When a designer or product manager at a news organization wants to improve a mobile product, she might commonly set up observational sessions to watch real people use the product and see what happens. It’s a nice way to get insight into how a few people actually use their mobile devices.

But how much more could you learn if you did that kind of observation for thousands of users over several years?

That, essentially, is what the Knight Foundation commissioned Nielsen to do in a research study released today that shows how people use their phones for news and other things.

The unusually deep methodology of this study (continuously monitoring the activity of 9,000 smartphone users for 2 years) offers a unique view of the behaviors that publishers need to adapt to and design for as they target mobile users.[ref More from the report: “To obtain actual user data, Knight worked with Nielsen’s Electronic Mobile Measurement panel to conduct a 24-month mobile news trend analysis. Panel recruits use an ‘always-on’ meter on their mobile devices to monitor user activity, both across apps and on browsers. Nielsen also conducted a supplementary, self reported survey to account for in-app news consumption on social networking sites (for example, reading an article posted within Twitter or Facebook).”]

Here I’d like to highlight one thread of the findings — the stark differences between a news organization’s audiences for mobile web and mobile apps.

In line with other research, but important to underscore, the Nielsen tracking shows that social media activity dwarfs news activity on smartphones many times over. Nielsen recorded users spending an average of over 12 hours in social networking apps over the course of a month, compared to over 2 hours in news apps.

App category Percentage of usage time
News 5%
Social networks 27%
All others 68%

Data Source: Nielsen / Knight Foundation study "Mobile-First News: How People Use Smartphones to Access Information"

American Press Institute

At a glance, this fact suggests that a news organization’s biggest mobile opportunity is to engage on Facebook and other social networks, and drive large numbers of those users to your mobile website. The potential audience coming directly to your news app would be much smaller.

And in fact more of the Nielsen data bears this out. For the large news organizations it tracked, the amount of users reached by a mobile website (presumably through much social and search referrals) is many times larger than the number of users for their apps.

News organization App audience Mobile web audience
BuzzFeed 1,555,398 13,944,100
CNN 5,407,828 21,152,584
Fox News 3,060,235 11,621,294
USA Today 2,609,854 10,264,611

Data Source: Nielsen / Knight Foundation study "Mobile-First News: How People Use Smartphones to Access Information"

American Press Institute

But the twist is that the individual app user, though smaller in quantity, is much more deeply engaged with the news organization. These are “power users” — loyal, possibly paying, and generating recurring visits over time.

News organization App user time Mobile web user time
BuzzFeed 122.63 9.35
CNN 45.66 9.77
Fox News 101.38 6.20
USA Today 61.48 4.23

Data Source: Nielsen / Knight Foundation study "Mobile-First News: How People Use Smartphones to Access Information"

American Press Institute

So, asking whether all publishers should do an app or just a mobile website is the wrong question. Each publisher must match the opportunities of the two platforms to the type of audience you intend to reach and that your business model can monetize.

Pretend for a moment that you work at USA Today: Who’s more likely to subscribe to your news — the mobile web user who spends 4 minutes with you in a month, or the app user who spends over an hour? Conversely, who’s the more valuable advertising audience — your 2.6 million app users or your 10.2 million mobile web users? Both platforms matter, but have different strengths.


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