Publishers are concerned: The shift to mobile advertising revenue is lagging way behind the transfer of users to smartphones and tablets. Solutions are coming, but it might take a while before mobile ads catch up with users.
(A mistake in the ad revenue chart has been corrected)
Last week, at a self-congratulatory celebration held by the French audit bureau of circulation (called OJD), the sports daily l'Equipe was honored for the best progression in mobile audience. (I'm also happy to mention that Les Echos, the business group I'm working for, won the award for the largest growth in overall circulation with a gain of +3.3% in 2012 -- in a national market losing 3.8%.) In terms of mobile page views, l'Equipe is three times bigger than the largest national daily (Le Monde). Unfortunately, its publisher tarnished the end the ceremony a bit by saying [I'm paraphrasing]: "Well, thanks for the award. But let's not fool ourselves. The half of our digital traffic that comes from mobile represents only 5% of our overall digital revenue. We better react quickly, otherwise we'll be dead soon". While that outburst triggered only reluctant applause, almost everyone in the audience agreed.
Two days before, IREP (an advertising economics research organization) released 2012 data on advertising revenue for all media. Here is a quick look:
All media........... €13,300m......-3.5%
Print press (all)....€3,209m.......-8.2%
National Dailies.....€233m........ -8.9%
A few comments:
-- The print press is nosediving faster than ever: In 2011, national dailies where losing 3.7% in revenue; in 2012, they lost almost 9%; and Q1 2013 doesn't look better.
-- On the digital side: Search is now almost twice as big as the display ads and it's growing faster (7% vs. 4.8%). Google is grabbing most of this growth as the €1.14bn in revenue mentioned by IREP is roughly the equivalent of Google's revenue in France.
-- Mobile revenue is the fastest growing segment (+29%), but weighs only 2% of the entire digital segment (€1,830m revenue in 2012).
Looking at audiences reveals an even bleaker picture. Data compiled by the French circulation bureau for 87 media show that, between February 2012 and February 2013, the mobile applications audience grew 67% in visits and 102% in page views -- again, in a segment that only grew 29% for 2012:
The conclusion is dreadful. Not only do audiences massively flock to mobile (more visits), but people spend more time in their favorite media app (with an even greater increase in page views) but, also, each viewer brings less and less money as ad revenues grew slower than visits -- by a factor of two -- and slower than page views -- by a factor of three.
At the same time, in order to address this shift in audience, media are allocating more and more resources to mobile: Apps gain in sophistication and have to run on a greater number of devices. By the end of this year, the iOS ecosystem, until recently the simplest to deal with, will have at least five different screen sizes, and Android dozens of possible configurations. To add insult to injury, mobile apps don't allow cookies, which prevents most measurements and users tend to randomly switch from their mobile devices to their PC or tablet, making tracking even more difficult...
Where do we go from here?
Publishers have no choice but following their readers. But, in doing so, they better be smart and select the right vectors. The coming months and years are likely to see scores of experiments. Native applications, meaning dedicated to a given ecosystem, might not last forever. As for now, they still offer superior performance but web apps, served from the internet regardless of the terminal's operating system, are gaining traction. They become more fluid, accommodate more functionalities and improve their storage of contents for offline reading, but it will be a while before they become mainstream. In addition, web apps allow permanent improvements; if you look at the version number of web apps, you'll see publishers pushing new releases on a weekly basis. They do so at will, as opposed to begging Apple to speed up the approval of native applications (not to mention the absence of a direct link to the customer.)
Similarly, many publishers are placing serious bets on responsive design sites that dynamically adjust to the screen size (see a previous Monday Note on Atlantic's excellent business site Quartz). Liquid design, as it is also called, is great in theory but extremely difficult to develop and the slightest change requires diving into hugely complex HTML code (which also makes pages heavier to download and render.)
Technically speaking, in a near future, as rendering engines and processors keep improving, the shift to the mobile will no longer be a problem. But solving the low yield of mobile advertising is another matter. The advertising community evangelizes the promises of Real-Time Bidding; RTB basically removes the Ken and Barbie from the transaction process as demand and supply are matched through automated market places. But RTB is also known to pushes assets prices further down. As usual in the digital ad business, the likely winner will be Google, along with a few smaller players -- before these are eventually crushed by Google.
The mobile ecosystem will come up with smarter innovations. Some will involve geo-located advertising, but the concept, great in demo, has yet to prove its revenue potential. Data collected through various means are much potent vector to stimulate mobile ads. Facebook knows it only too well: in the last quarter of 2012, it made $305m in mobile ads (that's more than five times the French mobile ad market... in one quarter!); it accounts for 23% of FB's total revenue.
Other technologies look more farfetched but quite promising. This article in the MIT Technology Review features a company that could solve a major issue, that is following users as they jump from one device to another. Drawbridge, Inc. was founded by Kamakshi Sivaramakrishnan, a statistics and probability PhD from Stanford. Her pitch (see a video here): bridging smartphones, tablets and PCs thanks to what she calls a "giant statistical space-time data triangulation technique". In plain English: a model that generates clusters (based on patterns of usage and collected data) that will be used to create a "match" pinpointing an individual's collection of devices. The goal is giving advertisers the ability to easily extend their campaigns from PC to mobile terminals. A high potential indeed. It caught the interest of two major venture capital firms, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital, who together injected $20m in the startup. Drawbridge claims to have already bridged about 540 million devices (at a rate or 800 per minute!)
This could be one of the many boards used to ride the Mobile rogue wave and, for many players, avoid drowning.