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Credit: Image by Johan Larsson on Flickr. Creative commons licence. Some rights reserved.
As more people are accessing content on mobile, digital publishers have been trying out ways to engage these audiences, find out what content they are looking for and what makes them come back.

Bleacher Report, a digital sports outlet acquired by Turner Broadcasting in 2012, has become mobile-first in the process of building and developing its app, Team Stream.

Bleacher Report's chief technology officer Sam Parnell said the business "had really changed" in order to move from a web-first mentality and embrace mobile, and Team Stream users spend 174 minutes a month using the app.

Speaking at the Monetising Media conference, he shared some of the ways Bleacher Report has been adapting to the mobile-first mentality, both from the business and the editorial side.

Personalisation of content

Parnell said Bleacher Report first developed a mobile website in 2009, when "one of the engineers got bored over the weekend".

Two years later, 20 per cent of Bleacher Report's traffic came from mobile, and while it was not equal to desktop traffic yet, "the trend was upwards", he said. "The product development team, the product design and engineering group," he said, "really started to view the two equally."

The team started to split its time equally between desktop and mobile despite the fact that mobile accounted for only a fifth of the traffic. "It really was obviously the future," he said. After this move, Bleacher Report's team also felt it was time to build a mobile app.

"One of the key questions for us was we did not want to just put our website in a mobile app," he said. "It should be different, it should be better, it should be something that is worthy of being an app."

"We wanted to make sure this was a truly personalised experience that also had a lot of curated content in there."

Building the mobile app took Bleacher Report beyond being a publisher towards becoming a content curator and a "portal for sports fans", he said.

"In creating that personalised experience," he said, "it was interesting to give users the ability to self select the teams and topics that they care about."

Bleacher Report found that users were more likely to engage with personalisation options on the mobile app more than the website. 

Real-time content

While the app delivered better results than web on the personalisation front, Parnell said he quickly realised Bleacher Report was falling behind on publishing real-time news.
"Most of the teams would get updated every couple of days," he said. "We were covering several hundred teams and what was really lacking from the app was it needed to be real time.

"People had it everywhere they went, they were checking it regularly, potentially multiple times a day."

He said this was the point Bleacher Report started to transform as a business, and the product engineering and design teams started to focus on the mobile side, both web and app.

The mobile app became a "flagship experience", and he said that while an individual visitor would come to the website two or three times a month at this point, app users were visiting closer to 30 times a month. 

No laptops in meetings

Parnell said mobile push notifications were a big driver of engagement, and with users subscribed to an average of six to eight teams each, Bleacher Report was "doing a pretty vast number of push notifications". He said they had pushed out about 2 billion notifications in the last month.

This year, Bleacher Report's product team primarily looks at the mobile app, and not at building features for web first. Parnell said he stopped taking his laptops in meetings, and the first question he asks is 'how does this work on mobile'.

He said  "it really has changed the mindset of how we approach things" – about 75 per cent of traffic to Bleacher Report now comes form mobile.

Editorial challenges

While Parnell can do without his laptop in meetings, the content management system Bleacher Report's writers use is still desktop-centric. 

He said it was still possible to produce content that was too long, or use images that would not be suitable for a small screen.

"What we're actually looking at now," he said, "is forcing writers to preview content in a mobile preview that has a small window.

"So that's really starting to make them think about how their content is going to get consumed."

He said that while the concept of mobile first was easy to understand, it was challenging to keep in mind on a daily basis.

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