Monday, March 22, 2010

News site visitors look like early tech adopters

Far from being fuddy-duddy Luddites, newspaper website visitors actually appear to be early and passionate technology adopters.

The surprisingly high interest in high tech among online news consumers is revealed in a ground-breaking poll by Greg Harmon of ITZ Belden, who discovered that news-site visitors own 1.5 times more smart phones than the average American and are eager to get their hands on the new iPad.

Harmon’s findings suggest publishers may be farther behind their readers and advertisers than they think in the race into the digital era. More on that in a moment. First, here’s what Harmon learned:

In a survey of visitors to the websites of three newspapers in mid-sized communities far from the tech hubs on either coast, Harmon found that 30% of site visitors already have smart phones and that 25% of them are thinking about acquiring one. By contrast, the Nielsen Co. last summer said national smart-phone penetration was barely 17% while Harmon found it to be 25% among news-site visitors.

With about two weeks to go before the iPad ships on April 3, researcher Harmon said a “stunning” 30% of visitors to newspaper sites are considering the purchase of the latest Apple confection in addition to the 6% of respondents who already bought Kindles or another early e-reader.

“The level of interest in tablets at this stage is unbelievably strong,” said Harmon, who is by far the foremost researcher into the behavior of newspaper consumers. “When I first saw the numbers, I actually thought something was wrong with the data.”

After confirming the integrity of his research, Harmon said he was bowled over because the results came from non-urban markets where the circulation of the three participating papers ranged from 50,000 to 70,000. The publishers of the papers asked him not to identify the markets.

Harmon said he found the interest in the iPad “stunning,” because his research into the prior adoption of technology would have led him to guess that only about 12% of news-site visitors would be interested in buying iPads. Here’s why:

As smart phones, personal digital assistants and other technical toys were introduced over the years, the usual pattern was that the number of consumers contemplating purchases would be twice as great as the number of consumers who actually owned them. This time around, however, the number of potential tablet buyers is five times greater than the number of current e-reader owners.

Harmon said the interest in tablets spiked after the high-profile launch of the iPad in January. “The number of people considering tablets basically doubled overnight,” he said.

News-site consumers appear to be technologically intrepid in spite of the fact that they are just as gray as print readers. As is the case with print products, more than half of the online audience at newspaper sites is over the age of 50, an age cohort representing only about 30% of the total U.S. population. Like print consumers, online visitors tend to be wealthier and better educated than the population as a whole. Now, it looks like they are tech-savvy, too.

While the evidently powerful interest among news consumers in the iPad is good for Apple, it should serve as a wake-up call to newspaper publishers, who have been slow to think about how to modify their products to serve what now appears to be a faster-developing market than most of them thought it would be.

As is illustrated in the table below, the rapid adoption of smart phones among newspaper-site visitors suggests that many publishers already may be late in developing sophisticated applications in a fast-accelerating market where more than 3 billion applications to date have been downloaded for the iPhone alone.

While newspapers are struggling to stabilize their core print business at a time of contacting readership and advertising, they somehow must find the time, resources and inspiration to develop far more sophisticated next-gen digital products than they have to date.

If newspapers fail to produce appealing cross-media content for the emerging tablet and smart-phone platforms, they will lose what’s left of their readers and advertisers to the competitors who do.

7 Comments:

Blogger Alex said...

How should a blog like Reflections of a Newsosaur or a news site like SFGate prepare for tablet browsing?

If tablets like the iPad are so revolutionary (as April's Wired emphatically suggests) won't there be need for considerable change to site design?

1:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Couldn't it just be that those with smart phones find the convenience of using the Web for news that much cheaper and easier as they go about their day than using traditional print? If all smart phone owners go to news web sites, wouldn't that skew the numbers? Smart phone users are growing quickly. And I'd bet most all of them are consuming news site material.

Early tech adopters are probably big consumers of news. They want to be ahead of the curve. They are actively searching out information.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Sabine said...

I admire your steadfast belief that the dinosaurs in newspaper management will eventually come around and trust the Internet - something they don't understand and can't wrap their heads around, because they can't figure out how to operate without a monopoly. And I wonder on what evidence you base your belief? These are the same people who didn't see the value of content 20 years ago, who stood idly by while Craigslist, Monster.com and Google grew up and who were forced into massive layoffs because they accumulated billions in debt by buying high.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Bradley J. Fikes said...

"Far from being fuddy-duddy Luddites, newspaper website visitors actually appear to be early and passionate technology adopters."

That is tautological: Fuddy-duddy Luddites going to stick with print.

"While newspapers are struggling to stabilize their core print business at a time of contacting readership and advertising, they somehow must find the time, resources and inspiration to develop far more sophisticated next-gen digital products than they have to date."

What exactly does that mean? Can you give us some examples? What, in a news context, is "sophisticated?" And "next-gen" is just a buzzword.

"If newspapers fail to produce appealing cross-media content for the emerging tablet and smart-phone platforms, they will lose what’s left of their readers and advertisers to the competitors who do."

Sorry, but this merely restates the problem in other words. Obviously, content needs to be "appealing." But what does "cross-media" mean? And how can it be applied to make news coverage more appealing?

Luddite that I am, I think journos need to concentrate on the base of the news pyramid: Get accurate information and listen to what readers are saying. Stop condescending to them. Focusing on mythical technological fixes only distracts from that fundamental issue.

News publishers know nothing about technology compared to tech professionals. But publshers do know -- or are supposed to know -- something about news.

10:06 AM  
Blogger TomForemski said...

Online readers have access to a computer, an Internet connection and know how to navigate the web.

It's not surprising that they would be more into high tech gadgets than the average Joe...

11:39 AM  
Anonymous djamesmanny said...

I have no desire to use an iPad or interactive print media on a tablet. We are over-complicating information dissemination that can be remedied with a dedicated news staff and a daily newsletter.

Interactive media is brain candy while newshounds, local and national, want easily accessible news from a reliable source. For me, and iTouch and the NYT daily newsletter does the trick.

The business model exists, it is working for adopters and yet I’m stuck with a local print newspaper with an overworked staff and outsourced content and a local news homepage with worthless content – essentially aggregate referring links and blotter write-ups. The medium is stuck between a stone wall and wheel reinvention, when my fellow twenty-somethings and I feel as though our demographic information is payment enough for the content.

Charge me for access to your site and I’ll find my news elsewhere, but ping me with a few offers from businesses targeting my demographic and I’ll be another click-thru/open. It’s the same reason that I’ll keep coming to this blog spot for my Newsosaur and not to Editor & Publisher. As soon as I eagerly clicked through the blog link, I was smacked with payment registration.

It’s too bad, but the ‘X’ in the corner of the tab is a much easier commitment than adding credit card info.

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not suprised to hear publishers are slow to react to the smart phones, and I see that Scripps seems to be taking a new approach of separating Internet related operations from traditional print. Publishers rushed to plug into Twitter and Digg and got nothing out of it. So comes smart phones, and they decide to wait a while, especially as the IPad is about to come to market. It is a mistake. Newspapers need to be on all platforms or they will lose their audience. As for Scripps, it won't be the first mistake they have made. This was the chain that in the 1960's bet the future was in afternoon newspapers.

2:53 PM  

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