Why Mobile Web Matters

Apr 5, 2012

For many public media stations, mobile means one thing: apps. We all know mobile is important, and many stations have launched successful mobile apps that engage your audience with audio, news, and more.

But here’s the truth: If your app is the only component of your mobile strategy, you’re missing the boat. Mobile-optimized web pages are rapidly becoming the most important way to grow your online audience.

That’s why at NPR Digital Services we are currently working on a prototype of a mobile-optimized site for stations, which we showed off at the iMA conference last month.

Your audience is going mobile

Mobile usage is at an inflexion point. What was once a small, secondary channel will soon be a major distribution channel for your content.

When we look at the numbers for 50+ NPR stations across the country that are using Digital Services’ Core Publisher CMS, the trend is clear. Last July, 9% of traffic to station web sites came from mobile devices (smartphones and tablets). As of March, it’s already up to 14%.

We see the same thing for NPR.org traffic. Mobile now represents 17% of the unique visitors to NPR.org. (That’s mobile site traffic, not including all the NPR apps.) And it’s rising quickly.

Given the number of people buying smartphones and tablets, this data isn’t surprising. Your audience is increasingly using these devices to get news - for example, a Pew study showed that 77% of tablet owners read news on their devices at least once a week. In fact, nearly a quarter of US adults now get news on at least two devices (computer, tablet, and/or smartphone), according to Pew’s more recent State of the News Media 2012 study.

The good news for stations is that all these devices are increasing overall news consumption. The same recent Pew study found that having a mobile device doesn’t merely move news reading to a different screen - it leads people to look at more news than ever before.

Apps are important but not the silver bullet

For years, the gold rush in the mobile space was all about apps. Helped by distribution in Apple and Android stores, branded apps were the primary way to deliver a tailored mobile experience to your audience. And apps were the only way to deliver key features such as streaming audio to mobile devices.

For many stations, apps have successfully grown audience. A Nielsen survey shows that a third of tablet and smartphone owners have downloaded a news app in the past 30 days. In addition, news apps can be very successful at driving deeper engagement with content. For people using NPR apps, for example, there are more pageviews and more return visits than for people using NPR.org.

But for all their success, the benefits of having an app (especially as an engine for capturing new audience) are starting to plateau, because apps are turning out to be most successful for only one segment of your audience. Research is showing that apps attract the particularly loyal segment of your audience who is already consuming a lot more news. In a study of tablet users, Pew found that these “power news users” spend twice as much time consuming news as do browser users. For users who want a daily fix and are proud advocates of stations, apps are the preferred channel.

But of course, stations want to reach a wider audience of casual users as well. And for this larger segment of casual users, mobile-optimized web pages are the preferred way to access your content.

Mobile web could be the secret to growing your audience

Why focus on mobile web when your station app is doing well? Three reasons.

It’s where the audience is.

Let’s start with NPR data. NPR has a variety of award-winning mobile apps for news and music on multiple platforms (iPhone, iPad, Android). When we combine all the monthly unique users of all those apps and compare that to the unique visitors to NPR.org using mobile browsers, it’s no contest. For NPR, there are twice as many mobile web users as mobile app users.

Notice the trend below, which shows growth in unique visitors over time. Over the last two years, both approaches to mobile continue to grow audience, but mobile web is growing at a much faster rate. The audience is voting for their preference with their usage.

Other research is showing this pattern as well. A Pew tablet study revealed that even though two-thirds of tablet news users have a news app installed, the browser is where most of them actually get their news. 40% get their news mainly through a browser, while 21% primarily use apps and 31% use both equally.

Why is mobile web growing so quickly when apps seem to be the better user experience? We believe it comes down to two words: sideways traffic.

Sideways traffic refers to visits that don’t come directly to the home page, but instead follow links from external sites to internal pages (typically individual stories). And this happens a lot on mobile devices.

When we look at analytics for the many NPR stations using Core Publisher, we see that 46% of mobile site visits start on a story page. (For desktop or laptop visits, that number is only 27%.) On mobile, far more users are following links directly to your content.

Why is this important? When users are following links to your stories, they go to your mobile site, not your app. Your app is great for people who already love you. But your mobile site is the best way to help everyone else discover you.

Where is this mobile sideways traffic coming from? Social media, search, and email. For NPR stations, 11% of mobile site visits are now coming from Facebook. That’s up from 8% last July, and will continue to grow. We’ve seen much higher numbers through our own Facebook experiments. Do not underestimate the power of Facebook in exposing users to your content and sending users to your site.

Third-party research confirms that while mobile traffic from Facebook is still relatively small on news sites, it’s growing. Of people who use a smartphone or tablet for news, 59% have followed news recommendations on Facebook (Pew study).

In addition, as users increasingly follow links from search engines and emails on their mobile devices, all those pathways lead to your mobile site, not your app. So it’s not surprising that simply through organic growth of device usage, mobile site traffic is skyrocketing.

Think of it this way: Users have to remember your app in order to use it. For your mobile site, users come across links to it naturally in the course of their day.

The mobile web user experience is better.

Once upon a time, an app was the only way to create an engaging experience on a mobile device. Mobile web sites were bland and couldn’t deliver key functionality such as online streaming.

Thanks to better devices and HTML5, this gap no longer exists. Stations can create rich, branded experiences for mobile browsers that are as engaging as any app. This includes the ability to provide on-demand audio and audio streams.

This means, of course, that you can’t just send mobile users to your normal web site. It will look awful on smaller screens, might not even work properly, and doesn’t necessarily cater to the unique needs of your mobile audience. Creating a site optimized for mobile devices is essential for seeing the type of audience growth described earlier.

The learning curve for mobile web sites is also easier. Apps are unique and require users to learn your app’s special interactions, icons, and so on. Mobile sites look and behave like the web that users already know, and so are more usable immediately.

Mobile web is easier and less expensive to build.

We’ve saved the best news for last: Mobile-optimized web sites cost a lot less to create. For an app, stations have to create multiple versions customized for iOS and many Android versions and have to maintain multiple codebases. And even then, many device owners won’t be able to use it.

Instead, stations can create one mobile-optimized site that will work everywhere. Using Responsive Design guarantees that the site will automatically adjust in layout to look great at every screen size and work across multiple mobile and tablet devices. Create once, publish everywhere. It’s a faster and easier way to develop a mobile presence, and more people will use it. Win win.

Distribution is also easier. Instead of working within the constraints of app stores and trying to get your app found among millions of other apps vying for attention, your mobile site gets found organically by users as they check Facebook or Twitter, search the web, and follow links. You need to work hard for effective app distribution. Mobile web distribution takes care of itself.

While apps can still be successful at engaging your already loyal audience, we believe mobile web is the biggest opportunity for stations to grow new online audience. Creating a mobile-optimized site can deliver more audience for less cost. What’s not to like?

That’s why at NPR Digital Services we are investing more time in mobile web right now. We believe there is tremendous potential in providing stations with a mobile-optimized site. Stay tuned for more news on this project as we move into pilot phase in the next couple of months.