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Life After the Mobile Web: Will Media Ever be the Same?

by Demian Perry
Jul 14, 2008

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Mobile applications like Twitter have certainly changed social media, but is wireless mobility also changing traditional media? In our efforts to create a new way to engage NPR listeners, the team who created the NPR Mobile Web site may have stumbled upon an emerging trend in America's ever changing appetite for information. Then again, the many ways that our mobile audience acts differently from our online and radio audiences may just highlight some of the limitations of mobile technology.

Like Twitter, which is both a social network and a mobile application, NPR mobile combines two ideas from our collective fantasies into something new. In our case, we combined the idea of the mobile Web with the Dick Tracy watch. If you point your Web-enabled mobile device to http://m.npr.org, you'll see what's going on in the world right now and, just like Dick Tracy, you'll hear what's happening. You'll have this experience even if you're using a device that doesn't support streaming audio; when you click the "call" links next to any of the headlines, your mobile phone will dial up a recording of the story over your regular voice network. NPR was one of the first media company to recognize that, in the words of Bryan Moffett (one of the brains behind NPR Mobile), "voice is the killer app" of mobile.

Over the past year, we have been able to glean two important insights from our mobile audience. First, demand for NPR content over mobile is gaining popularity at a rate much faster than the Internet or radio. Second, the way people consume information over their phones is markedly different from our experience with other media.

The first point is evident from the graph below:

As this graph shows, usability improvements, the launch last month of our iPhone site and the gradual introduction of more local content from NPR member stations have all had significant impacts on our audience growth. This last point is especially important. By the end of the summer, NPR mobile will include local content from 44 member stations. That our audience is responding to the gradual increase in local content over the past few months shows that, however mobile Americans become, we still want to know what's going on at home.

We also cannot ignore the impact that the American audience's seismic shift to smartphones has had on our growth over the past year. This shift appears to be even more evident among news junkies than the general population. When we surveyed them in January 2008, roughly five percent of the 'NPR Listens' panel owned an iPhone. That was between 20 and 50 times the iPhone ownership of the general U.S. population at that time, according to two independent surveys by Net Applications and StatCounter. When we launched our iPhone site last month, we effectively doubled our mobile audience. iPhone listeners now comprise nearly 60% of our national mobile audience and, in some markets, iPhone share of NPR mobile tops 75%.

The growth of NPR mobile certainly took us by surprise, but equally interesting was how different this new audience looked from our radio and Internet audiences. Although the number of pages viewed on each visit to our mobile site was almost identical to our larger online audience, the average listener spent just over two minutes listening to a story, with 60% listening for less than a minute, and a small concentration listening for about three minutes. On average, our traditional online audience listens to audio segments for more than eight minutes. As for the radio audience, our average listener spends more than an hour per day listening to public radio, according to Arbitron.

This all seems to support the widely held belief that the mobile space demands "snackable content" — that is, information reduced to its most concise form. There are two schools of thought on why snackable content is dominant in mobile media. One theory is that mobile Web users actually crave brevity, or that the haiku style of mobile news is part of a larger trend towards a new media catered to short attention spans. As media psychologist Stuart Fischoff said in a 2004 USA Today piece by Marilyn Elias, the latest generation of media consumers "could be expressing 'the new brain.' They could be an advance guard that suggests we may need new ways of teaching children exposed to a lot of media stimulation."

This does not necessarily suggest that mobile audiences are less informed than those who get their news via traditional media. Interestingly, NPR Mobile experienced a slightly higher rate of return visits last month than NPR.org overall. It is possible that those of us with short attention spans are ultimately taking in more information, albeit in shorter spurts.

Then again, the mobile audience may not be that different from the rest of us. Another theory about snackable content holds that the limitations of the mobile medium force brevity upon the flow of information. While consumers of mobile media might otherwise demand the complete story, their efforts are hamstrung by low transmission speeds, expensive data plans and postage stamp sized screens. If this theory is true, the Thumb Generation may yet adopt the consumption habits of their forebears with improvements in handset technology, Wi-Max and the commoditization of wireless data plans.

It's still too early to tell whether our crude mobile implements are, like the telegraph, imposing brevity on our communications, or whether our pithy messages foretell a new brain, and, with it, a new media. One fact of interest: our two-minute listening time (short as it is) is double the average listening time of when we launched NPR Mobile last August. If that trend continues, NPR Mobile listeners may well be listening to an hour of their favorite NPR station by 2013.

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