Audience Development

Publishers face the challenge of keeping mobile readers engaged

Mobile readers
Via Unsplash

Only 10 years ago, mobile readers accounted for less than 10% of web traffic. In 2021, that percentage has jumped almost 10 times, with 56% of visits to publisher websites coming from mobile devices. But as mobile traffic has increased, engagement has fallen and publishers need to face up to the challenge of keeping mobile readers interested.

  • What’s New In Publishing is reporting recent data from Chartbeat that reinforces earlier research from the content metrics platform that fewer readers are scrolling through content. Less than 75% of readers scroll at all on a web page, with previous data showing 45% or readers bouncing after just 15 seconds.
  • Depth of scrolling is even shallower on mobile devices; the average scroll depth on desktop is 34%, while on mobile it is just 25%. Chartbeat points out that, with readers increasingly discovering content on mobile and two out of every three visits taking place on a mobile device, fostering engagement on mobile is crucial for the future.
  • Meanwhile, Mathew Harrison, Head of Strategy and Planning at innovations news site Sifted, raises the prospect of a mobile ‘engagement crisis’. In a recent post for The Fix he warns publishers of what he calls a ‘Supervolcano’ of ‘apocalyptic potential’ looming for publishers on mobile media.
Mobile attention deficit
  • Harrison imagines a time when ‘hardly anyone reads online’. He cites studies going back as far as 1997 that show readers only scan and a 2015 report from Pew and metric firm putting the average time on site across more than 50,000 short form articles at under a minute.
  • According to Broadband Search, 56% of web traffic in 2021 has come from mobile devices, compared with 6% ten years ago. Meanwhile, data from Semrush shows average time spent browsing on mobile has fallen every year since they started tracking it in 2018. “I would happily wager that by 2025 almost all online news sites will have a 75:25 percent split in favour of less-engaged mobile audiences,” says Harrison.
  • “Many in media today are grappling with high one-off visitor levels, low average scroll depths and falling time on site statistics,” says Harrison. Endless social media scrolling or the collapse of trust in mainstream media may have contributed to the decline, but Harrison believes the answer lies in the mobile reading experience.

The decline in engagement with mobile content comes at a time when the average mobile phone user is checking their phone 40, 50 even 60 times a day. So what can be done to leverage real engagement from at least some of those check-ins?

  • Harrison points to the work of researchers at University College London that focuses on why people seek out information. Their research suggests publishers need to engage mobile readers with ‘utility’ – content that is helpful, provides understanding and elicits an emotional response.
  • These findings might explain why the majority of articles in Chartbeat’s top articles for 2020 made utility obvious from their heading. Top of the chart in terms of engaged time was a Politico article headlined: “Coronavirus will change the world permanently. Here’s how”.
  • Harrison is realistic about the challenges faced by publishers tackling the growing attention deficit for their content. But he encourages publishers to see the crisis as an opportunity, suggesting publishing take its lead from other industries that have grappled with the same problem, giving the example of passengers zoning out from pre-flight safety demonstrations.

“By experimenting with new formats (from video to dance etc) whilst balancing instrumental utility with positive affect (use of humour etc) has led to a situation where many people now incredibly watch safety demonstrations in their free time.”

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