The mobiThinking interview: Ilicco Elia, Reuters Mobile

There are two sides to Thomson Reuters’ mobile services: a) tailored subscription feeds to professionals such as bankers; and b) providing general, business and stocks news to consumers – that’s the bit that Elia runs – which is the part that includes, as well as applications and SMS alerts.
Mobile is currently 10 percent of Reuters’ consumer business. It generates a whopping 25 million page impressions per month, and is growing at about 50 percent annually (amply sufficient to silence any ill-informed mobile sceptic).

When did Reuters first launch the mobile site, and what’s changed since then?
Reuters Mobile started back in 2001 with AvantGo [which ended early this year].
The main goal has always been to distribute content in ways that are most convenient to users. The key difference today is there’s much more pressure to generate revenue. Back then there was no way you’d make money from mobile advertising, and it didn’t start to bring in serious money until about three years ago. The first revenue stream was from subscription SMS services, which started a decade ago, then mobile advertising started around three years ago and, more recently paid-for applications.

How many visitors does Reuters Mobile receive?
There are 25 million page impressions per month and it’s growing at 50 percent year on year. Around 10 percent of visits to Reuters’ consumer sites come via a cell phone.
But we don’t know how many unique mobile users there are, as mobile operators won’t pass on the information needed to identify them, so visitors are anonymous, but we hope that’s going to change [more on this later].

How much of your business is on/off portal?
We partner with most mobile operators in relevant regions, so our content is available via their portals, but the majority of Reuters’ traffic now comes direct, i.e. not through an operator portal. In the UK, for example only about 10 percent of our business comes via operator portals. This is a good thing because some operators demand a massive revenue share – 40, 50 or even 60 percent. Retailers always complain about paying credit-card companies 5 percent of a transaction – I’d be delighted to be only paying 5 percent commission to operators.

Who are your closest competitors in mobile? How do you differentiate?
Reuters competes with other sites targeted at the business professional, such as The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Bloomberg, Associated Press and other financial information portals, such as Google Finance. The key to Reuters Mobile is a combination of fantastic content and the speed it downloads. The site is utilitarian, which means Reuters’ news downloads almost instantly to a handset – companies that are newer to mobile will slow sites down with unnecessary graphics, which really tells when traffic is heavy. User feedback shows download speed is more important than cosmetics.
We receive lots of feedback from customers and innovate accordingly. Take the new version of Reuters News Pro iPhone app: it introduced two key things customers requested, even faster download of news, additional content and the ability to email a story to a friend.

How many different regional sites and languages do you support? How difficult is it tailoring content?
There are sites in US, UK, Canada, India, Japan and Brazil; Brazil was the most recent in early 2009. China will be the next big step forward (partly driven by the market potential, partly by the fact that Reuters has a wealth of China-specific content). Languages is the easy bit, as the newswire content is written in 19 languages, the difficult bit is arranging the furniture around the site to suit each market. There are many differences between markets – but we’re still in the fortunate position that mobile is still evolving, so we can keep experimenting until we get it right without being judged.
Working off the same platform for PC and mobile Web helps maximise flexibility, as all content is contained in the same database and carefully tagged.

What content or sections of the site are the most popular?
Top news – general and business – draws the most activity, followed by looking up a stock price. The mobile site gets its biggest traffic in times of crisis, most notably the 7/7 terrorist attack in London and 9/11 in New York. Michael Jackson’s death also caused a massive spike in traffic. Big business stories such as Lehman’s collapse are big, but do not cause such a focused spike. Because you can’t predict the news, planning for heavy traffic days is almost impossible – it’s about making sure the site isn’t carrying any extra weight, so people can access what they want quickly.

When are the peaks – commuter time?
Yes, the peaks are on the way to work, lunch time and as people are on their way home. But usage is pretty strong throughout the day: mobile is a great way to keep yourself in the know – it’s the ideal way to brief oneself on the latest news stories or check up on a particular company, so you look good when you walk in to your meeting.

What do you know about your customers?
Not as much as we’d like. We need to get more information from the carriers, as at the moment the visitors are anonymous. So the GSMA’s Mobile Media Metrics with five UK carriers and ComScore will be a great step forward. We are also investigating what analytics products such as Bango can tell us about customers. We know more about Web customers because they register, but as it’s much more inconvenient for people to register on mobile, we haven’t required it to date, however as we make our stock portfolio service available on mobile, customers will need to sign in.
From what we know about the demographic profiles, Reuters’ mobile customers are freakily similar to those of our Web customers.
We know what handsets customers use. BlackBerry handets are massively popular, used by around 50 percent of visitors, often on company contracts, then Nokia (E and N series particularly), then iPhone.

Are SMS alerts still popular?
SMS remains popular in Spain, Italy, UK and India, but we’ve shut it down in the US. Even in the stronger markets, it’s not as popular as it used to be as people have been switching to email alerts. People with BlackBerries etc are very used to reading emails on their phone. That suits Reuters because email is cheaper to send, while mobile carriers demand a lot of money for SMS. If Reuters charges UK£0.25 [US$0.41] for an SMS alert, £0.03 [$0.05] is tax, the carrier may take 50 percent or £0.11 [$0.18]; while the remaining £0.11 [$0.18] is split 50:50 with the aggregator – maybe mBlox or Oxygen8; so Reuters gets in the region of £0.05 [$0.08] or £0.06 [$0.10].

What’s your position on applications?
Reuters has a mix of free applications – such as Reuters News Pro for BlackBerry, iPhone and most recently Android – and paid-for applications such as the Black’s Legal Dictionary App (launched April 2009). Applications are hard work to develop, but they are worth it. Are applications the future? No, I believe the future will be browser-based, but with a wrapper to suit each phone. Just to get techie for a minute… HTML5 – which will be supported in the next wave of devices – will make a lot of difference because it allows offline storage, so you can download news and read at your leisure. HTML5 can support geo-location – it hooks into the GPS function, found on most new phones, which means Reuters can localize your news.

Is Reuters Mobile profitable?
It’s difficult to attribute profitability to different areas, as mobile shares the same platform and resources as the PC Website and other parts of the business. Mobile used to be separate from Web when it was an emerging technology, but it has emerged now.

What is the revenue model? How does it break down?
The revenue model is a mix of advertising, branded, pay per use and subscription SMS.
An example of a branded service is the Reuters Slideshow application pre-installed on the new Nokia N97.
An example of a subscription service is Reuters Market Light, a SMS-based service, launched in 2007, to provide farmers in India with commodity prices, crop and weather data.
It’s really difficult to divide up advertising revenue, as deals with customers will usually be packages of different services across different platforms. For example, Reuters may be supplying a news feed for the client’s micro site as well as running ads on mobile, Web or outdoor (Reuters has big screens in Times Square, New York and Canary Wharf, London and has Reuters Infopoint screens showing soundless news in reception areas of clients, including JP Morgan and Citigroup).

What brands advertise on Reuters Mobile, what types of advertising are available and what return can advertisers expect?
Brand advertisers include GE; technology companies such as IBM, Cisco and Oracle; financial services such as HSBC and Charles Schwab; mobile manufacturers and carriers; and automotive brands such as Lexus and Ford.
Advertising includes run of site, sponsorship of a particular channel, types of news or key words. In a recent campaign, IBM sponsored the key word ‘innovation’ – as all Reuters editorial is tagged with key words – all articles about innovation whether on mobile, Web or outdoor, carried IBM ads.
Click-through rates (CTR) are between 1 and 8 or 9 percent. I believe the best CTR was a campaign for BlackBerry targeting specific users with older models encouraging them to upgrade. Lexus found that more people requested a brochure through the mobile channel than any other (in the region of one-in-eight people who request a brochure buy a car).
In the UK, Reuters sells all advertising through the in-house team. In the US, we also sell ads through Nokia Interactive Advertising [See this guide for a profile of NIA]

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