Mail Online: Dissecting The Mobile Migration

The sheer velocity of the people’s adoption of mobile media continues to leave publishers gasping for air, not to mention monetization strategies. To my mind the staggering growth in the share of traffic coming from devices smells like years of pent-up demand.

The drum I beat personally throughout the early 2000s, as I watched so many startups and established media struggle to make the Web into the “next TV” or “digital newsstand,” was that the connected desktop was the worst content consumption experience yet invented by man. Built from the ground up by engineers for engineers for office use, the butt-ugly browser-based, at-your-desk, windowed environment has short attention span written all over it. It always struck me as bizarre that the digital media gave rise to this marketer’s passion for the concept of “engagement” -- largely because the medium we had just invented seemed built for disengagement.

Is it any wonder that many media companies are seein a third or more of their traffic coming from devices in the past year? And in many case, so far, we are not yet seeing severe cannibalization of the desktop. As we discovered last week at the Mobile Insider Summit from many companies, such as CareerBuilder, ForRent.com and AutoTrader.com, publishers think they are getting a second and third at-bat with their customers because of mobile devices. We are starting to see media consumers and info seekers hitting the same favorite brands more frequently at different times of the day.

The Summit culminated last Saturday with a great conversation we had with Mail Online’s Martin Clarke about the ways in which people are not so much migrating as perhaps diffusing their attention now across multiple screens. In addition to being named among GQ UK’s “!00 Most Influential” in Britain, Clarke had also overseen massive growth of Mail Online, until it finally surpassed NYTimes.com last year as the largest online newspaper by reach in the world.

Much of that growth has come from devices. Clarke shared with us (embedded below) some extraordinary detail about the ways in which new digital behaviors are emerging around different screens.  He has seen visits from desktops and apps more than triple in two years. And while the growth has been steady from the traditional Web, especially as Mail Online has moved aggressively into the U.S. market, mobile has been the real driver. In Feb. 2011, Mail Online was seeing only 11% of total visits coming from devices, but last month that share had blossomed to 43%, and is almost certainly on track to surpass the halfway mark sometime soon.

And to amend the idea one more time, the traffic is not just migrating and diffusing, it is also fragmenting in curious ways. Clarke notes that publishers need to drill deeper into their own numbers to appreciate how behaviors differ on a range of devices. On a daily basis, for instance, tablet users are opting for the full browser experience for the home page of the site over the app, while smartphone users overwhelmingly opt for the app.  This is in part by design, since Mail Online does not optimize its site for smartphones, and so steers people to the app instead, where the publisher has more control over user tracking, ad experiences and personalization.

According to the latest figures for January, almost 850,000 people (388,00 per day) accessed Mail Online from iPhone apps, with another 660,000 (177,000 per day) from Android apps. It is not suprising that people accessing the content from smartphones do so more frequently than users on desktop or tablets, almost three times a day on iPhone apps vs. nearly two times on desktop. But what is surprising is how engaging even the smallest devices are with users. Session times on desktop, almost 14 minutes, are not that much higher than on the iPhone app, almost 11 minutes, or the Android app (nearly 12 minutes). But the iPad app trumps all, with 14:43 minutes per session. All of which suggests that engagement has more to do with the content than the device.

What will become even more important to Clarke and all publishers in the near future is understanding how the same audience is moving across screens. We get some sense of this from the remarkable final chart in Clarke’s deck below.  By overlaying desktop, tablet and smartphone usage patterns atop one another we can get a glimpse of how a publisher might be able to hand off their users from screen to screen. Smartphones are first point of access in the mornings, actually outperforming the desktop handily before office hours. But note how the tablet has that same morning usage bump. One wonders if the tablet is replacing the morning newspaper’s time slot. And as the expected spike in desktop usage abates as office hours wane we see a kind of transfer to devices for the prime time evening hours.

My take on these numbers is that the cross-platform migration to and fro allows for a next generation of media and marketing that is more personal, personalized and conversational. If both advertiser and publisher understand they are seeing that same user multiple times of day in different modes of use and settings, then the product and promotion are freed from old silos. Both stories and marketing messages can be iterated over time, woven into an experience and perhaps becoming even more subtle.

The mass media of the last century were locked into specific situations and times of day: movie night, radio-drive time, prime time, newspapers at breakfast, and daytime Web use. Their formats and content were shaped by these silos. The most important part of mobility is not only that it untethers media from its old situations and moments, but that the frequency of device use allow for sequential, iterative messaging.

Seeing mobility as an opportunity just to make “TV everywhere” or “always-on newspapers” is fine for a first pass at these new platforms. But lurking beneath these early usage patterns of genuinely new and different media behaviors, we should see something more. Porting the last century’s media onto “everywhere” platforms is a meager and unimaginative goal in the face of such opportunity for real innovation.      

 

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