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Mobile Station Stories: Michael Williams, WITF

by Rachel Lim, PBS Station Products & Innovation

Michael Williams, WITF
As part of the launch of the Mobile White Label Series for Stations (available in SRC, login required), we are profiling mobile efforts at stations throughout the system on a variety of topics, ranging from mobile giving to the differences between mobile Web and mobile apps. Over the next six weeks, these stations, who are part of the Station Mobile Working Group, share their experiences, plans, successes and lessons learned about mobile.

This week, we catch up with Michael Williams, Interactive Services Project Manager, as we discussed WITF's diverse mobile capabilities.

WITF has developed an iPhone app that includes podcasts, an alarm clock and News RSS Feeds, as well as a link to their site. They also offer a mobile website, and an SMS text community through which announcements are sent. See more about WITF’s mobile capabilities at http://www.witf.org/mobile.


What motivated you to pursue mobile, and how did you develop your initial mobile strategy?
The motivation was the need to be accessible from all devices in this day in age. With smart phones and iPads and everything else, internet usage through mobile devices has increased dramatically – it was a natural decision. We have to go where the customer is, and they were increasingly on a mobile device. We outsourced to Jacobs Media and had them build us an iPhone app so that we at least had a presence. The iPhone app isn’t perfect, and it’s something that we’d like to tweak in the future – but at least we have it.

In terms of developing our strategy – I think that we’re still developing it! We transferred to a new content management system called Joomla for our .org site, and this CMS has a mobile component built into it – which is what we use for our mobile web browser. As we’re building out our new website, every time we make an update, we made sure to always check the site on an iPad or an iPhone just to make sure that it looks okay and the functionality is working.

What were your initial goals for mobile, and how have they changed over time?
We’re always just trying to keep up – over the course of a year, what used to be new quickly becomes old, which is just the nature of the web. Our long term goal is to try to see if we can gain some membership or at least some support functions through mobile, which we do not have at this time. We’re looking for underwriting – are apps supportable through sponsorships? What we’re really focusing on now is increasing traffic on social media – this goes hand-in-hand with mobile because Facebook and Twitter are some of the key places mobile users are going. It’s about increasing brand recognition and traffic and getting ourselves known in the mobile community.

What kind of results have you seen so far, and how does it affect your future plans for mobile?
One of our first experiments with mobile was a project with [mobile advertising and marketing company] HipCricket. It was a sponsorship opportunity with a client where if an audience texted us they would receive a mobile coupon. The project was received well by the client and they were happy, but we had a relatively small number – 300 people – that signed up. And while we were hoping to use that opportunity to build a text community, we learned that people would sign up only for the coupon, and didn’t want to receive any additional texts from us. We found that text messaging was not where people wanted to receive station updates – unlike Facebook or Twitter, where that kind of pinging is tolerated. In general, social media is more flexible about the content we can post. Also, Facebook and Twitter are more economical – they’re free.

How would you describe your approach to your mobile presence through your online site?
If anyone came to the desktop site with an Android or iPhone, we wanted a one-page that would list what our mobile capabilities were. We didn’t do a lot of marketing for our mobile app, and we haven’t done anything at this point specifically to get people to sign up for mobile access. The iPhone app is working, but it’s a little dated at this point; it’s a little too simple. When we first started, we outsourced our app, and since we did it out of house it’s an additional expense to update. For example, we updated our logo and colors, and we wanted our iPhone app to reflect that. But it would cost us a thousand dollars to get it changed, and since the app working, and it’s not broken – making these small changes is a pretty significant expense. It would be great if PBS had a personalized app for stations where you could plug in your call letter and it would bring up your local station website and schedule. But I’m sure that making this service available is more involved than anyone realizes.

WITF has many different types of mobile experiences. What were the challenges in crafting such a well-rounded mobile experience?
No matter what you create, you’re going to get a phone call from someone who has, you know, a Sprint phone and wants such and such offered on it. However, it’s important to remember that there are a lot of free or cheap resources out there on the web. The Nokia Internet App was one that was simple – we had a guy who called and asked for it, and we found a free Nokia App after a web search. If you’re looking just for basic access to your station, there are apps out there that will allow that, especially on the radio side. There are so many people creating apps out there – IHeartRadio, for example, is a popular one. You don’t have to do anything – your radio stream might already be accessible. Another thing is being mindful of mobile when you’re building out your website. You definitely need to check that your website is mobile compatible. We have a CMS that offers mobile-friendly themes and templates, and so as we built out the site we chose something with mobile already built into the template. This way, everything is automatic: as we entered the content, the theme itself would refigure the page for mobile devices. We’re like many stations – we have just a couple people working on digital, so we have to work with what’s out there in the market.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first approached mobile?
Just know that everything is constantly changing – you’re never going to hit the perfect situation; there will be room for improvement; and things will be getting constantly updated. You will have to continuously change, and there is no end goal – it’s just trying to keep up. We’re all focusing on what’s hot right now, but in six months, who’s knows? For example, in the past, we were trying to keep up with old browsers, making our site compatible with browsers like IE6. Now it’s all about keeping up with the new ones. And once HTML5 is rolled out, the idea of the app itself might change dramatically. Basically, for anyone who thinks that you can build it and you’re done: you’re wrong. This stuff is like a plant. It takes constant care and maintenance.


Check back next week as we head to Wisconsin to hear from David Dickinson at WPT.

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