Commentary

Tablets: The 5% Solution

Media mavens were all over yesterday's Nielsen numbers about tablet penetration, and I am still trying to figure out why. The survey of 12,000 consumers showed that 4.8% of U.S. consumers own a tablet. This seemed to surprise a lot of people, leading to some weird hand-wringing over tablets not being that big a deal after all.

Not sure I follow this. Five percent sounds impressive to me, given that the $600+ devices have only been on the market for a year compared to the much more affordable and longer-lived e-readers (9%) and productivity-oriented and familiar netbooks (8%). Mary Meeker's recent work demonstrates extraordinary interest both by consumers and the enterprise in adopting the platform, and even Nielsen's numbers show a remarkable ramp-up in Q1 2011 from just a 3.4% penetration the previous quarter.

And don't forget that engagement rates on the tablet continue to blow away almost all other digital platforms, along with consumer willingness to spend money on tablet content. News app developer TigerSpike (The Economist, Mail Online, et. al.) reports average engagement with apps of 30-40 minutes per session, literally multiples higher than many web sites see all month from loyal readers. I am not sure what is not to like here. That it didn't reach critical mass in 12 months? Come on.

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I say this as one who thinks the sky may not be the limit for tablets. I still think tablets could occupy a big niche (albeit an important one) rather than rival smartphones or laptops in penetration. It remains a nice-to-have rather than a must-have item in people's device mix. And my guess is there will be many millions of consumers who never will see a use for one. As the color e-readers like Nook and whatever Amazon may be planning blur the line between tablet and e-reader, the distinction will be moot and tablet-like functionality will become cheaper and more widespread. Household penetration may be a more revealing metric to watch over time, especially as these things become living room devices with clear roles in relation to the TV.

Still, tablets are evolving as superior media consumptions devices where ad receptivity is very high. Let's meet back here this time next year and compare numbers and see where those who underestimated the impact of tablets on media and marketing feel about mistaking 5% as an unimpressive number.

Even more to the point, the tablet's effects are being felt far outside its supposed 5% reach. Look at the ways in which brands like Sports Illustrated, PBS, Slate and others are porting developments and lessons from the touch interface back onto Web apps in the Chrome app market. Granted, these apps too don't boast tremendous scale, but they represent a post-browser mode of design that will be the foundation of HTML5 development to come. Watch over the next year or so as sites roll out their next redesigns and see how elements are being informed by the learnings from the brands' iPad apps.

Face it, the browser was a tool invented by engineers with an engineer's sensibility. Is it no surprise that browser-based media experiences have such low engagement relative to apps? Media companies -- and in some measure, marketers -- have been handcuffed into a basic browser platform that feels as inviting and expressive as a spreadsheet. App development has opened the canvas and the palette.

For all of its limitations (especially fragmented and confusing interfaces), the tablet at least has gotten us to rethink what digital content can look like and how users can interact with it in more involving ways. It gives publishers the chance to do what they did best in print and on TV: immerse us, surprise us -- and yes, control the experience. Sorry, you ideologues of pure interactivity and user-control, but authorial control of a narrative flow has its advantages in the depth and immersiveness of experience it allows.

This is one reason I am eager to hear what presenters and panelists at MediaPost's upcoming Tablet Revolution event (June 6) reveal about how consumers have been responding to both media and advertising on the platform. Fidelity Investments, for instance, which was among the first, biggest investors in iPad app advertising, will explain why they have been there from the start and how this platform has become an important piece of their marketing mix. That green line and arrow that is part of the brand signature now has been a presence in some of the earliest simple magazine app ads with embedded video, to some of the most elaborate recent executions using accelerometer and game-playing motifs.

Defining the emerging platform as something distinct from "mobile" has been an ongoing concern of ad agencies for at least the last six months. At this winter's Mobile Insider Summit, several executives mentioned offhandedly that they were treating the tablet as "portable" rather than "mobile," and I'm interested in hearing more about how this distinction is informing marketing treatments as well as media. At the Tablet Revolution, both a panel of agency execs and exclusive research on ad performance from UM will come at the question of what sort of marketing tool the large touch screen is after all. And now that we are a year into the platform, publishers, from The Daily to Gannett, Flixster to Zite, share what they know now that they didn't know then about the usage and business models possible here.

One of the most impressive metrics from the new Nielsen research was that 70% of tablet owners use the device while watching TV. If nothing else, this synergy between a second screen and the mother of all screens makes the tablet a big deal. In some ways the tablet promises to make real the long-awaited ITV models. And so, who better to question the likes of PBS, Bravo, Discovery, MLB and AT&T about their second-screen experience and plans than Mitch Oscar, EVP, Televisual Applications, MPG? Mitch has been studying ITV for many years and has deployed some of the first campaigns that experimented with the forms.

The potential here is incredible. Just based on my own usage of the iPad, I can see how apps from Xfinity, HBO, PBS and CNN are morphing my relationship with the larger screen. Not only do I use the iPad as a universal remote and program guide, but its size and richness makes it much easier to conceive of this device as a portable version of the TV itself. This is where I place-shift and time-shift my PBS and CNN content, for instance. It is, as we call it in this panel, "TV 1.5." 

We will complement the second-screen discussions with a far-ranging exploration of tablet usage. What do we know about how this technology is weaving its way into people's media consumption habits, and at whose expense? As the platform's scale ramps up in coming months and years, on what experiences should media planners and content providers focus their investment of time and money?

To be sure, tablets are not a scale play... this second. The story here is depth of experience and reach into some of the most engaged media consumers available. It is about having a digital platform that successfully immerses users in ways that the Web, shackled to the desktop and to a fugly, mechanical browser, barely even aspired to achieve. What goes on here will inform the design of media and marketing experiences on a range of other devices. I am already seeing this trend on  Google TV, Roku box and connected TV apps. Five percent? OK. But think of it as a highly concentrated 5% solution that will diffuse and color the rest of the digital field.

1 comment about "Tablets: The 5% Solution".
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  1. Emo Reyna from HHS&B, May 19, 2011 at 1:09 p.m.

    Yes I am curious to see the numbers a year from now. Will they surpass e-readers and netbooks?

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