Legacy publishers did not adapt as quickly or as well to digital publishing as they might have hoped. Most are still dealing with the fallout from being behind the curve when it came to the rapid migration of their audience from print to online, with low digital ad revenue requiring them to build their audiences to unrealistic levels to compensate for falling print revenue.
The received wisdom has long been that, just as some publishers have found footholds by branching out into native ads or redefining the value of digital ads, the ecosystem was being disrupted again as media consumption moved to mobile devices. But are publishers likely to be as affected by this new transition, or are they actually in the right place at the right time?
The new consumption habits
Without doubt, audiences are choosing to consume much of their content on mobile. In fact, while comScore data shows that only 5 percent of content online is consumed solely on mobile, that’s dramatically different for most publishers and platforms:
In fact, the four biggest digital news publishers in the UK are seeing the largest proportion of their audience solely on mobile. That could be because, as Twitter’s Dara Nasr argues, while publishers are only belatedly realising the “transformative power” of mobile, audiences would always have chosen to consume news on the go:
“Online content is not a new thing, but I don’t think people understand how much there is or how impactful it can be.
“It’s not just something that lives and breathes on the internet. It’s taking it truly live, powered by the mobile.”
But even the publishers who aren’t seeing over 50 percent of their audience coming exclusively on mobile are seeing a relatively large proportion of that audience exclusively on mobile devices:
N.B. the notable exceptions are the hard-paywalled sites, The Times and The Sun.
All indications are that publishers aren’t the only ones lagging behind actual audience behaviour. Contained within Mary Meeker’s annual internet trends report is the fact that annual ad spending on mobile devices is severely lacking considering that proportion of time audiences actually spend on those devices:
And who are the main beneficiaries of that time spend on mobile devices? As shown above, in the UK at least, it’s news publishers with whom audiences are spending their time online. The issue is that those same publishers have yet to find a definitive way to monetise themselves through ads on mobile.
But there’s a company who unambigiously are making money on mobile, and who have recently opened themselves up to collaborations with publishers: Facebook. Despite persistent misgivings about the Instant Articles pilot scheme, on the grounds that Facebook’s notorious opacity around their algorithms might ultimately harm the visibility of publishers’ content and a lack of reciprocal sharing of user data, the social network is unambiguously successful at making money on mobile. Additionally, audiences spend fully one-fifth of their time on mobile devices on Facebook.
As outlined by the Pew Research Centre, Twitter not only takes around a quarter of the total digital display ad spend in the US, 73 percent of that revenue is from mobile. That’s a ridiculously high amount, as Pew explains:
“In 2014, the company took in more than one-third ($3.5 billion) of the $9.6 billion mobile display ad market. And these revenues continue to grow as a share of Facebook’s digital ad revenue, accounting for about two-thirds in 2014.”
So, are publishers in the right place at the right time for the mobile transition? Most of them are far and away above the average when it comes to content consumed exclusively on mobile devices, after all. But if the vast majority of the mobile ad spend is going to Facebook, with no signs of that growth slowing, is there room for publishers to generate significant revenue from their increasingly mobile-only audiences?
It’s understandable, then, why publishers might want to attach themselves to the great Facebook whale. Instant Articles provide a potential way for publishers to make some money from an audience they know are transitioning quickly to digital consumption of news content. But with much uncertainty remaining about Facebook’s intentions and the future of the Instant Articles scheme, it’s clear that while news publishers might indeed be in the right place at the right time to make money from mobile, it’s far from a given that they have the ability to actually do so.