One of the biggest changes - and challenges - for newsrooms over the past twenty years has been the increased number of options readers have to read the news. Once, readers got the news via the newspaper and that was that. Now, articles can be read via an app, the website, other (social media) platforms, broadcast media, newsletters, or even via influencers. And, as if this wasn’t confusing enough, newsrooms face an extra layer of challenge because audiences can do all of these things via their desktops, tablets or mobile devices - and audience behaviour differs on each.

But, it’s no good talking in generalities. We need to be more specific. What’s the actual situation? Is there really a difference between audience behaviour on different devices? Is content published and distributed differently between the two? And, can we draw any conclusions from this? We asked our Labs team to look at article reads on mobile and desktop between December 2018 and December 2021, and the results are striking.

The data

So, the question that started this all was ‘what’s the difference between mobile and desktop for reader engagement?’ Simple enough.

Website traffic is typically dominated by mobile - and there seems to be a two thirds / third balance in favour of mobile in various studies undertaken (like this one by Perficient).

the difference in engagement between mobile and desktop

Mobile is increasingly king, and those articles being read on our smartphones are clearly doing so at the expense of those on desktop. Are newsrooms paying enough attention to the differences in experience between desktop and mobile?

But, in fact, we need to pause right there before we go any further. Because, as is often the case with data, the actual story here is much more complex than initially meets the eye.

Here’s the data breakdown behind that graph:

traffic desktop and mobile in 2019, 2020 and 2021

The first thing you’ll likely notice is the substantial decrease in article reads during 2021. The percentage differences between mobile and desktop might hold true, but the more interesting question is why there has been such a dramatic drop in article reads.

Let’s not forget that the Article Reads metric only measures when a reader opens an article, spends at least 5 seconds on it (ie started reading) - and it doesn’t indicate the level of engagement that reader had with the article.

For that, it’s helpful to look more holistically at the analytics available in the smartocto insights tool.

Attention time, measured in seconds, shows a clear decline over the time period studied. Mobile fares better than desktop, but both show a downward trend:

attention time desktop vs. mobile

The same is the case for Read depth (insights’ blended metric, which takes into account multiple metrics to show how deeply the reader is engaged with a piece). Again the trajectory isn’t a positive one:

read depth desktop vs. mobile

Page depth, which shows how many articles a reader opened in a session after clicking on the first one, is the only measure that shows an uptick, and here we start to get a handle on the trend in user behaviour:

page depth desktop vs. mobile

What accounts for the decline?

The decrease in various engagement metrics over this three year period (and the uptick in page depth over the same) may well indicate increased news fatigue (particularly in light of the never ending news cycle related to Covid).

Research from Pew, published last year, shows that digital and TV news have been in decline, while radio and print (both of these now representing a far smaller proportion of the total consumer base) are holding relatively steady.

Readers appear difficult to engage, skittish, and prone to flitting between articles - and probably websites too.

In other words, they may be searching out key information, but they exhibit low loyalty to individual news organisations. As the adage goes: when search is high, loyalty is low. But what does this mean? It’s simply this: if people are looking for information it means they’re more interested in the news story than who they’re getting it from. This is particularly the case for breaking news, where audiences just want information or updates.

People aren’t spending less time on their devices or desktops, so what (or who) are you losing your readers’ attention to?

But here’s the thing: people aren’t spending less time on their mobile devices or their desktops, so what (or who) are news organisations losing their readers’ attention to? Are influencers, juice channels and other platforms taking over (when it comes to news consumption?) or is something else happening? Could it be that people are spending more time listening to podcasts, watching Netflix or just browsing to escape all the overwhelming, depressing and negative news on COVID or wars? We don’t have the specific answers to all these questions, but it’s something we’re keen to understand.

Page depth may appear higher on mobile because of the user experience: mobile lends itself to swiping and scrolling much more easily than desktop. Users may be on their mobiles while doing something else: watching TV, commuting, sitting on a Zoom call (don’t worry, your secret is safe). This presents a challenge for newsrooms because if the users attention isn’t necessarily fully on the mobile screen anyway, how might it be possible to engage them more meaningfully?

What does all of this mean, then? - our CMO’s view

First of all, just as we can’t have sight on the dark side of the moon, we must also be aware we’re just looking at part of reality. What we see is just a moment in time, and certainly not the whole picture. Nevertheless, there are interesting things to learn from this data dive.

The period we looked at for this study was 2018-2021, which is of course the period when the COVID pandemic infected us all - and dominated news coverage. As mentioned above, it’s quite possible that people might have developed a serious case of news fatigue because of this. After all, why check the news if you can already predict that it’s going to report an increasing amount of infections, the continuation of the restrictions, the depressive forecast and the impact it will have on the economy, society and our social wellbeing as a whole? You’d be forgiven for just switching off. This is definitely reflected in the numbers we’ve seen here: the overall decline of attention time and reading time take a more pronounced dive southwards 2020 to 2021 than they did before between 2018 and 2019, for example. Although we can’t tell decisively, this could indicate that COVID is at least part of the reason.

We also know from the time we spend in newsrooms and with clients that many newsrooms don’t have a specific strategy for mobile. In many cases (and we’re talking about our clientbase across the globe here) the same articles appear on both website and app. And if you think about it, that’s remarkable because every editor in chief will agree that the news consumer reacts and engages differently with content served on either platform. We see in the numbers as presented in this survey that attention time takes a drop on both desktop and mobile. All of which begs the question: is the ‘free-fall’ seen on both platforms because you get the same content on each?

you need to understand the dynamics of the platform and make the optimal presentation possible

We believe that you should serve the right content for your audience on the right platform and that means that you need to both understand the dynamics of that platform and make the optimal presentation possible - and that is likely to be different on each.

So, considering all this, and before we go any further, it might be a very good idea to:

  1. Ensure that you have the technical possibilities to publish different content to your ecosystem (ie. desktop and mobile)
  2. Create formats that help to better serve these different audiences on these platforms
  3. Harvest the right data to understand what your audience likes and dislikes
  4. Optimise your content strategy based on these insights (we can help, but I guess you’ve figured that out already)

Another thing that comes to mind is that news organisations are now in the ‘time wasting business’. Although they might prefer to think otherwise, the fact is that they are competing with Netflix, Spotify, the gaming industry, as well as offline leisure related activities, doing nothing, or walking the dog (did you know that in the Netherlands there was an increase of 8% of dog owners during the first year of COVID (2020)? This was actually a worldwide trend. And in 2021 this percentage grew by another 7%. Woof!)

In the face of negative news, people are more willing to look for time-consuming alternatives that might bring more joy

But something that hasn’t changed - and will never change - is the number of hours in a day. It has become more challenging for news outlets to keep their market share in attention while there are so many other (and frankly more fun) calls on people’s time. It’s more than fair to say that in the face of negative news, people are more willing to move towards other time-consuming alternatives that might bring more joy (or at least provide a distraction from not feeling joy).

We like to always leave you with some actionable insights and not just leave sitting there, looking at reams of data or pages of graphs. To be honest, right now, we don’t have the exact insights on the numbers that we’ve gathered. For that, we’d need a more extensive survey, with more clients, in more countries, studied over a longer period. But until we get those, we can act on some very educated hunches or ‘trained opinions’ about what these numbers suggest about where the future of news consumption is heading, and how we can best prepare ourselves for that. So, what we can offer you right now are some super practical tips that you can deploy into your newsroom straight away to help you serve your audience better on multiple platforms, and specifically on mobile and desktop.

So, notebooks at the ready.

Tip 1: The beauty of positive

We’ve just written a blog about the power of positive news. In it, we share insights that prove that in some events it pays to publish positive news alongside the continuous stream of regular, more negative news. For some brands we have seen proof that writing positive articles works to boost engagement.

Indeed, when we undertook our user needs project a while back, we also learned that the ‘Inspire Me’ type of story (typically those about interesting people doing interesting things) performed really well. Maybe the old saying that ‘there’s always a good moment to spread bad news’ should be reframed into ‘there’s always a good reason to publish good news’.

It could pay off to start pilots on mobile. You might, for example, create a ‘4 o’clock happy moment’: a daily positive story on something that makes you smile. We see that it can have a positive effect on the amount of articles people read once they come in via a positive story (page depth), but it might also contribute to building another, different audience segment that just wants to read stuff that gives them hope, joy or laughter instead of fear and anxiety.

Tip 2: The power of good formats

We believe strongly in the power of good formats. We come from the media industry ourselves and worked with strong media brands and programmes that built large fan bases because of the way these programmes were formatted. People usually don’t like surprises, and for media consumption this is even more the case. Great formats are like signposts: they help the audience to better understand what to expect. And, if your content is attractive and engaging, audience loyalty will grow, because they like the way the programme (or your distribution strategy) has a fixed pattern. It’s a ‘silent agreement’, and it’s powerful.

And, in case you needed a further incentive to do this, creating these formats together with your team is fun and energising. Especially if you also involve your audience - and you should! They will give you insights that you might never have thought of yourself.

Tip 3: Talk to your audience

Many newsrooms trust their gut feel. Often, that’s a good thing. Journalism is a creative profession and bringing news stories is something that you sometimes need to ‘feel’. But let’s not overestimate that power, and let’s not be completely dictated by it either. In many cases, answers lie a little deeper in the data - and asking the right questions of that data will give you the insights you need to better understand your audience and their desires. That in turn will give you the right information to improve your storytelling prowess and output. Additionally, setting up some kinds of focus groups can help you to understand how your audience values you - and what they expect from you as a storytelling organisation. This will further help you understand about preferred timing, device, formats, topics etc.

This will be fun, so what are you waiting for?!