How Online Reading Habits are Changing and What You Can Do to Keep Up

Cartoon #6243 - This blog post has been commented on 12 times, tweeted 22 times, and actually read 3 times!(Cartoon from Andertoons.com)

The way people read has changed. It is continuing to change. Gone are the days when it was a choice between newspapers, magazines and books. Even gone are the days when it was a toss up between media websites and blogs.  We are accessing and consuming media in different ways. As a lover of reading and writing, something that is fascinating to me is the way in which we consume words. And by that I don’t mean whether we consume alphabetti spaghetti with a fork or a spoon (fork, in case you’re wondering).

The consumption of words, information, language, blogs, news, wikis, articles, how-tos and anything that strings together letters to tell you something is an issue that affects us all, whether we are producers or consumers of information. But as WordPressers, webmasters, designers and developers, it’s the ways that other people consume the information that we produce that is of particular concern. How are people accessing the things that we write? What is their route to get there? How can we make it as easy as possible for people to access our information?

Things have changed in the past five years. In fact, things have changed quite considerably in just the past year. Using stats from wpmu.org as well as referring to some other studies, I’m going to take a look at how reading habits are changing and what you can do to adapt to them.

The main comparison that I’m going to use is the differences in our own stats from February to May 2010 and February to May 2011. These stats are, of course, reflective of a technology orientated website and I’ll discuss this at the end in terms of information consumption.

First of all, here’s the overall increase in our stats in the period that I’m looking at:

Stats for wpmu.org with 245% increase

This shows a 245% increase in visitors at wpmu.org between the two periods in 2010 and 2011. Yes, we are pleased with ourselves.

All things being equal we should expect to see a similar increase in our referrers and in our visitors. However, things are not equal, the world is changing. Let’s see how these changes are manifesting in our readership.

Social Media and Why Sharing Matters

There is no question that social media has affected how we consume information. Twitter and Facebook are the main information feeders, but other sites such as Stumbleupon, Delicious and Quora also provide ways for people to share content.

Here’s the increase in readers finding us through social media:

graph showing increase in social media visitors from 2011 to 2010

While Twitter is the social media that sends us the most readers, the largest increases have been from Facebook and Reddit. There could be a couple of reasons for this:

  • People are diversifying in the forms of social media they use. Next year can we expect to see a jump in numbers from services like Quora?
  • We turned off our Facebook auto-posting which drastically increased Facebook traffic.
  • Our Twitter presence has grown considerably and our followers find our content worth following
  • More people are using Twitter as a means to accessing information

It’s interesting to note that we received so few hits from LinkedIn that it wasn’t worth mentioning them. Is this something we’re missing out on?

Our top ten referring sites have changed as well over the period. Check them out:

Table showing top ten wpmu.org referrers in period Feb - May 2010 and 2011. 2 social media appear in 2010 and 3 in 2011

Twitter, Facebook and StumbleUpon are all in our top five referring sites in 2011. Google.com includes a whole package of Google services including Google Reader and Google Images. Are lots of people using Google Reader? A quick look at the stats from Google.com tells us that the increase in hits from Google hasn’t had much to do with Reader but is actually related to a large increase in the number of hits from Google image search.

Google.com stats showing low increase for Google reader

So What?

As you can tell from the above, if you’re not using Social Media then you are missing out on a big traffic generator. But what does this tell us about reading habits?

People like recommendations. From friends on Facebook, from Tweeters on Twitter and from the type of people who trawl the web bookmarking cool stuff for people to read. Reading habits are affected by what it is that people think is worth bookmarking and sharing.

People are reading via social media – it’s an important tool in information distribution.

What Can You Do?

There are a few things you can do to help your social media readers:

  1. Find out which social media is most appropriate to your niche. Like many people we find Twitter and Facebook to be great tools. Business websites might get more use out of LinkedIn. And you may know of niche social media that suits your purpose. Research and disseminate!
  2. Find out what works. I was recently introduced to Postrank and it has been a fantastic tool in analyzing how well my posts are doing. Below is a particularly nice one that deserves to be recorded. Postrank ranks your posts in comparison to each other. Post rank information for wpmu postIt tells you what type of post works for you so, if something isn’t working, ditch it.
  3. Learn how to use Twitter. Here’s a post from our excellent Edublogger, Sue Waters, to instruct you in the Twitter dark arts.
  4. Use sharing buttons to make it as easy as possible for users to share your information
  5. Be a genuine member of the community. Avoid auto-posting to your social media and engage with your online peers.
  6. Use Google Analytics to see how you can improve.

Social Media has been around for much longer than the past year and while we have seen sharp increases in the number of people using it as an entry point for our site, the proportions have remained much the same:

pie chart showing percentage of different referrers with social media at 4% in 2010 and 5% in 2011

Where the major shift is not in how people are virtually accessing our information, but in how they are physically accessing it.

Mobile Devices and the Rise and Rise of iPad

A picture is worth a thousand words:

Two pie charts showing increase in proportion of iPad mobile uses from 3% of total mobile users to 29%

Says a lot, right?

As an interesting aside – the percentage of iPad and iPhone users in 2011 is equal to the number of iPhone users in 2010. Are iPhone users splashing out to get an iPad as well? It’s also nice to see a considerable increase in the number of visitors using Android.

The total number of people visiting the site using mobile devices has increased from 1,533 to 13,397 for the three month period, an increase of 809%. Here’s the rise of mobile devices from January 2010 to April 2011:

line graph showing increase in mobile visitors

Pretty damn steep, don’t you think?

And driving much of that is the increase in iPad users which have risen by a massive 9206%. You can see from the graph below that iPad users are growing at a considerable rate, even faster than regular mobile users. This has quickened since the release of iPad 2 in March and it looks like the numbers are set to increase even further:

line graph showing ipad and non ipad mobile users with ipads growing faster

This doesn’t mean that you need to rush out, get a developer and build an app, but it does mean that you should be thinking about how you can deliver your content via the iPad and other tablets. This could be either through the built-in browser, or through various apps that have been developed to deliver content to tablet owners.

Consuming via Mobile

All of this mobile consumption has meant a whole new toolbox for website owners, with tools for you to most effectively convey your information to every audience. Plenty of people use mobile switchers to serve up a simplified mobile version of their site. But now we’ve got to think about tablet versions as well. How does your website appear on a tablet? Are you integrating any special features for touch screen users? How does your website appear in Flipboard? Do you really need to develop an app or should you just have an awesome mobile version of your site?

What Can You Do?

  1. A mobile switcher is essential if you want to make content readable by people who are commuting or on-the-go. Check out a post I wrote a while back on making your WordPress website mobile friendly
  2. Install Onswipe.  This transforms your website into a tablet-friendly magazine-style website. It’s great for blogs and website with dynamic content. My only gripe with it is that I keep visiting websites that look exactly the same. It would be great to see some themes coming out for it.
  3. Watch your stats. These are so important for telling you how your readers are consuming your information. If you are seeing lots of iPad visitors you need to ensure you are dazzling on that medium, if it’s Blackberry users who are visiting you the most then start to think about how you can improve things for them.

How visitors view your site at your URL is within your control. But there are more and more situations where things are taken out of your hands and you find yourself having to work within new parameters.

When Your Content is Turned into a Magazine

Flipboard (for iPad) has made huge waves over the past year, transforming how people read content. I never look at Google Reader any more – I read everything in Flipboard. Here’s how it looks:

Flipboard displaying Google Reader

An app like Flipboard can bring all sorts of concerns for webmaster. While the interface is particularly nice, there can be problems with how your images appear. Like this one:

top image misaligned

That’s annoying and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot that I can do about it.

Another issue with Flipboard is that all of the advertisements that you have dotted throughout your site design have gone, meaning that you can’t advertise to your readers. A nice workaround (possibly inadvertent) is in place on Smashing Magazine, where advertisements are placed inside the post to ensure they are picked up:

Smashing Magazine on Flipboard

This isn’t a new problem. RSS readers like Google Reader do pretty much the same thing. But the increase in iPad users could see an increase of people accessing your content in this way, whereas, as we’ve seen, consumption directly through Google Reader is on the wane.

What Can You Do?

  • Keep abreast of the market, check out what new apps are out there. Be aware of how your web content is appearing in them.
  • See if there are innovative ways that you can delivery your information using available applications. Be an early adopter and impress your readers.

The rise of Flipboard and the insurgence of competitors, indicates that people are hungry for new and interesting ways to consume information.

Reading Online, Offline

You know how it is – you’re working away, tweeting, writing, coding and generally getting on with things and then someone tweets an article you like the look of. You click on it and think “Ohhhhh – looks interesting!” You don’t know whether to read it straight away, interrupting your workflow, or bookmark it with the danger that you’ll forget about it.

A couple of new services have eliminated that conundrum – InstaPaper and Read it Later. There is little difference between the two – both enable you to use either a bookmarklet or an extension which saves web pages for reading offline later. InstaPaper is more aesthetically weighted towards text, whereas Read It Later concentrates on different forms of media. But the principle is the same – save the information for later. They both sync with mobile apps, meaning that the consumer no longer has to sit in front of their computer to read your articles – they could be relaxing on their sofa, or tucked up in bed for the night.

There’s an interesting analysis over at Read It Later’s blog, looking at how iPads are changing reading habits. It’s a great article, with lots of detail but there is one particularly statistic that I’m interested in. Most regular computer readers read content throughout the day. iPad users, by contrast, read at their computer over lunch and then read the rest of their content between 8pm – 10pm, during leisure time.

graph showing that ipad users read more in the eveningGraphs from Read It Later Trends

What does this mean for you? The person reading your article on their iPad is going to be more relaxed and less hurried. They will be out of the office, away from noise and distractions. It’s at this time of the day that your 3,000 word, insightful and challenging article can really be appreciated. And while short posts and articles will be equally appreciated, long ones will be given the attention they deserve.

What Can You Do?

  • Check out how your website appears when saved in Read it Later and InstaPaper.
  • Don’t be afraid to post long, informative posts. Your readers will love you for it. Think about mixing up your content with a mixture of long editorials and short articles that are each appropriate for different times in the reading cycle.

Is RSS Dead?

Last week I made a rather flippant comment about no one using RSS anymore. In fact, there was a bit of a storm in a teacup earlier this year with some commentators claiming that RSS is dead, and others refuting it. MG Seigler over at TechCrunch argued that because Google Reader has been over taken by social media such as Facebook, RSS is on the decline. We’ve seen a similar drop here at wpmu.org. If you look at referrals from Google Reader on it’s own it drops down to number 14 in the list of our top referrers, behind all of the major social media.

But this isn’t the end of the story.

If you just look at referring sites things are looking pretty grim. I shifted my focus slightly and looked at our overall referrers:

Feedburner stats with 21,195 referrals, Twitter with 6216

Goodbye Google Reader, hello Feedburner! We’ve seen an even greater increase in referrals from Feedburner than we have from Twitter.In fact, our Feedburner visitors tend to be of better quality than those from Twitter, showing a lower bounce rate and more time spent on site. Where Twitter does have the advantage is that it sends us twice as many new visitors, exposing us to a new audience.

Check out the rise in our Feedburner subscribers. It doesn’t seem to be dropping off just yet:

Increase in Feedburner subscribers

This gives lie to the death of RSS – it seems very much alive to me. Here, at least. It may be different in other places – in a similar post to this one on the Edublogger, Sue points out that there has been barely any increase in Feedburner subscribers, and that this is a trend seen by many education bloggers.

This indicates that coming up with a set of constants that can be applied to every website is impossible. There are different readers just as there are different internet users.

What Type of Readers Do You Have?

There are many different types of internet users. The visitors to wpmu.org are different to those visiting a craft website, who are different to those visiting a DIY website, who are different to those visiting an Apple fanboy website (only iPad hits maybe?), who are different to those visiting a business website. Check out the stats for an Android-centered website and you’ll probably see a rise in the number of Android tablet users, not iPad users.

The visitors are wpmu.org are power users. The fact that they are visiting a site that has in depth information about WordPress is a good indicator of this. Researchers at Penn State University have defined a power user as someone who loves to use gadgets, who makes good use of features, who likes to challenge themselves to figure out how to use technology, and who explores all of the available features. Sound like you? It sounds like me. I am confident that someone using open source software to build their own website can be defined as a power user.

An interesting follow-up study discovered that power users prefer customization whereas non-power users prefer personalization.

  • Customization – a user driven activity in which the user is able to customize the application they are interacting with.
  • Personalization – a computer driven activity in which the computer feeds information based on the user’s previous activity.

Studies have shown that because of privacy issues, power users prefer customization, whereas non-power users aren’t concerned about privacy. While we aren’t too concerned about privacy within the scope of this article, the existence of power users and non-power users indicates that different groups of people want to interact with the internet in different ways, often dependent upon their confidence with and knowledge of technology.  The use that technology is put to may also have an effect – Education bloggers are using RSS less than people primarily concerned with building websites.

This would perhaps account for the increase in subscribers via Feedburner at wpmu.org where other sites have seen fairly level stats. An RSS reader, while ugly and functional, is a great way for you to choose what information you want to read especially for power users who have to keep on top of the latest technological developments. Services like Flipboard have taken away the necessity for reading in the RSS reader. You can read your RSS feed anywhere. A Power User may be more likely to use Google Reader or Blekko to customize their feeds in Flipboard – a non-power user will be happier with the more personalized approach taken in Flipboard’s preset groupings.

My Flipboard table of contents

 

Since wpmu.org readers are power users engaged with up-to-date changes in technology, I can make predictions about the way that they get content. It’s likely that we’ll see an increase in the number of people using mobile technology. Now that the iPad is arriving back in stock globally I’m expecting to see it become an even more important part of the technophile’s reading habits – that graph is going to continue to climb. RSS is certainly not dead – and while they’ll keep using Feedburner they may find alternative ways to have that content fed to them – using apps like Flipboard.

If your website is visited by non-power users – i.e. people who are less interested in technology and who are less comfortable fiddling with the latest gadget, they may be quite content to continue to read your content via their computer or laptop. An RSS feed or an iPad may be a step too far. Therefore the rise of iPad users could be much less rapid. It’s quite possible, however, that the rise in social media usage will be much like our own as social media has become an integral part of most internet users’ lives.

To Conclude

There’s no doubt that social media and mobile devices are transforming the way we interact with the internet. As I hope I’ve demonstrated, wpmu.org is just one website out of many, with a very particular type of user. And yet there are more general points that are relevant to anyone who has a website or blog:

  • Social media is an important dissemination tool for every website. If you aren’t using it you could find yourself getting lost in the crowd.
  • Mobile and tablet usage is on the rise. This means that people are reading your content in different places and at different times. You may want to look at your posting patterns.
  • Your content is appearing in different formats beyond your control. Think of ways that you can adapt your content delivery to these changing media.
  • Use statistics such as Google Analytics to learn about your readers’ habits and make sure you are meeting their needs. Try different tactics and see if they work.
  • Be sensitive to the types of visitors that are coming to your website. Adapt your strategies to their needs and preferences.
  • Carry out a poll on your website asking your visitors their favorite way to access your content.

The web is changing, and we are changing with it. Stay informed and take advantage of some great opportunities.

Do you know how your visitors’ reading habits are changing? Let me know in the comments – I’d love to hear about others’ experiences.

Comments (17)

  1. Thanks Siobhan – Great in-depth post. I consider myself a power user, and the content you and Sarah produce on this site is top-notch. I’d be interested to see how the stats compare for before you were hired in tandem to pump out such great wordpress content on such a consistent basis. Q-Dos(?) to James for the hire and well done to you both for the excellent job you do.

  2. Thanks for the compliment Paul :) Sarah was hired quite a bit before me – I think at the start of last year whereas I was taken on in October. It’s been fun working on wpmu.org together. And yes, much kudos to James :D

  3. Woh! I Know you said well researched, I didn’t expect it to be this well researched :)

    Happy to take Cudos when it’s offered, but I’m just your average facilitator really.

  4. Yes, I skimmed through this article and thought to myself, …must come back to this and read it carefully so that I can apply some of these lessons… However, I’m also honest enough to admit that I may never get back. I couldn’t see anything in the article that I could actually use right away. This is not the article’s fault. It is entirely my need to get back to wading through junk messages to sort out what might be important. My ever expanding Delicious account amounts to a record of continuous procrastination.

    For me, any additional functionality that I might add to my WordPress space means that I have to spend hours wading through php files to find the right file to tweak. Then having tweaked it, long comes an upgrade in P or the theme and things don’t work anymore. Groan…mutter…

    Is there a tool that can help manage the various upgrades.

  5. I confess that I skimmed the article–too long for this time of the day–butI didn’t see a mention of newsletter subscribers. I arrived here from the WPMU email newsletter, and I’m wondering how that set of readers factors into your stats.

  6. Well. WPMU certainly never fails to disappoint me. I’ve come back finally to reading this post.. and most interestingly it was from your newsletter. Call me old fashioned but I prefer to use the good old email than any other tools.

    And great article Shioban.. lots of interesting information you have put out here, good enough to help webmasters like me to optimize my sites to the latest trends.

    Will turn off auto posting to FB and see if it can do the trick.

    Thanks once again for posting such AMAZING info.

  7. Thanks for the very kind comments.

    It’s interesting that you guys came from the mailing list. I don’t really know much about the mailing list stats as Ronnie takes care of that. I must find out about them.

    I’m a Google Reader user myself and can’t seem to kick the habit :)

  8. Very interesting Article, thank you!
    What do you think, how new Aggregation and “Curating” tools will change the process of writing & reading, for example scoop.it:
    http://www.scoop.it/t/socialmediapolitik
    webdocs
    http://thenextweb.com/apps/2011/05/13/webdoc-the-easy-way-to-mix-media-online/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter
    and
    storify:
    http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/twitter_curation_grows_up_storify_becomes_blog_seo.php

  9. Interesting post. The problem for me is the constant fragmentation of communication. Too many social networks, too many operating systems, too many apps, too many devices, not enough time. Or interest. I have had a google plus account for quite some time, but I never use it. Ditto for Twitter. I still cannot figure out the true value of a facebook page. Much of the social networking seems like a huge time suck for me. I just want to use a very few tools well, rather than try to keep up with every new social tool iteration and use it halfway or not all all. The gadget and social web 2.0 universe is tool cluttered.

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