The Needle Jerks

After a decade covering the growth of digital media, you get pretty jaded about metrics, growth curves, and pretty much any claims surrounding adoption rates of new technologies. Triple-digit YOY growth? Ho-hum. "Starting from what base?," I ask the Stanford-grad-start-up-CMO, now by rote. Okay, so-and-so percent of people who ever breathed on the planet have tried a (pick one) podcast, e-book, full-length TV episode online, virtual world, etc.

Yeah, and I once tried a one-inch length of my daughter's Eye-Squeezing Super Sour Power Yard Long Gum, but I promise you that doesn't make me a fan. I am still waiting for the roof of my mouth to grow back after that episode. Never again. My point is that media adoption is all about habit -- regular, persistent use of the technology that helps it become a reliable platform for content providers and their marketing partners. Most of the VC-driven digital tech industries have lived and breathed on market sizings and metrics that are silly on the face of them.

Perhaps I am leaping into the hype monster a bit myself, but I have to say that the numbers comScore released yesterday on year-over-year changes in mobile habits really impressed me. According to the stats about mobile Web and information use, the needle more than budged last year; it jerked forward, and in a way that is genuinely meaningful. Using three-month averaging ending January '08 vs. January '09, the monthly number of unique users accessing mobile news and information across all available platforms rose from 36.8 million to 63.1 million (+71%). That is a pretty striking number, no matter how you parse or qualify it.

I always found the monthly totals a little squishy, myself. Coming from my own bias as a cultural and media studies dweeb, I contend that a new technology becomes meaningful when you can see it weaving into the patterns (aka. culture) of very regular use. But even on a monthly basis, an increase this sharp is unmistakable. It gets better. ComScore also did YOY comparisons of weekly mobile information users (10.3 million to 19.2 million, or +87%) and daily users (10.8 million to 22.3 million, or +107%).

Now we are talking a real and meaningful spike and signs of real changes in habit. ComScore analyst Evan Neufeld shared with me a trending chart off of this data that showed a sharp uptick in mobile browsing between September of '08 and the end of the year, lifting from about 44 million to just over 50 million users in a few months. Sudden purchases of smart phones, which we know accelerates usage? Everyone checking on the dire economic news and impending election? Or just the cumulative effect of a steady rise in advance phones, more and better content available and strong 3G growth?

Whatever the cause, it resulted in a curve that was aiming upward into 2009 and bringing regular mobile data access into anyone's notion of critical mass. "We have finally passed the 'if you build it they will come' moment for mobile content," Neufeld says. "Now we have a critical mass of regular users who make it an interesting place to play for marketers. I sense that this uptick mostly confirms a strong sense among many advertisers that mobile is a place they need to figure out now. It has now moved up a bit on the priority pole."

This is not only important news for advertisers, but also for content providers. The number of daily uniques accessing social networking or blog providers soared from 1.7 million to 9.2 million. Personally, I find that the mobile Facebook interface is a more efficient way to consult my friend feeds, and several iterations of mobile Twitter clients are just easier to use than the micro-blog's online interface.

But I have to wonder when publishers stop talking about mobile as a complementary way to access their content, and start considering how it is replacing Web access. In some categories like stock and movie information, comScore is reporting upwards of 3 million daily uniques. In entertainment news, over 5.4 million of us are using phones each day, and at some point (soon, I think) that has to impact Web-based behaviors. Are the 34 million of us using SMS each month to access news and information really just complementing Web activity -- or really starting to shift some kinds of digital media behavior to a different platform?

The next metric you hear may be "mobile share," which could prove energizing to marketers and chilling to publishers. How much of overall information access at ESPN, Weather Channel, Facebook, Fox, etc. are happening on handsets already, and where will we be by the end of this year if these trends continue? And if we think it is tough to monetize eyeballs as they move from old media to the Web, then what does the shift in media access (even fractionally) to mobile mean to an already fragile ecosystem? Now the media companies will have to learn new habits.

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