The “Time Spent” Fallacy


The eagerly-awaited 2016 update of KPCB’s annual Internet Trends report landed last week. Curated by the influential Mary Meeker, the hefty 217 page report contains a wealth of thought-provoking information, trends and long-term forecasts.

Scott Boyes Scott Boyes Planning Director Leeds

For example, the report highlights how lower-cost Android devices continue to ramp as iOS growth slows.


It also shows just how much recent growth in internet advertising is down to those two digital behemoths: Google and Facebook.

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Which in turn throws the alarming rise of ad-blocking, particularly on Mobile, into sharp relief.


But there is one chart that is markedly less useful. This one.

The chart comparing media time spent vs share of advertising spend, has been a regular feature throughout the many iterations of this report and continues to generate industry chatter despite being almost entirely useless. Let’s take a closer look.

It shows that today’s convergent consumer still watches a lot of TV, in fact they spend over a third (36%) of their media time watching telly. This compares to 22% of time online via a desktop, 25% in mobile, 13% listening to radio and around 4% of media time spent reading print. Fair enough, it seems about right, all things considered. Where things start to get a little less useful is in their comparison of media investment with % of time spent by channel, identifying an “opportunity gap” of $22bn in mobile given the difference between the 25% of time spent vs its lowly 12% of ad spend.

This rankles, for three reasons:

Firstly it assumes that ‘time spent’ is the same as ‘effective’.

Does this stand up to scrutiny? If people are spending a lot of time doing something, does that automatically mean it’s an effective place to spend your precious media budget? If so, may I highlight the opportunity gap in online pornography? Pornhub alone saw a whopping 4,392,486,580 hours of content viewed last year (an amount of time claimed to be 2.5x longer than our entire species has been on the planet), with the UK ranking 2nd in the world for average number of page impressions consumed per capita. With only a tiny fraction of 2015’s £8.6bn UK digital ad spend invested in adult sites, by the same logic this must make it the greatest untapped media opportunity in existence! But is anyone brave enough to make a case for this to their clients? Maybe not. (Although hat tip to the guys at Diesel…)

Secondly, it conflates the % of time spent with amount of time spent.

Whilst the growth in mobile has been spectacular, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the growth of mobile has somehow made other channels less effective or useful. We only have a finite amount of capacity to consume anything; there are still only 24 hours in a day. Despite this, we have still seen significant growth in the overall amount of media being consumed of late. And the primary reason for this growth is mobile, which has helped create and facilitate new media consumption opportunities that previously did not exist. Being bored is a thing of the past. The daily commute? Mobile. Kids hogging the telly watching Pepper Pig? Mobile. Waiting for your mate to arrive at the pub? Mobile.

Though it would take a better man than me to refute that print circulations remain in a long term pattern of decline, most channels have actually remained surprisingly resilient; buoyant even. But this overall increase in the total amount of media being consumed, driven by new mobile-enabled consumption opportunities, means that each individual channel should expect to see its relative % share of media time decline as a natural consequence, even if the actual amount of time consuming an individual channel remained stable.

Thirdly, it seems to assume that all media is created equal and is entirely interchangeable, and in the case of mobile it further confuses “lots of people” with “mass reach”.

It is a common complaint that kids these days are glued to their phones. Well, if you’d almost unlimited connectivity to your friends and family and access to the entire world’s knowledge, information, entertainment and cat videos when you were a kid, you’d have been glued to your phone too. But there’s the rub. A big chunk of people’s media time might be spent on their mobiles, but what they doing there is entirely personal, often fleeting and incredibly fragmented.

As mobile isn’t a channel in its own right (not in the same way we could describe TV or print as channels) it’s the access point to a whole universe of ‘stuff’. So whilst people may be spending a growing chunk of their total media time staring at a small screen in the palm of their hand, what they are doing in that time is incredibly diverse. From a media perspective, this opens up a rich new seam of exciting new ways to reach our target audience, unlocking new behavioural, contextual and geographic opportunities. But it also means that often we are reaching relatively small numbers of people in teeny-tiny increments.

The commonly repeated mantra that mass media is dead, displaced by the kind of precision targeting enabled by data, seems a particularly pervasive one, although the available evidence does not yet back up the claims; in fact the reverse is true, the effectiveness evidence suggests that there is still a significant and fundamental role for those media channels that allow us to reach and engage broad audiences at scale. In this context, mobile should best be considered an “as well as”, not an “instead of” opportunity for our clients. The real opportunity gap for mobile is not in simply shifting cash around the media plan, but in unlocking its potential as part of an integrated, insight-driven communications strategy that delivers against your client’s business objectives.

Scott Boyes Scott Boyes Planning Director Leeds
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