The factor most responsible for shifts in audience behaviour in the last five years is the increase in consumer adoption of smartphones and tablet devices, particularly the iPhone and the iPad—devices first introduced by Apple in 2007 and 2010, respectively. The growth in mobile device ownership has changed how audiences gather information of interest to them, how they relate to news events, how they interact with commercial programming, and how they are viewed by commercial content creators.
Mobile is a way of life
As of June 2013, more than half of all Americans owned a smartphone. Between 2011 and 2014, the Pew Research Center found that iPad ownership among adults in America increased from 8 percent to 42 percent and smartphone ownership among the same group increased from 35 to 58 percent. And in 2014, the United States passed what’s been called the “mobile tipping point” in which more online content was consumed on mobile devices than on desktop computers. Advertisers and commercial content producers who ignore this shift in the media consumption preferences of their audiences are at risk of becoming uncompetitive.
The dramatic rise in personal internet-connected devices has changed the information gathering habits of audiences in search of news. Just a decade ago viewers on the hunt for immediate or late-breaking news would have turned to television, the communications medium that reigned supreme in the U.S. for more than five decades. Mobile devices now challenge television as the undisputed go-to source for daily news, weather, and sports. The portability and near constant availability of mobile devices confer many advantages to the news audience: there’s no need to walk to a large, immobile appliance or sit through unwanted advertising or content which is of no interest when the desired information is readily available at any time on a mobile device. Access can be had in relative privacy at a time and location of the user’s choosing.
Audience interaction has become two-way
When the primary means of mass communication were television, radio, and print, the audience had little opportunity to respond to received content. The Internet changed that paradigm, but the last five years have seen content producers move to actively cultivate two-way interactions with their audiences. Audiences now seek opportunities to comment on and respond to the programming that they watch while media programmers have sought ways to harness the online activity of that audience for their own marketing and revenue gain.
Two-way communication directly with the consumer is a tremendous opportunity for businesses to gain real-time feedback on messaging coming from the company. The live interaction allows for ongoing refinement and improvement to make a deeper connection with the target audience. Human connections made possible by listening and replying via social media bring the audience closer to a brand and softens the barrier that exists when people feel as if they’re talking to a company that views them strictly as a potential sale. Audiences are less likely to tolerate un-targeted shotgun style communications.
Content programmers are moving beyond traditional television rating systems to measure the level of audience interest in their product. By measuring the volume of show-related posts to social media platforms like Twitter, they can gain insight into how engaged the audience is with their content.
Viewing audiences also benefit from the emphasis that programmers have placed on encouraging social media activity around their products. As a consequence of the “second screen” phenomenon precipitated by the rapid adoption of devices like the iPad, home viewers are engaging with like-minded fans and sharing their responses to show developments in real time. If the volume of tweets mentioning popular shows like Game of Thrones or Pretty Little Liars is any indication, fans clearly enjoy the sense of community that live commentary creates.
Audiences don’t just receive the news, they report it
Television, radio, and print-based news of the past used to be delivered to audiences in one direction only: from the publisher to the viewer, listener, or reader. Because they controlled the means of distribution, powerful media outlets used to control how, when, or even if news was distributed. With the powerful distribution networks of the Internet now in the hands of the masses, old media outlets no longer control the dissemination of information.
Recent high-profile news stories which were either announced or covered by private sources include Whitney Houston’s death in 2012 (reported on Twitter over an hour before press outlets picked it up); Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011 (reported by an IT consultant a full day before President Obama announced it to the world); and the live chase of the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013 in which mainstream news channels relied heavily upon citizen updates. Traditional media have recognized this trend and even begun to tap into it to augment their reporting. An example of this was filmed in the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times. Blogger-turned-staffer Brian Stelter was one of the first at the paper to make extensive use of Twitter-based sources for reporting.
In the last five years, the mobile devices carried by a majority of Americans have become more capable. Compared to 2010, the smartphones of 2015 can take higher quality photographs and videos and transmit them over the Internet at higher speeds. Now holding the technological equivalent of the old “Eyewitness TV” news van in their palms, private citizens are recording events taking place around them, wherever and whenever they might happen. As with news stories that break on Twitter, mainstream commercial news outlets have responded to that trend too.
In 2013 NBC News made several investments in the mobile video market, one of which was in a company called Stringwire which allows users to stream real-time video using a mobile app on their smartphones. NBC News plans to use it to allow citizens witnessing newsworthy events to upload their video to NBC News for broadcast, effectively harnessing a nation of amateur videographers for their own use, free of charge.
The concept of “the audience” has changed dramatically in the last five years. Internet-connected mobile devices have liberated powerful computing resources from the old desktop, moving those capabilities out of the work or home office and into the open world, traveling freely with the mobile device owners. That same mobility, coupled with the rise of social media platforms like Twitter, have turned a once passive audience into a responsive one, an audience that communicates back to content producers in real time. Not only are private citizens using the power of their mobile devices to influence the programming decisions made by commercial news and entertainment outlets, they’re using it to record and break the news themselves, completely bypassing the old control systems of traditional mainstream media. The audience at home and at large in the world has become a partner—in some cases official and in others unsanctioned—with brands, television content producers and news outlets. This change is fundamental and permanent.