In January, CNN announced staggering growth in the number of users accessing their content on mobile devices. For 2013, the company averaged 30 million monthly unique visitors on mobile, an increase of 40 percent over 2012.           

CNN is hardly exclusive when it comes to a growth in mobile traffic. NPR says nearly half of all its traffic comes from mobile, and similar numbers are seen at Huffington Post, the New York Times and most major metro newspapers across the country.           

This growth can be attributed to an overwhelming increase in the time users spend on mobile content, created by two big shifts: Cell networks getting faster and smartphone screens getting larger. Apple just announced a new iPhone intended to compete with Samsung Galaxy’s huge screen, and with consumers averaging 1.2 gigabytes a month over cellular networks this year (nearly double what it was in 2012), media companies are bound to benefit from a spike in traffic. To top it off, traffic from mobile devices is predicted to exceed all wired devices (think desktops) by 2016.           

But an interesting thing has occurred on the way to the mobile bank. According to Flurry Analytics, “news & magazines” were the worst performing segment of the app marketplace, growing only 31 percent in 2013. By comparison, app usage overall was up 115 percent, mostly due to messaging, social media and productivity apps.           

This dichotomy in the growth of mobile traffic seems to leave media companies at a crossroads. Ever since the launch of the iPhone back in 2007, media companies, like everyone else, have developed apps downloadable to access their content. With the staggering growth of mobile traffic, is it time for companies to give up their apps and devote their resources to creating a better mobile experience?           

Not so fast, says Demian Perry, the director of mobile for NPR.           

Perry says while the growth of mobile web traffic is dwarfing the growth of traffic from apps (at NPR, mobile counts for 4 times the amount of traffic of all its mobile apps combined), the apps offer NPR something that mobile hasn’t been successful at—loyalty.           

“Often people look at one metric like unique visitors or visits, and they make assumptions about the value,” said Perry. “For us, we’re interested in engagement, and we get much deeper engagement on our mobile apps.”           

NPR is actually doubling-down on its investment in apps, and according to Perry, NPR is easily doubling the people they have working on apps this year over last year. It might be due to NPR’s particular emphasis on getting people to listen to their radio broadcasts, something mobile users seem to avoid, but app users can’t get enough of.           

“Even though they’re a smaller percentage of overall traffic, app users listen to much more audio,” said Perry. “Mobile users might visit a couple of pages and stay on the site for five minutes, but our app audience seems more willing to listen to a stream for an hour.”            

CNN also doesn’t seem ready to give up on mobile apps. With 12 million downloads of their apps in 2013, CNN might have a reason to seem so supportive, especially if the users are more engaged and consuming more content than they would if they visited though mobile. It’s probably the reason why a visit to CNN’s mobile site releases a pop-up encouraging users to download their app.           

NBCNews.com seems to have placed itself into a similar situation as its media competitors. While the much-touted redesign of NBCNews.com seemed to have grabbed all the headlines, a complete revamp of its free news app seems to have flown under the radar. If all the growth is in mobile and app downloads are stagnant, why even devote resources to an app?           

“When someone downloads your app, especially when it’s on their first screen, we do see not only higher engagement, but also an increase amount of visits per day,” said NBCNews.com executive editor Gregory Gittrich. “They also consume more content per user than someone visiting us on mobile.”

Monetization
So, if we can come to an agreement that the amount of traffic Web sites get from mobile will continue to grow, and that mobile users coming through apps will be more loyal than typical users, how do we make money with it?           

NBCNews.com’s redesign aims to take advantage of mobile browsing habits by offering ads designed to fit in with surrounding content. The new offerings consist of two main innovations: edge-to-edge parallax ads, which stay in place behind the page as users scroll, and “cascade ads,” which flip to expose content before flipping back. They also plan to sell native ads, which will appear simultaneously on both the front pages of their mobile and desktop sites.           

Then there’s Flipboard, the digital news app that presents content in an easy-to-consume magazine format. The app, designed to “flip” pages upward instead of scrolling, allows their team to sell full-page premium ads that aren’t obtrusive or annoying to the user experience. As a result, Flipboard has been able to grow their ad sales beyond the normal call-to-action ads we’re accustomed to seeing, and nab high-quality (and high-paying) branding campaigns that are normally a tough sell on mobile, with clients like Charles Schwab, Verizon Wireless and Universal Pictures, among others.           

We can’t talk about success in monetizing mobile without mentioning Facebook. Despite the media’s false calls heralding Facebook’s demise, Facebook’s fourth quarter earnings report revealed a fact most media companies would drool over: mobile ads, which Facebook only began to offer a year and a half ago, accounted for 53 percent of its overall advertising revenue. All told, Facebook grabbed a whopping 18 percent of the $16.7 billion global mobile-advertising market, second only to Google, according to eMarketer.           

What’s Facebook doing? According to Forrester Research’s Nate Elliott, “They know more about their users than any company has ever known about a population.” Facebook has invested heavily in knowing its customers, delivering them relevant ads and developing tools to measure the results for advertisers.           

Some traditional newspaper companies have already shown success utilizing Facebook’s strategy. Guardian Media Group, which owns the U.K.’s Guardian and Observer newspapers, returned to profitability thanks to a 29 percent increase in digital revenue. Digital revenues totaled £55.9 million (or $91 million), and grew at twice the rate of the digital ad market, all without help from a paywall. Notably, The Guardian is in the midst of its “Known” campaign, a 5-year strategy with the assumption that, like Facebook and Google, the only way publishers will survive is by deeply knowing who their customers are and serving their needs.           

It seems media companies that want to be successful on mobile need to make a choice. The question isn’t “mobile versus app,” rather it’s are we going to be a mobile-first media company, or are we going to continue to treat mobile as an also-ran while print ad revenue continues its downward decline?

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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