Publishers have known for a while that their audiences are increasingly choosing to consume their content on mobile devices, and as a result most have been experimenting with ways to get ahead of the increasing mobile ad spend.

But the findings of the 2015 Ofcom Communications Market Report make the extent to which it is a mobile-dominated world plain.

For instance, in the first quarter of 2015, two thirds (66 percent exactly) of households in the United Kingdom had access to a smartphone, compared to 65 percent of households which had a desktop device. Since last year those figures were 61 percent and 63 percent respectively, 2015 marks the year in which more UK households had a smartphone than a desktop computer.

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Screenshot from Ofcom Communications Market Report 2015

In the release, Ofcom refer to that shift as evidence that the UK is a ‘smartphone society‘, and note that the number of people who consider a smartphone their primary device for internet access has risen by a third:

“Smartphones are considered the most important device for accessing the internet (33% of internet users in Q1 2015), closely followed by laptops (30%).

“This is in contrast to figures from the same period in 2014, when laptops were considered the most important (40% of internet users) and smartphones by just 22% of internet users.”

So what does that mean for UK news publishers?

1. Time online on mobile far outstrips desktop

Not only do more users have access to smartphones, they are choosing to spend much more time online on those devices compared to desktop:

“In March 2015 users spent an average of 58 hours 39 minutes browsing or using apps on smartphones, compared to 31 hours 19 minutes browsing on laptops and desktop computers.”

The same period last year saw the time spent browsing on desktop to be 31 hours 24 minutes, suggesting that an increase in time spent browsing on mobile is supplementary to desktop rather than outright replacing it.

Notably, the Ofcom report from last year did not include in its report time spent on mobile if it was in apps, over a public or private wi-fi network. As a result, the figure it provided was that users were spending only 5 hours 48 minutes on mobile devices. The huge disparity in that figure compared to the 58 hours 39 minutes in 2015 (which did include those scenarios) suggests that audiences are choosing to use their smartphones for internet use even in areas where they likely have access to a desktop device.

On average, UK adults spent 1 hour and 54 minutes each day using a smartphone in March 2015 compared to just over an hour on laptops and PCs (1 hour and nine minutes). As a result, either publishers have a presence on mobile devices, or they don’t reach an ever-growing swathe of their audience.

2. The tablet plateau was exaggerated

For a while the received wisdom is that tablet sales had plateued, and that publishers would be wise to stop focusing on their tablet editions. Contained within the Ofcom report is the suggestion that, while that might be true for younger audiences, there is still significant YOY growth in tablet ownership among some demographics:

“Although over-55s are the age group least likely to own a tablet, ownership here has increased more than nine-fold in the three years to Q1 2015 (from 4% to 37%).”

Additionally, nearly two-thirds of 35 – 54 year olds own a tablet:

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Screenshot from Ofcom Communications Market Report 2015

And among those demographics, women are far more likely to consider the tablet their primary device for going online (22 percent vs. 17 percent of men). 

That chimes with a Statista prediction that tablet shipments are set to increase globally until at least 2018. The so-called tablet plateau might in fact be no such thing. 

3. Google and Facebook dominate time spent on mobile

One of the more startling findings of the latest Ofcom report is the extent to which Google and Facebook eclipse everyone else in the mobile, with only the BBC coming close in terms of where people choose to visit online:

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Screenshot from Ofcom Communications Market Report 2015

That in turn is obviously why Google and Facebook can so utterly dominate the mobile ad market. Google, by dint of its ubiquity and history, is still set to control 35 percent of the total mobile ad market in 2015. However, as noted by the Wall Street Journal, Facebook is encroaching on Google’s ad dominance:

“The social networking company posted a 39% increase in quarterly revenue, nearly three-fourths of which came from advertising on mobile devices…

“Market researcher eMarketer says that together, Facebook and Google will capture more than half of the $69 billion world-wide mobile-advertising market this year. Google leads, with 35% share, but Facebook is growing faster.”

The reason Facebook is growing faster is possibly because, as the Ofcom report reveals, mobile users are spending a truly ridiculous amount of time on Facebook and its related properties:

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Screenshot from Ofcom Communications Market Report 2015

UK internet users cumulatively spent 51 billion minutes on Facebook in March 2015, much of that on mobile devices. Additionally, the three most downloaded apps in that time frame (WhatsApp, Facebook and Facebook Messenger) are all Facebook properties.

4. Mobile is an opportunity for publishers

So Facebook is especially well-placed to eke out even more of the digital ad market, an environment in which most UK publishers are finding it notoriously difficult to monetise. And other than Mail Online, which had a 52 percent population reach in March 2015, no legacy publishers appear in the top ten most visited digital properties. 

So what can be done?

Well, mobile display advertising almost doubled on a like-for-like basis between 2013 and 2014, growing by 96 percent. And, as we’ve previously reported, that figure has the potential to grow tremendously in the near future:

Meeker Ad Gap

And there is evidence that many people in the UK, particularly younger demographics (29 percent), actively choose to consume news content on their mobile devices:

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Screenshot from Ofcom Communications Market Report 2015

It’s our contention that Facebook Instant Articles offers some publishers a viable way to go about monetising that content, despite the legitimate concerns about third parties’ ability to dictate what is and isn’t distributed.

Facebook’s increasing hold of the mobile ad market as a result of the huge amount of time spent on their platforms, combined with a demonstrable desire among some demographics to consume news on mobile, offer publishers an opportunity to not be wrong-footed as they were in the initial rush to digital publishing.

If the old adage that publishers need to be where their audiences live, then the Ofcom Communications Market report demonstrates that audience is spending much of its time on Facebook. It’s past time for publishers to follow if they want to monetise.