Nowadays, it’s pretty dang tough making an argument against the importance of mobile. Sure, in 2009, mobile represented a measly 1% of global Internet traffic. But in 2012 – the span of three years – that number skyrocketed to 13%, according to StatCounter Global Stats. It’s hard to imagine that statistic going anywhere but up – way up. Smartphones are achieving mass-market penetration and the adoption of tablets is now picking up steam.
What’s more, according to a study from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, news consumption is a big source of activity on mobile devices: “64% of tablet owners and 62% of smartphone owners say they use the devices for news at least weekly.” Even better, there’s evidence that mobile devices are increasing the amount of news people consume, and also users of these devices tend to be more deeply engaged with the content.
So for online publishers, the importance of adopting mobile standards is pretty evident. There will soon come a day when the majority of users read the news on phones and tablets than on desktops and laptops. And at some news organizations, the mobile-desktop split is already starting to tilt more heavily toward mobile—The Guardian and The New York Times are two notable examples. But what are the implications for news organizations?
In our last blog post—part of our continuing experiment in loyalty conversion with WNYC’s On the Media—we set out to understand what’s at stake by not having a mobile-optimized website. What’s the average Engaged Time for users who visit onthemedia.org on a desktop computer versus a mobile device? How do visitors using different devices interact with content? Are scrolling patterns notably different? How do visitors move from page to page?
Answering the Big Mobile Question
From September 21 to 25, we found that about 30% of unique visitors to onthemedia.org came through a mobile device – the other 70% visited on a desktop or laptop computer. That’s a pretty good chunk of mobile traffic. Even though onthemedia.org isn’t currently optimized for mobile, it’s still able to draw a very healthy mobile audience. But okay, do audience behaviors differ by device? Are mobile visitors less engaged than desktop visitors?
Not too surprisingly, we saw slightly higher levels of engagement among desktop visitors. Desktop users viewed an average of 2.1 pages per person and spent an average of 31 seconds per page, resulting in an average of 68 seconds per person across the week. Mobile users viewed an average of 1.8 pages per person and spent an average of 20 seconds per page, resulting in an average of 37 seconds per person across the week. By the numbers:
The differences aren’t dramatic, but they certainly exist, and the results are similar if we look at specific pages. Josh Schwartz, the Chartbeat data scientist who crunched all the numbers, also examined a recent TLDR post, “Someone Lost Millions of Dollars Betting on Mitt Romney Last Year.” On this blog post, desktop visitors spent an average of 25 seconds of Engaged Time, and mobile visitors spent an average of 17 seconds of Engaged Time.
Our look at scroll depth was also pretty interesting. For onthemedia.org, we saw an average scroll depth of 339 pixels on mobile and 241 pixels on desktop. That’s right – scroll depth was actually much higher on mobile. It was similar for the front page of TLDR: 1,213 pixels for mobile and 889 for desktop. So, what gives? Mobile users are scrolling more but reading less? Here’s our best explanation: On the Media’s mobile users are thumb-flickers.
Anyone who’s ever put thumb to touch screen probably knows that gesture well, though it’s tricky to pinpoint exactly why mobile visitors to onthemedia.org are scrolling so much. Maybe there are lots of first-time visitors getting acquainted with the content. Maybe there are lots of loyal visitors skimming the headlines and checking what’s new. Or, maybe there are all kinds of visitors looking for something very specific, like a link to the latest On the Media podcast.
Making Sense of Everything
In short, mobile visitors to onthemedia.org not only spent less time engaging with content, but they also viewed a fewer number of pages than their desktop-using counterparts. These numbers are in line with what we typically see for non-mobile-optimized websites. But to be honest, the mobile-desktop disparity could be worse. We could see wildly high numbers of mobile visitors quickly abandoning the site, but thankfully, that’s not happening here.
Even so, by making its website more compatible with multiple platforms, On the Media could probably achieve greater parity between its desktop and mobile web experiences. And for online publishers, the research suggests that optimizing the content experience within the mobile web browser is one of the smartest and most effective uses of precious time and resources – rather than going the route of spending tons of money to develop news apps.
In 2012, 60% of tablet news consumers primarily turned to browsers for news content, 23% got news mostly through apps, and 16% used both the browser and apps in equal amounts, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. That’s compared to 2011, in which 40% got news mostly through a browser, 21% mostly through apps, and 31% used both equally. Browsers were highly preferred on the smartphone, too.
In some ways, we seem to be raising many more questions than answers. But that’s okay, because throughout this four-month experiment with WNYC, we intend to dive into as much data as we can – all part of our quest to understand just what it takes to build a loyal and returning audience. If you’re just joining us, you can catch up on our high jinks by reading our past two posts. On the block in a couple weeks: I’ll show off a nifty custom-built widget.