Perpetual Revolution? Or is the digital future now here?
Media has been obsessed with predicting and planning for life after the digital revolution. Research The Media’s Richard Marks asks whether that future is now with us.
Mirroring the world at large, media seems to be in a state of perpetual controversy at the moment with news items coming so thick and fast that it’s hard to know where to begin: Visibility! Transparency! Ad-blocking! Advertising supporting terrorism! Dodgy data! Boycotts!
And yet, looking at the latest wave of results from Mediatel’s Connected Screens tracker I can’t help but feel that this is all playing out against a background of consumer behaviour that is - by and large - starting to settle down into recognisable patterns of consistent behaviour. It is not the bewildering world of disruption and confusion that it can sometimes be painted to be. Don’t pity the poor consumer: to quote Churchill, they just ‘Keep Buggering On’.
We can tend to underestimate the general public as a whole when it comes to technology, but they know what they are doing. It’s simple: if they like something and can see the benefit then they will happily adopt it very quickly - VCRs in the 1980s, smartphones and broadband in the Noughties. However if they can't see the point, then no amount of marketing will persuade them otherwise.
Interactive TV and 3D spring to mind as leaps forward that were obvious to everyone but the public itself. Meanwhile, if something actively irritates them - bad Internet advertising for example - then they just block it and keep buggering on: consumers certainly aren’t losing sleep over monetisation models and viewability metrics.
If the media industry is in the back of the car, excitedly asking ‘are we there yet’, the answer may well be ‘yes’."
So Connected Screens looks at what consumers themselves are actually doing, how they are consuming their media and on what screens, all using comparable definitions. It's a view of the State of the Digital Nation as opposed to attempting to hack through the ‘numberwang’ of claims, counterclaims and the media equivalent of ‘fake news’ to tie a picture together.
This isn’t about marketing spend, sales or social media buzz, it’s about what people actually have in the home and are using at the moment.
Looking across recent waves of data I would be tempted to conclude that after a decade of rapid change the revolution may be coming to an end: the results are in from the UK jury in terms of what they are using and what they are not. If the media industry is in the back of the car, excitedly asking ‘are we there yet’, the answer may well be ‘yes’.
With over two years of continuous fieldwork and six reports so far we can see what is still in flux and what is actually now fairly stable.
After a period of rapid technology adoption, the household repertoire of available screens does seem to be stabilising - after all, the smartphone is now a decade old and tablets have been with us over seven years.
Both smartphone growth (used by 69%) and tablet adoption (51%) are levelling off. Are we at peak smartphone and peak tablet? Undoubtedly there may be growth ahead, but at a far more gradual gradient, related to younger adopters getting older as opposed to any great leap forward.
So the repertoire of screens available in homes is now fairly settled, which means we need to stop speculating about how people will use screens in ‘the future’ and focus on how they actually are using them now. 78% of people in broadband homes now use either a tablet or a smartphone, with 43% using both.
Just as the laptop has not supplanted the TV set, neither has the tablet proved to be the laptop killer once predicted. The reality is that the laptop and a four-screen repertoire are here to stay, expanding to five screens when digital outdoor is encountered outside the home, with preferences varying by demographic.
Whilst the TV screen dominates for all demos in terms of usage, younger adults are more wedded to their smartphone and laptop, whilst tablets actually are more used by middle to older age groups and females.
The degree to which those screens are shared or co-viewed - and the related amount of attention paid - varies significantly. 87% of those smartphone users said they were the only users, compared to 62% for laptops and 56% for tablets.
In terms of ‘kit’ in the home perhaps the biggest shift will come in the adoption (or not) of VR and voice assistants.
5% own a VR headset for a games console and 8% a set for a mobile phone. 9% plan to get a gaming headset in the next year and 8% a phone-related one. However, fully three-quarters of the population has yet to be exposed to the technology. Whilst the application for gaming is clear, what is less certain is whether the consumer will see wider applications for television and video. After the failure of 3D, the omens are not good.
Meanwhile, with Amazon Echo launched and Google Home imminent, Connected Screens will be tracking voice assistants from the next wave.
Perhaps the most significant shift in behaviour since the tracker began is the rise of video subscription services - 42% have watched one in the last year, with 34% now using Netflix (up 11 percentage points since early 2015) and 22% Amazon Prime, which has nearly doubled. Fully 58% of 16-24s are Netflix users. Usage of free streaming sites like YouTube would appear to have reached its peak, perhaps constrained by the proliferation of alternatives, be they SVOD or broadcaster catch up. The online video market is significantly more crowded now.
Usage of Facebook (79% in the last year) and Twitter (39%) also seem to have peaked across the last couple of years. An increase in over 55s on Facebook has been balanced by a decline in 16-24s.
However, the two noticeable ‘insurgents’ are Instagram (30%) and Snapchat (22%). In just two years both have nearly doubled. They are even more heavily skewed to 16-24s which must be a huge concern to the two established social media giants.
Perhaps surprisingly, of those exposed to autoplay video on social media, only 29% find them actively annoying, the most common attitude being that it depends on what the video is. This gives fuel to the belief that it isn’t online advertising that people find annoying, it’s bad internet advertising.
Connected Screens ongoing mission continues.
Richard Marks is managing director of Research the Media