Mo’ Traffic but No Mobile Money

Web publishers' mobile traffic is soaring—and that's not necessarily a good thing

Remember the long-awaited mobile boom? Well, it’s here, and it’s a headache.

It was a banner year for mobile traffic (Google alone drew over 100 million unique visitors last September, per comScore) and mobile ad spending, with publishers raking in more than $4 billion in 2012, per eMarketer.

But all that increased consumption and pressure to spend on mobile is a problem as low-engagement mobile ads generate lower CPMs, making it hard for publishers to cash in on their newfound mobile traffic.

That leaves many publishers with tough questions. “Are they going to spend a lot of time investing in mobile websites and responsive design when monetization isn’t there yet?” Undertone co-founder Eric Franchi asked. “Migration to mobile isn’t stopping. If you see it’s 25 percent of your traffic now, it’ll be 50 percent next year. And if they don’t create mobile-specific campaigns and invest in innovative mobile sites, it’s going to be a real challenge to remain relevant in 2013 and 2014 and beyond.”

Some publishers like ESPN, which draws well over 30 million mobile uniques monthly, are in a unique position as the company’s live event-based programming helps drive engaged mobile users. But the network claims that an investment in mobile analytics is also crucial to its mobile ad cause. “Our big focus on 2013 is [mobile] ad innovation,” ESPN vp of digital ad sales Lisa Valentino said. “We also invest quite a bit in ad effectiveness research, and as an industry, we’ve got to be better at this.”

But smaller text-based news publishers don’t have the same resources. “For us right now the focus is on the monetization side, but we don’t feel we can get there until we’ve perfected the user experience,” said Michael Kuntz, Rodale executive director of digital sales. Rodale, which publishes Men’s Health and Prevention, draws over 40 percent of its Web traffic from mobile. So, when it comes to ads, Kuntz said the company is doing lots of campaign-by-campaign testing. “The question is, how big is it going to get? Until we know more about the market, it’ll be difficult to really dive in as deep as we might want to right now,” he said.

For publishers to justify more mobile investment, the industry needs better metrics, most argued. “Mobile is not just simply an extension of digital,” Valentino said. “It is one of the most powerful ways to connect with your audience, and we should all be putting pressure on ourselves and the industry to continue to figure this out.”

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