Standing out on mobile starts with CMS tweaks

Even the plumbing of digital publishing is mobile-first now. With a growing number of publishers now drawing a majority of their readers on mobile devices, several of them, including BuzzFeed, Vox Media and The New York Times, have changed their CMS architecture to get editors more focused on how their content looks on mobile devices.

Some changes are bigger than others, but they are all under the hood. The story editor inside Vox Media’s new CMS, Anthem, defaults to a format that gives writers and editors a preview of how their content will look on a mobile screen; inside BuzzFeed’s CMS, the text editor field begins very small, and only expands as writers add more text to it; The New York Times’ Oak, an addition to Scoop, the Times’ CMS, is built with an eye toward giving readers a better sense of what a story will look like on a mobile device.

These moves aren’t intended to change how these publishers monetize their mobile sites. But they are a notable step toward emphasizing readers’ experiences on mobile, an important hedge against the design homogeneity imposed by products like Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles, that also opens the door for future experimentation with things like Google’s Progressive Web Apps.

“I think it’s important to be conscious of the opinion or precedents we set through the design [of our CMS],” said Lindsey Maratta, a digital designer at BuzzFeed who focuses on user experience.

It’s not hard to figure out why this is happening. Many publishers have drawn a majority of readers on mobile for several years; BuzzFeed, Maratta said, gets nearly 80 percent of its traffic from mobile devices.

At the same time, publishers have spent years struggling to find the balance between monetizing mobile readers and creating an experience that won’t drive them crazy. “Historically, a lot of content-heavy sites have not provided a good user experience on mobile,” said Brian Cardarella, the CEO of mobile web developer DockYard. “It’s actually been somewhat hostile.”

“I think a lot of content providers are realizing they’re probably losing a lot of money by not providing as good a mobile experience as they could,” Cardarella added.

Some of them also automated to save time tending to each platform, as content got spread out across more and more of them. At a tech talk hosted last month by BuzzFeed,  Thomas Rhiel, the product manager in charge of the New York Times’ CMS, said 88 percent of Times stories have images added to their bodies algorithmically, rather than by an editor. The move toward Oak, which gives editors the ability to easily sequence and shape images, text and other media, is an explicit corrective.

Of course, it’s easy to focus on design when you don’t have to think very hard about where to slot your mobile ads. Neither BuzzFeed nor Vox Media depends on mobile display advertising, and The New York Times has publicly stated it would like to be selling only Flex Frames, a proprietary display format it debuted last fall.

That may make it harder for other publishers, who rely on heavy piles of ad-serving technology, to move in this direction immediately (Though they can buy their way in – the Washington Post’s content management system, Arc, which publishers including Tronc now use, is mobile-first).

But as mobile continues to grow into the major traffic source for more and more publishers, expect to see more and more of them thinking about how to serve them.

“The segment of our readers on mobile devices is at least worth half our efforts,” said David Yee, Vox Media’s engineering director.

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