of the consumer side of the business is rational given the competitive nature of the market and resource constraints many publishers face. However I think “giving up” is a mistake for several reasons.

Admittedly I’m not looking at internal spreadsheets and budgets. I believe, nonetheless, it’s important to continue to compete for consumer attention and at least try and maintain a consumer brand. Without investment in their consumer properties publishers will essentially have to buy the majority of their digital traffic from third parties on behalf of their advertisers, which compromises margins.

With declining consumer brand awareness local publishers will also probably have greater difficulty getting business owners to take their sales calls — over the phone or in person — business owners are consumers too after all. To be sure, the “agency model” makes lots of sense but it’s also precarious in many respects.

Roughly four years ago I was speaking at a European Directories meeting in Vienna, Austria. The publisher or, more appropriately, the individual country mobile directors, were testing a vertical mobile app strategy. It seemed to me there were opportunities for improvement but I was impressed by the approach and thinking behind it.

Of course it never came to fruition — unfortunately. If it had it might have created a model for others to emulate today.

Now the new exemplar of this strategy might be Facebook. Facebook has taken an interesting “portfolio” approach to app development and now has six separate apps in the market. While many of these will likely fail to realize their promise, Facebook is doing some interesting things and taking some chances, even at the risk of alienating its users (e.g., by separating Messenger).

At a time when an increasing volume of local search traffic is either mobile-only or initiated on smartphones, this is a moment for local publishers to consider getting much more aggressively into mobile app development. They’re challenged both horizontally and by vertical marketplaces seeking to “unbundle” local. A more aggressive mobile into mobile apps would thus be both offensive and defensive.

My view is that publishers should hire internal teams or work with small design firms that can rapidly develop and deploy mobile apps, with the understanding that most of these efforts probably won’t succeed. Although it’s a cliche to talk about “failing fast,” being willing to act and potentially fail are now critical success factors. However they may be “cultural obstacles” for many traditional publishers.

While I’m not a developer, success is a by-product of resolve, creative thinking, risk taking, luck, chutzpah — and trial and error. We keep hearing that most consumers have fewer than 40 apps on their phones and regularly use only a handful of those.

Yet it’s much more challenging for local publishers with limited content to compete on the PC with the big search and local search players and popular verticals. But there is still opportunity, I believe, in mobile for useful and clever consumer apps to enter the market and gain usage.

The choice to me seems fairly clear: play it safe and preside over flat-to-negative growth on the PC; or make an aggressive run at mobile with its corresponding “tree falling in the forest” and risk-reward scenarios. But if it works it would potentially mean reinvigorating the brand and building new consumer audiences.

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