The Surprising Value of a Mobile User

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(This first appeared in the Mobile Media Memo email newsletter. Sign up for free).

Eight years ago, Jeff Zucker warned that the media industry was “trading analog dollars for digital pennies.”  A year later, he upgraded those pennies to “digital dimes.”

Then in 2012, Ad Age’s Jason Del Rey wrote that “digital dimes are turning into mobile pennies” as the shift to mobile began in earnest.  It became a widely-held belief in media and advertising circles that mobile yields less revenue, is less engaging and is less immersive than larger desktop displays.

Until it wasn’t.

Led by Facebook, those mobile pennies have graduated into dimes with no signs of slowing down. What’s even more surprising is we’re seeing early signs that the value of a mobile user is greater than a desktop user.

After Facebook’s latest blockbuster earnings report, a16z’s Benedict Evans crunched the data and discovered the company’s shift from desktop to mobile has led to much higher engagement (first chart) and average revenue per user (second):

charttwochartone(DAU=daily active users. MAU=monthly active users.)

Look at that for a moment. It’s exactly the opposite of what everyone predicted.

How is that possible?  The most successful mobile experiences connect people, and as they scale, they get better and generate massive amounts of data. That data is enabling unprecedented ad targeting and return on investment.

This isn’t isolated to Facebook. Twitter is growing revenue much faster than its user base: +58% year over year, the vast majority on mobile. Mobile-only Instagram and Snapchat are growing revenue aggressively, something they could not duplicate on the desktop if they tried. Chat apps are well-positioned to cash in, especially with targeted services.

At the same time, these big mobile platforms, Facebook included, are investing millions in rich video experiences to compete with television for brand dollars. Mobile is going up-market.

But wait.  Isn’t a larger screen more immersive than a small mobile screen?

In Facebook-commissioned research called “The Small Screen Isn’t So Small,” researchers concluded that “people were equally likely to be engaged on mobile as they were on TV” and mobile was “on par with TV” with emotional intensity.  Sure, you may dismiss the study as a Facebook ad pitch, but let’s rewind to the early days of television. The film industry derided the “small screen” with a “low-definition image” and “vastly inferior sound.”

But TV was in everyone’s homes, just like mobile is in everyone’s pockets and purses. In the early days, TV was just showing films on a smaller screen.  But then TV came into its own, creating its own unique business model and content as well as enabling new technologies, like live reporting. And the quality got better — a lot better.

The next big thing will start out looking like a toy, explained Clayton Christensen. Mobile is no longer a toy.

But many in the industry still believe that mobile is an inferior version of larger, horizontal, more immersive screens. A way to get more reach and promotion, not revenue. A cheaper derivative. Mobile pennies.

It’s often a reflection of what we experience ourselves: if we can’t make money on mobile — often by porting over desktop products and business models — then mobilecan’t make money.  It stifles our investment. Our urgency to try something new.

Back in 2012, Facebook admitted in a S-1 filing, “We don’t generate any meaningful revenue from the use of Facebook mobile products, and our ability to do so is unproven.” But Zuck saw the shift, believed in the opportunity and invested more in mobile than all media companies combined.

The landscape has changed a lot since 2012, but mobile is still in its early days. The faster we recalibrate our beliefs, the more we’ll invest in mobile. The more we’ll focus on new opportunities instead of just trying to repurpose and protect what we currently do.

After all, mobile dimes will soon turn into mobile dollars. You can earn them — or someone else will gladly do it for you.


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