Mobile Content and the Covenant of Trust

by Jessica Ramesh

Tom Grinsted, Product Manager – Core Mobile Applications at Guardian News & Media, will be among the speakers at the Figaro Digital Marketing Conference on 28 November. In an in-depth interview, he tells Figaro Digital how the Guardian is adapting to mobile technology and explains why mobile content requires a unique bond of trust between brands and users

“I’d argue that mobile phone technology is the most personal, consistent, habitual and pervasive technology that we have ever invented,” Tom Grinsted, Product Manager – Core Mobile Applications at Guardian News & Media, told delegates at Figaro Digital’s Mobile Seminar earlier this year. “As soon as you understand that and start thinking that way, you start shifting the types of experiences that you want to give to people.”

With great power comes great responsibility

For Grinsted, it’s not just that our smartphones are rarely out of reach. Our relationship with those small but perfectly formed devices is uniquely personal. Just ask a colleague if you can borrow their iPhone and chances are they’ll be quietly reluctant to hand it over. Similarly, notes Grinsted, in a commercial context, users’ relationship with content involves a profound level of intimacy and trust between a brand and its audience. 

Tom Grinsted, Product Manager – Core Mobile Applications at Guardian News & Media

“You’re placing your brand and your product in people’s lives in a way that you’ve never been able to do before. That, especially for a news organisation, is hugely exciting. It’s about becoming somewhere people automatically go. The nature of the device means that you have an audience you never had before.”

So, as our smartphones become the first port of call for all sorts of content, new opportunities open up for brands. But, points out Grinsted, with those opportunities comes both risk and responsibility. 

“With a personal device like a smartphone there’s the potential for a new level of intrusion, and that’s where a covenant of trust comes in. It’s the old Marvel Comics thing – with great power comes great responsibility. That’s very true in the mobile and app space. With breaking news stories, people trust the Guardian to interrupt their lives at almost any point, as long as it’s important enough. We’re extremely sensitive to that because you break that covenant of trust at your peril. The opportunity is gigantic, but the opportunity to muck up and drive people away from you is equally high. You’re entering into a much deeper, more personal relationship than you’ve ever had before – and it’s based on trust.

“It’s a value exchange, and the exchange is that the user is installing and – by proxy – trusting your brand. What they want from that is a genuinely valuable experience which enriches their lives. A lot of marketing falls down on that second part. Brands aren’t fulfilling their part of the bargain. And I’d argue that is actually worse than not doing anything in the first place. This is one of the main reasons why our engagement metric at the Guardian has shifted away from things like downloads and towards much more interesting metrics like time per-user per-month or page views per-user per-week. Those metrics indicate we’re successfully building on that covenant of trust and getting much higher levels of engagement back from the user. They’re not transitory measures which don’t really tell you whether a user is getting an enriching experience or not.”

Apps, opps and wearable tech

Right now the Guardian operates a ‘freemium’ app model, with free and paid-for premium elements; Guardian app users, notes Grinsted, tend to be significantly more engaged than web users, though both digital formats play an important role in generating revenue for the organisation.


The Guardian’s enthusiastic espousal of mobile technology also extends into the way news is gathered and reported. Earlier this year GuardianWitness went live. This is the home of user generated content on the site. Readers can download a free app and submit video, pictures and stories. Content is moderated, but may make it into the main paper. Given that commitment to advancing technology, what does Grinsted regard as likely to be significant over the next couple of years? Does wearable technology, for example, warrant the hype?

“I’m in two minds about wearable technology,” he says. “The technology itself is impressive, the idea is cool and I can imagine a world where instead of carrying a large phone in your pocket, you have that same technology in the form of, say, Google Glass. It certainly sounds like the magical future.

“But when I take a step back, I find that a lot of wearable technology represents a solution to a problem which nobody actually has. What can a smartwatch give me that I don’t already do with my phone? Google Glass, however, is an interesting proposition because of the passive nature of that relationship. With a watch or a phone, you actually have to look at it. Whereas with Glass, well, there’s the content in the top right of your field of vision – it’s always there.

“Backlash is perhaps too strong a word, but there are certainly murmurs about how close technology is becoming and whether, to get sci-fi about it, we really want to become cyborgs. And what I mean by that is how intimate do you want technology to be to you as a person? Glass is certainly a potentially disruptive technology and an interesting development to watch. I suspect we’ll see a lot of developments in wearable tech over the next few years, but perhaps not a breakout product – though that might just be due to a lack of imagination rather than a reflection of the market.”

Don’t have a ‘mobile strategy’

Whatever the future does hold for mobile, brands, publishers and marketers are all scrambling to keep up with developments in hardware and changes in user behaviour. What advice does Grinsted have for those who want to sharpen up their mobile strategy right now?

“The first thing,” he says, “is don’t have a ‘mobile strategy’. If you’ve got a mobile strategy you’ve already failed to understand how people use technology. You have a content and engagement strategy which cuts across products and devices. If you’re still hiving off your mobile strategy, it’s no better than having a mobile website four years ago which was like the ugly twin of your main site. So, don’t have a ‘mobile strategy’. You need to accept that all your users are going to have multiple touchpoints with you across different channels and you need to account for that.

“Second, if you’re trying to craft some form of continual engagement, you need that covenant of trust which I mentioned. Getting that wrong can be far more damaging to your brand than a poorly planned advert, for instance. I’d be very aware of that.”

As with so much in the digital realm then, it may be that success in mobile relies first and foremost on understanding the human impulses which drive our relationships with content and technology – and that requires a readiness on the part of brands to adapt.

“For instance,” says Grinsted, “There’s a tendency in some organisations to stick to a business model and not change it. You set your sights on something and that’s what you go for. At the Guardian we approach our business models in the same way we approach features: we deploy, learn, and innovate. We allow our user-data and insight to guide our developments. And that means there’s no such thing as a sacred cow, including business models for apps. Like everything, we need to adapt to our clients and users.”

Article by Jon Fortgang


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