By: Alan D. Mutter
The proportion of mobile visits at digital newspaper sites has doubled in the last two years to the point that half the visitors at some publications today are arriving via smartphone or tablet.
The rapid uptake in mobile news consumption represents a tipping point that could be as disruptive a paradigm shift for newspapers as the move from print to pixels. Here’s why the shift has historical resonance:
Even though the Internet burst into the public consciousness in the mid-1990s, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that half of U.S. homes subscribed to relatively cheap and reliable broadband service, which encouraged folks to take an active role in getting and giving news. In the 10 years since broadband became commonplace, weekday print circulation has tumbled by 47 percent and newspaper ad sales dropped by 55 percent.
Now that mobile traffic is at or near 50 percent at many newspapers, editors and publishers need to put ever more of their thinking—and resources—into optimizing products, content and advertising for not only smartphones and tablets but also for such emerging devices as smart watches, smart televisions and whatever smart stuff comes next. As discussed below, mobile publishing is as distinct from Web publishing as Web publishing is from Web printing.
Here’s how fast things are happening:
After crunching data covering 213 sites operated by five major newspaper groups, I found that the average number of unique visitors accessing the sites from mobile media doubled to 43 percent in mid-2014 from 21 percent in mid-2012. At the same time, the number of page views consumed on mobile media nearly tripled to 28 percent this year from 11 percent in 2012.
The data, which were obtained from quantcast.com, covered the interactive sites operated by Advance Publications, GateHouse Media, Hearst, McClatchy Co. and MediaNews Group. Because publishers have to willingly expose their detailed data to Quantcast, comparable statistics were not available from such publications as USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times or the Washington Post—which, because of their global audiences, probably get more than the average share of mobile traffic. Even though my survey is not as comprehensive as we would like, the Quantcast data nonetheless cover about 15 percent of the nation’s dailies in a sample that is diversified by both geography and market size.
In spot-checking the performance of individual publications covered in the survey, I found great disparity among them. While only 31 percent of unique visitors at McClatchy’s daily in Bellingham, Wash. came from mobile users, fully 50 percent of the traffic at company’s Miami Herald arrived on mobile devices.
As suggested in the above example, mobile use tended to be higher at larger papers than at smaller ones. Thus, the average mobile visits are 34 percent at the small and medium dailies operated by GateHouse vs. 50 percent at the MediaNews division of Digital First Media, which operates several large properties and has pledged to migrate more vigorously away from print than most publishers.
The power of corporate emphasis on digital publishing is illustrated dramatically at nola.com, the digital incarnation of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where Advance Publications famously pivoted away from print. After the T-P scrapped seven-day printing in the fall of 2012, the number of unique visitors at nola.com reported by Quantcast rose some 1.5 times to nearly 4 million by mid-2014. In the same interval, the share of mobile traffic at the site climbed to 56 percent of uniques in mid-2014 from 36 percent in the summer before daily printing ceased.
Assuming you agree that mobile is the Next Big Thing, here’s how to think about this new publishing paradigm:
Make It Timely—Some studies suggest that mobile users consult their phones as often as 150 times a day to catch up on the latest news of their friends and the world. With itchy-fingered users snacking all day long, articles have to be up to date and frequently updated, even as a story is developing.
Make It Concise—Snackers want information to be short and entertaining. Pictures, graphs, videos, maps and other non-verbal content should take precedence over long, gray slabs of type. To the degree the subject matter is appropriate, users want to be entertained, as well as informed. So, bring on the snark and sass.
Make It Viral—Interactive media works best when users can, duh, interact with each other by uploading content, contributing comments and—best of all for audience-hungry publishers—share interesting articles with their friends. Upworthy, BuzzFeed and Huffington Post have made a science of encouraging pass-along readership. News media have to do it, too.
Make It Transactional—Provide useful tips, clicks and other cues to pay back the reader by enriching her experience. This specifically includes well-crafted and well-targeted advertising or other commercial content. Relevant advertising is just as welcome to most digital consumers as anything else.
Make It Mobile – Or you may not make it at all.
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor and Silicon Valley CEO who today consults with media companies on technology and technology companies on the media. He blogs at Reflections of Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com).