Data Suggest Mobile Usage Patterns Are Settling

Industry may be entering a period of more reliable business models.


As the Magazine Media 360º Brand Audience Report has shown all year, the migration from desktop to mobile has seen only modest growth rates. That movement, which we’ve tracked for several years, has been significant to major media in a number of ways beyond merely a shrinkage of the dominant screen. Mobility is a different habit, not just a screen. The basic metrics surrounding mobile versus desktop useage remain generally true—shorter session times across a high frequency of visits. Discovery on search becomes more challenging with limited visible results, and (as Facebook’s historic advertising growth attests) the platform favors social distribution. And of course, the monetization model here has been challenging because mobile CPMs historically have been pressed downward by oversupply and lower conversion rates.

All of this is worth reviewing because the leveling of mobile migration touches on all of these aspects of mobility. We asked the MPA—the provider of the 360º data—to run a special report for us comparing mobile audience growth for the first half of 2017 against growth in the first half of 2016. That span helps eliminate month-to-month anomalies. What it shows is that across the total magazine brand universe, mobile growth YoY is not just leveling off, but actually totally flat (-.3%), while desktop audience declined -11.3% YoY. Combined with the fact that video audience growth continues at a pace (+40.7%) that mirrors mobile two years ago, this suggests a new maturity for mobile. Especially notable is that video growth shows increased session times and thus a taste for users to spend longer spans on smaller screens. Meanwhile, most industry surveys find digital CPMs edging upwards despite mobile migration, which we think reflects increased conversions (especially for m-commerce), greater reliance on pricier native and video formats and a ceiling on quality inventory. Additionally, anecdotal evidence from a number of publishers we spoke to suggests that mobile search is also maturing.

All of this is to say the flat mobile growth rate for magazine brands (combined with these other trends) points to a ripeness and even new equilibrium for mobile. We are likely at mobile saturation. But this is the point where usage habits may be settling rather than evolving and where historically more reliable and valuable business models get built.

Mobile Usage Patterns

And yet as the graphic here shows, double and triple-digit mobile audience growth continues for a number of magazine brands. Interestingly, some publishers credit Facebook and Google’s accelerant platforms for some of this growth. The Atlantic, which saw its first-half mobile audience grow 40% YoY tells min that Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles were key drivers of this audience expansion. Both platforms promise publishers that their cleaner designs, higher visibility to search, feed algorithms and faster delivery would increase use. The Atlantic reports not only has it seen “significant growth” from AMP and Instant Articles impact its overall traffic, but that pageviews to the former were up 958% in 1H and 202% to the latter.

The other good story is that mobile usage is veering towards longer reads. The Atlantic’s widely-read June cover story “My Family’s Slave” saw 72% of its traffic coming from mobile devices.

Travel+Leisure (+40%) is riding the duopoly platforms as well. Time Inc. Director of Digital Research Roger McCleary says that speed is of the essence on mobile. Instant Articles and AMP have been particularly important—as has a move to Time Inc.’s faster in-house “Element” platform. But T+L content is also inherently mobile, in that its Travel Guides with specific advice and tools to use at travel destinations has been optimized for mobile, map-interface, use. And again, we are seeing video content play a big role in the handheld experience. “T+L made a significant investment in our video output over the past 18 months, and that content seems to perform particularly well on mobile and therefore drives engagement there,” says Mcleary.

Mobile’s heavier reliance on social and search discovery is also behind W’s +83% in audience from devices, according to Executive Digital Director, Social Desk, Anne Sachs. “W’’s increasing focus on a social-first content strategy has contributed to the brand’s rapid mobile growth,” she says. “As more users read, watch, and share our digital-exclusive content and brand franchises on the native social platforms they’re glued to via mobile, our mobile readership continues to increase. We’ve also seen some strategic search-driven content strategies pay off with mobile growth, both for long-tail content wins and quick-twitch news stories.”

While many sites crossed the mobile-most Rubicon a while ago, it was just this year that the needle at Smithsonian moved quickly from a 41% mobile share in 2016 to a 54% share now. “One of the key drivers of this growth has been Millennials,” says Chief Digital Officer Bill Allman. Its growth in 18-34 year-old visitors is up 45%. Especially strong is its topical Smart News Smithsonian takes on news and trends, as well as its prominent placement on Apple News.

The younger audience that mobile helps capture plays right into Smithsonian’s longer-term content strategy of bringing both its historical and scientific perspective to everyday life. Allman says the Millennial reader has been especially drawn to its Science section. “Particularly popular is our coverage on human behavior, animal science, and environmental stories. In fact, we have a large content area on climate change, species extinction, and other human impacts called ‘Living in the Age of Humans,’ that grabs mobilized Millennials.


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