Commentary

Is Mobile A Chimera For Publishers?

The latest issue of the Journal of Advertising Research includes a very interesting article by comScore co-founder Gian Fulgoni titled “The Rise of the Digital Omnivore: What It Means for Advertisers, Publishers, and App Developers,” which reports some eye-opening numbers about Internet usage. The punch line, which was recently summarized in another MediaPost article based on an earlier presentation by Fulgoni, is this: Although, as a percentage, desktop traffic has shrunk dramatically relative to mobile in the last four years, the total amount of desktop traffic has actually grown in the same time span.

According to comScore data reported by Fulgoni, in December of 2010 the total digital engagement from desktops was 401 billion minutes, while smartphones and tablets accounted for a “mere” 142 billion. By November of 2014, combined mobile (tablet & smartphone) engagement had grown to a staggering 746 billion, but in the same time frame desktop engagement rose to 510 billion. Hence desktop engagement has enjoyed a healthy 27% increase in four years. Relative to the 425% explosion in mobile engagement, desktop’s gains seem puny. But declaring the demise of desktop because it now only accounts for about 40% of overall online engagement is like saying that all university endowments are failing because Harvard got the largest-ever donation last fall.

The article goes on to discuss additional data and its implications for advertisers, publishers and app developers. Because of the nature of this column, I was particularly intrigued with data related to publishers. In particular, I found a few nuggets that make me wonder whether mobile may be just a chimera for online publishers -- and whether, while publishers should indeed concern themselves with mobile, they might be wise to keep a sharp focus on desktop.

Two points are particularly enlightening in this regard. First, Fulgoni points out that the vast majority of time spent by people on their mobile devices is spent on apps. In fact, he cites a comScore report from August 2014 showing that users spend roughly seven of every eight minutes using apps while on devices. In case you're hoping that publisher mobile apps make a dent in this figure, it seems they do not. Social networks, games and radio account for nearly half of all time spent on apps. In terms of unique visitors, Facebook dominates with 113 million, and no publishers appear anywhere in the top 25.

Second, Fulgoni points out that although publishers are indeed seeing healthy growth in their mobile traffic, they have not been able to capitalize on it. The article cites a particularly depressing number: although last year more than half of the digital audience of The New York Times came from mobile, that venerable publication only attributed 10% of its revenues to mobile.

Fulgoni speculates that two main drivers for this shortcoming are a lag in advertising spending on mobile, coupled with mobile advertising rates that are still much lower than desktop advertising rates.

Another factor that might contribute to this skew is a sort of  behavioral mismatch: for example, many games have in-app ads that encourage people to install other games -- a proposal that seems more appealing than if I’m reading an article about the latest twists and turns in the financial crisis in Greece.

There's no doubt that mobile is here to stay, and that publishers and advertisers alike need to pay heed to mobile and continue to invest in it. At some point the advertising rates are bound to catch up, and with increasingly good publisher apps coming out every year, it's likely that the kind of ratio seen at The New York Times will change.

But I think it equally likely that desktop will never go away. Now, I’m sure many publishers are fully aware of this and are continuing to invest in superior experiences for desktop users. However, if my experience in the last couple of years is any indication, it seems many publishers are running the risk of throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Hopefully the combination of their efforts and overall improvements in the mobile ad industry will pan out for them before it’s too late.

5 comments about "Is Mobile A Chimera For Publishers?".
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  1. Scott Portugal from Yieldbot, June 25, 2015 at 2:44 p.m.

    A chimera? Hardly - it's just that publishers need to adjust their strategies. It's about HOW the publisher consumes content on a mobile device, what their mindset is at that moment, and putting relevant ads with screen-specific ad sizes & creative in front of the user at that moment. 

    It's only a chimera if you do it wrong. 

  2. Henry Blaufox from Dragon360, June 25, 2015 at 2:47 p.m.

    On this total of "minutes" online as a gross figure -- are we distinguishing between actual activity, moving through pages and taking action of any type; or do we have only total time connected, so we don't properly account for time away from the connected device? Note I haven't read the research by Fulgoni.

  3. Paolo Gaudiano from Infomous, Inc., June 25, 2015 at 4:48 p.m.

    @Scott - I suppose the answer as to whether it's done wrong will have to wait! But the fact that the NYT is only doing so-so is not a good sign. You should also check out Tom Goodwins recent post on mobile in the Mobile Insider column (June 23).

  4. Paolo Gaudiano from Infomous, Inc., June 25, 2015 at 4:49 p.m.

    Harry - the original article by Fulgoni does not specify, but as long as the numbers were measured consistently between 2010 and 2014, the ratios should stay the same.

  5. Rick Monihan from None, June 28, 2015 at 10:09 a.m.

    These numbers make sense from a common sense point of view, and hint at a need, mentioned in other comments, to adjust strategy and plan for this shift from desktop to mobile.
    Shifting habits are important to stay in front of.
    However, it also masks another underlying trend, the growth of non-human traffic.  While fraudulent bots can imitate mobile visits, they are largely identified as desktop visitors, and are regularly undercounted by most NHT measurement services.  There is a limited amount of attention time available in the world - 24 hours in a day for each person.  This leaves room for growth from current levels, certainly, but the growth levels also raise the question of how much is NHT.  It is important to not ignore desktop - it's still the lion's share, and it's still growing.  But it's also important to remember to be aware that not all growth is equal in value.

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