The fusion of smartphones and tablets with consumers' lives has been so freakishly fast and absolute, it's hard to believe that the iPhone debuted fewer than six years ago — and that the iPad has been around for fewer than three. As of August, around half of U.S. adults owned a smartphone or a tablet, with 66 percent using their devices to get news. Those numbers are probably already too low.
We are now learning more about how, when and where people access mobile news content. Extensive research from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism and other sources shows that mobile news use is distinctly different from desktop and laptop patterns — and from the data emerge some early ideas about what mobile news users would want.
Mobile at Home
Mobile news consumption apparently isn't very mobile. While some mobile news is read or watched on the go, the typical mobile news grazer is more likely hanging out at home — perhaps in bed, eating breakfast or planted in front of the TV.
According to a survey published by Pew in October, 85 percent of tablet news users and 58 percent of smartphone news users say they access mobile news while at home, while 11 percent of tablet news users and 29 percent of smartphone news users say they get mobile news while at work. A mere 3 percent of tablet news users and 9 percent of smartphone news users say they get mobile news while in transit or commuting. On weekends, 92 percent of tablet news users and 85 percent of smartphone news users say they get mobile news while at home; all other places drop to single digits.
Research firm Forrester describes the tablet as the new "couch computer," with 85 percent of U.S. tablet owners reporting using their tablets while watching TV.
Extending the Digital Day
Those at-home mobile users are bookending the traditional 9 to 5 "prime time" for desktop and laptop news use and extending the digital news day. In October 2011, audience measurement firm comScore published data showing tablet news use swelling between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., declining during the workday and rising again after 6 p.m., with peak use occurring between 9 p.m. and midnight. Smartphone news use is more consistent throughout the day, rising by around 7 a.m. and holding steady until midnight.
At least one news organization's internal data agrees. According to ABC News, more than 50 percent of all news stories accessed on the original ABC News app were read in the morning or evening. Users watched significantly more video at night, and were most engaged with content between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m.
In June, ABC News launched a new app programmed for morning, midday, evening and weekend editions. While fresh content is fed to the app continuously throughout the day, each edition is tailored for the type of experience ABC News believes its users want at that time of day. The morning edition features a top story and headlines, while the evening edition is more videocentric, designed for a "lean back" experience.
Whether or not they choose an explicit dayparting strategy, varying their programming for different time slots, all newsrooms should be prepared to meet the early-morning and late-night demands of the growing mobile audience.
Browsers and Apps
While more mobile users report accessing news Web sites, news junkies seem to love their apps. According to Pew's survey, the majority of mobile news users — around 60 percent — say they get news mostly through a mobile Web browser. Twenty-three percent of tablet news users and 28 percent of smartphone news users say they get news mostly through apps. Sixteen percent of tablet news users and 11 percent of smartphone news users say they use a browser and apps equally. While they represent a smaller percentage of users, those who use mostly apps report higher levels of engagement.
Deep Engagement on Small Screens
Contrary to early ideas that mobile content should be snack-sized, people dig deep into it. There is nothing secondary or superficial about mobile behavior. Reinforcing Pew's findings, analytics firm Localytics reports that people spend more time per session consuming news on mobile devices than on computers, visit more pages per session and visit more frequently. When it comes to video, people don't appear to have a problem viewing full-length shows and movies on small screens; in April Viacom released a study showing that 15 percent of full-length TV viewing occurs on tablets.
News organizations' mobile plans should be commensurate with the time people are spending engaged with content on their mobile devices. A few years ago we might have predicted that mobile would play a central role in the future of news. Now we know it.