Size Matters

February 1, 2013

Why all mobile devices are not created equal, and how tablets may just be the future of Digital advertising

By Scott McDonald

It’s hard to believe that the smartphone era is not yet six years old, and that the tablet era will mark only its third birthday this April. The impact of these devices has been so profound that we have a hard time remembering what life was like before them. Mobile devices are ubiquitous. We use them now to shop, read, catch up on TV programs, snap photos, and take videos. They help us let our friends know where we are, settle disputes at dinner parties, and snag tickets to the next screening of this weekend’s hot new movie. And although these devices have insinuated themselves into the very fabric of our lives, we are only now beginning to understand the subtle ways in which smartphones and tablets are different from each other. The implications stemming from these differences will have major ramifications for advertisers and media for years to come.

Condé Nast, the publisher of brands such as VOGUE, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Architectural Digest, and GQ, recently released the findings on a study of how usage of its tablet editions differs from usage of its print editions. This article will summarize some of the findings from that study and from other research, as well as the broader implications for how advertisers address their audiences on different platforms.

Vive la Différence!

Though we sometimes lump smartphones and tablets together into a category known as “mobile media,” consumers use the two devices in very different ways. A 2012 study by Google Research showed that 63 percent of tablet use relates to entertainment, compared to only 33 percent for smartphones. By contrast, the majority (54 percent) of smartphone use is for communication, while staying connected to others consumes only 32 percent of tablet use. Attention to smartphones tends to be broken into small units of time, so content on smartphones usually is best presented in short bursts, navigated either by clear hierarchical menus or by powerful search. By contrast, the entertainment orientation of tablets gives them a more laid-back context. Medium and long-form content can thrive here, and navigation can be more linear, as long as the content presentation is entertaining and/or interesting.

Device Choice Driven by Context

Another key insight drawn from the Condé Nast research was how consumers toggle between devices, relying less on a single preferred device but letting the context of usage determine their preferred platform. The data showed that consumers increasingly shift back and forth between devices depending on their situational needs. Frequently, they consume the same media or advertising content episodically, handing off the coverage from device to device over the course of the day.

Similarly, the Google study cited above found that the consumer decision about which of their multiple devices to use at any given moment is highly contingent, depending on how much time they have, where they are at the moment, what they are trying to accomplish, and what mood they are in at the time. Though they sometimes use multiple devices at the same time, they more often move sequentially from one device to the next depending on the context of the moment.

Moreover, as we increasingly rely on the cloud for storage, and move from an asset-heavy to an asset-light lifestyle, consumers have a growing expectation of continuity of experience across platforms. If a user has begun a task on one device (e.g., reading an article, browsing merchandise, saving to a shopping cart), she should be able to pick up where she left off as she shifts devices. Therefore, it’s critical that content presentation and navigation be optimized for the conditions of each device.

Greater Choice Leads to Higher Consumption

The increasing fragmentation of the media marketplace has a negative impact on a brand only if it fails to exist in a relevant way across platforms. When you make it easier for people to get their media, they consume more of it. The movie industry learned this 20 years ago when home video first entered the market (first VHS, then DVD, then movies-on-demand), and total movie consumption rose. Other media are seeing the same process at work now.

Last year, Condé Nast started offering its print subscribers the option of getting access to their magazines through the digital editions prepared for tablets. By year-end, about 10 percent of the company’s subscribers had become “multiplatform” — a number that is expected to grow to 15 percent by the end of 2013. Once subscribers had access to both the print and the digital editions, the publisher watched to see how these multiplatform subscribers would allocate their attention. About a third of the multiplatform subscribers stuck mostly to their print editions — valuing their expanded choice, but maintaining their habitual attachment to their printed magazines. However, about two-thirds of the multiplatform subscribers started shifting back and forth between the printed and the digital editions, frequently reading the same issue on both platforms depending on context and convenience.

The mere availability of multiple platforms led to higher overall levels of consumption: compared to the print-only subscribers, the multiplatform subscribers were spending about 50 percent more time reading each issue. This has been translating into higher renewal rates and reduced price sensitivity among these multiplatform subscribers — evidence that the digital editions are improving the overall value proposition for magazine subscribers. These Condé Nast customers don’t behave as if they’re making a necessary tradeoff between print and digital editions. They want both, and having access to both boosts loyalty and engagement.

Ads Work Even Harder on Tablets

Because they are targeted to specialized market segments, magazine ads have always worked hard for advertisers. In addition, in an era of rampant ad skipping, ads in this medium are more likely to receive the consumer’s undivided attention. And because magazine advertising has always been an “opt-in” proposition, there has never been the contentious relationship between advertiser and consumer that can sometimes blight advertising on other media. Indeed, prior research has shown that consumers tend to enjoy magazine ads and consider them part of the pleasure of reading their magazines. A recent study by ABI Research suggests that this positive disposition toward magazine advertising is carrying over to the tablet platform with 50 percent of tablet users looking favorably upon ads in tablet apps. Perhaps for this reason, the research firm of GfK MRI recently issued Starch research that indicates that ad recall is even higher when those magazine ads are rendered on a tablet. For the nine Condé Nast titles covered in the MRI-Starch study, average ad recall scores were three to 10 points higher when the ad appeared on a tablet. Since Condé Nast has long led the field in this important advertising impact metric, we were glad to see that advertising on tablet platforms is delivering even more value to advertisers than the already high standards set by our printed magazines.

What’s more, MRI-Starch found that 52 percent of those who recalled the ads they had viewed on tablets also interacted with those ads in some way or another — by touching it to expand it, by activating a web link, by initiating a video or a photo gallery, or by doing any of the other new things that are now enabled by tablet-based magazine advertising. It’s not just that the ads often look better on tablets: they actually perform better.

How Can Advertisers Take Advantage of the Tablet Era?

The tablet era is still in its infant stage. Consumer habits are still in flux, and tablet technologies continue to evolve at a rapid pace. Furthermore, the introduction of the “phablet” era, or experiments with larger screen phones, will continue to shift behaviors across screens. Advertisers have barely begun to scratch the surface of the possibilities offered by a platform that clearly has such promise. Research on how it all works remains preliminary. Despite the fact that we’re still in the early days of understanding behavior with this new medium, our early experience can provide a guide to advertiser action in the tablet space.

Scott McDonald, PhD, is senior vice president of research and insights for Condé Nast.


"Size Matters." Scott McDonald, Senior Vice President of Research and Insights at Condé Nast. ANA Magazine Spotlight. February 2013.

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