News for Digital Journalists

November 02, 2011

Downloading mobile apps is popular; using them less so, says Pew

Half of adult U.S. mobile users now have apps on their cell phones. However, only half of these people actually use their apps on a regular basis—and nearly one fifth never use the apps they have at all. This is according to a new Pew study on phone and tablet apps, which holds clear implications for mobile news strategies…

“Having apps and using apps are not synonymous,” the report cautions.

Virtually all smartphones and most feature phones now come with at least some basic apps preinstalled (especially for weather, games, etc.). Indeed, at the time Pew did its research, only about one third of mobile handsets in use in the U.S. were smartphones—which means that a significant portion of apps are installed on feature phones.

What about tablets? Pew noted: “Among adults who have a tablet computer, 39% report using six or more apps on a weekly basis, while just 8% report using no apps regularly on the device.”

As of August 2011, 38% of all U.S. adult cell phone owners reported that they had downloaded apps to their phones—double the figure from a year earlier.

Downloading apps remains primarily an activity of those who are younger, more privileged (higher incomes and education levels), and who live in or near cities.

News is part of the category most popular with phone app downloaders. Over three quarters of app downloaders report downloaded apps that provide “regular updates on news, weather, sports or stocks.”

Still, this does not mean that news apps get used particularly often. Pew cited recent app research from Nielsen: “According to Nielsen’s quarterly Mobile Insights Survey, games continue to be the most popular apps in terms of use in the 30 days prior to the survey. In the second quarter of 2011, Nielsen reported that 64% of app downloaders in their survey had used a game app in the prior 30 days. Next most widely used were weather apps (60%), followed by social networking (56%), maps/navigation/search (51%), music (44%) and news (39%).”

Getting consumers to pay for apps presents a mixed picture. According to Pew, just under half of U.S. adults who download apps (about 16% of all adults) report having paid for an app at some point. Half of people who have purchased apps report that the most they’ve ever paid has been $5. But 17% have paid more than $20 for an app. Urban dwellers, college graduates, people from households earning at least $50,000 per year, men, and those aged 30 or over are especially likely to pay for apps.

Pew asked about mobile internet use—which mostly means mobile web access. Even though a mobile web browser is technically an app, consumers often view it as a different type of activity. Currently nearly half (48%) of adult U.S. cell phone owners access the internet from their phones—significantly more than the 38% who have downloaded apps.

A mobile-friendly web site is accessible to a broader mobile audience, which makes it a stronger base for a news organization’s overall mobile strategy—compared to native apps for smartphones and tablets, which are platform-dependent.

If you do develop smartphone or tablet apps, consider focusing on specific demographics or audience needs, rather than simply repackaging all of your content (“shovelware”). Pew’s research shows that apps are more popular with certain types of people, and for certain types of activities. Apps that allow people to do things they already enjoy doing, rather than simply absorbing content, stand a better chance of getting used more often.

Remember that downloads are not the best measurement of app success—usage is.

Perhaps the best way to ensure mobile success is to understand the composition, preferences, and constraints of your news org’s potential mobile market. Pew’s app research was national in scope, but mobile market characteristics vary considerably by geography. That’s why it’s a good idea to do your own local mobile market research.

But be careful about how you ask about app usage. Many mobile users aren’t really clear on the “app” concept.

Kristen Purcell, Pew’s associate director of research, explained: “There is some confusion among segments of adults about what an app is and whether their phone has any apps. We have found that virtually all adults know if they have ever downloaded an app or not. But 10% of cell owners answer “don’t know” when asked if their phone came equipped with apps. This is even higher (15%) among cell phone owners age 50 and older.”

The News for Digital Journalists blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.


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