Why Online Audiences’ Mobile Migration Isn’t All Bad News for Blogs

Online audiences are migrating to mobile. Yet to be resolved is whether those smaller-screen audiences will be as large as they were on desktop — and as attentive.

To tease out some answers, Ad Age looked at four of the major blogging services — Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger and Medium — to see how their traffic has changed over the last year and what effect that has had on the time people spend with each service.

If the web’s pioneering publisher category is any indication, things might turn out OK after all.

First the bad news. Tumblr, WordPress, Blogger and Medium have each experienced double-digit declines in U.S. desktop traffic in the past year, according to numbers from comScore.

Three of them — Tumblr, Blogger and WordPress — have recouped some of their audience on tablets and smartphones, to the point that their respective mobile audiences are now bigger than their desktop ones. But so far, only WordPress has been able to offset its desktop declines enough to spur overall traffic growth.

Ad Age looked at the four properties’ U.S. desktop web, mobile web and mobile app traffic a year ago, as measured by comScore. The numbers for Tumblr, WordPress and Blogger are from May 2013 while Medium’s figures are from November 2013 (the earliest that service registered enough traffic for comScore to accurately report its traffic). Medium also hasn’t recorded enough tablet visitors for comScore to report those figures.

A note on comScore’s methodology: the research firm measures Medium, Blogger and WordPress by tracking the online behaviors of panels of people who are supposed to be representative of the larger internet population. Tumblr is the only one of the four sites that comScore has direct access to traffic figures, in addition to the panel-based measurements that are projected for population-wide estimates.

Now here’s how all four sites U.S. traffic broke down in May 2014.

Medium co-founder Evan Williams — who previously co-founded Blogger and Twitter — declined an interview request but shared some internal traffic stats in an email. Medium’s mobile web traffic now accounts for 40% of the site’s traffic, up from 25% a year ago, and overall web traffic has grown fivefold, he said.

A Tumblr spokeswoman said mobile engagement — follows, likes and reblogs — has grown by 124% over the past year and combined web and mobile engagement is up by 45%.

WordPress and Blogger representatives declined to comment for this article.

“I think there’s going to be desktop decline and mobile growth, but at the same time mobile is going to change behaviors because it’s a different experience and a different journey. It’s not going to be a parity tradeoff,” said Altimeter Group analyst Rebecca Lieb.

Consensus holds that mobile audiences are like hummingbirds. They flit from site to site and app to app, never spending too much time in one spot. They “snack” whereas they used to dine when on desktop computers.

“Snackable content is something that we’re going to have to contend with as marketers and media companies. Consumers are simply going to be spending less time with us as screens get smaller and attentions fragment,” Ms. Lieb said.

To prove the point, here’s a look at the share of time spent on the four services broken down by device that shows desktop still dominates (Medium’s time-spent share for tablets is extrapolated from the desktop, smartphone and overall mobile numbers provided by comScore).

Mobile audiences may be taking smaller bites of content at a time, but that doesn’t mean those morsels don’t add up to a full meal over time. For example, Tumblr mobile app users average six visits per day, according to a Tumblr spokeswoman.

To see if people have cut down their content consumption in moving to mobile, Ad Age compared the four blog services’ share of traffic by device with those devices’ share of time spent. If the two metrics are proportional, that likely shows the average desktop visitor is spending as much time on a given property as the average tablet or smartphone visitor.

The results are a mixed bag. The three sites that now count more mobile visitors than desktop ones see the majority of time spent coming from that minority of desktop visitors. And WordPress and Blogger see desktop account for a disproportionately larger amount of time spent compared to the device’s share of traffic.

But take a closer look at Tumblr and Medium, which are more homeogeneous in their content types than WordPress or Blogger. Tumblr’s share of time spent by device is in rough proportion to the share of traffic by device. That aligns with the idea that Tumblr has come to specialize in visual content deemed more snackable. Meanwhile Medium has gone the other way. Known best for longer posts, mobile appears to be the site’s stickier medium. If these two properties are any indication, people will give a piece of content as much attention as it deserves, no matter the device.