People are now swapping their tablets for smartphones in order to go online. After an extended period of tablet expansion, this is a new trend that has become evident only in the last few months. This conclusion is based on the following information discovered through individual experience analyzing websites -- It's not the result of some large-scale empirical study with a careful methodology to establish a representative sample by an authoritative institution. This is just what my own data has revealed when conducting web analysis for my clients.
However, this involves a variety of sites spanning five English-speaking countries (U.S., U.K., Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand). These sites include both B2B and B2C and cover a disparate range of markets, including fashion, fast-moving consumer goods, tourism, digital services, education, engineering, and mining. Roughly half of my clients have multiple websites offering the same services in several countries, so I can compare national trends in the same markets. It's a random sampling rather than a broad survey, but I believe that it's a wide enough sample to detect trends. I recommend checking with your own analysts to see how strong the trend is for your sites.
This trend is not emerging at the same pace everywhere -- it seems to be moving faster in B2B and in certain countries. However, I can plainly see that on all sites in all locations the proportion of visitors accessing sites with smartphones is increasing, while the proportion of tablet visitors is declining. Compensating for traffic growth, changing marketing performance, and working with unique visitor identification, I have concluded that while computer usage isn't changing, people are abandoning their tablets for smartphones.
The rise of mobile
The last two years have been dominated by "the rise of mobile," a phase in digital marketing development which saw increasing numbers of people going online using smartphones and tablets. A small percentage of this increase came from new internet users, but the majority was comprised of already active viewers switching from computers to mobile devices. As mobile traffic grew, computer traffic fell, both as a percentage of site visits and in absolute numbers. From very little mobile (smartphone and tablet) traffic in 2012, sites have seen a rapid increase in mobile views.
The rise of mobile followed the same pattern on most sites. The first wave saw folks switching from computers to smartphones. In most countries, this happened from late-2012 to mid-2013. B2B sites saw this growth a little earlier than B2C, and it happened faster and earlier in the U.K. than in the U.S., followed (in order) by Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand.
In the latter half of 2013, we saw the rise of tablets. Users became more likely to switch from computers to tablets, and the percentage of traffic using smartphones stalled. During the first half of 2014, tablets overtook smartphones to become the majority mobile device. By mid-2014 the computer-to-mobile ratio had stabilized on most sites, with mobile devices providing around one-third of traffic. Within that mobile mix, tablets typically accounted for two-thirds to three-quarters of all mobile devices.
Beginning around October 2014, I started seeing a change -- first in the U.K., then the U.S., and now I'm seeing it in all five aforementioned countries, across all sites. The percentage of site traffic using computers remains the same, but the proportion of tablets is falling, while the proportion of smartphones is rising.
The fall of the tablet
This traffic change follows the changes in sales trends as of Q4 2014 -- but still ongoing -- wherein tablet sales are declining while smartphone sales are accelerating. Global sales of tablets in Q4 2014 were down 4 percent from Q4 2013. This percentage encompasses all sales, concealing deep changes within the tablet market.
The situation is actually much worse for the major tablet vendors, Apple and Samsung. Apple's tablet sales went down 18 percent, while Samsung's went down 22 percent. Amazon used to qualify as a major vendor, but with their tablet sales down 70 percent, they now only have 2 percent of the market, behind Lenovo (3.7 percent) and ASUS (3 percent). The only tablets that are seeing growth are Windows tablets, which have grown 67 percent during this period -- though they still only have 5 percent of the market, compared to Apple's 27 percent and Android's 68 percent.
A key reason why people are moving from tablets to smartphones is that smartphones are getting bigger. The average smartphone screen size has increased from 3.5 inches to 5.2 inches, which almost doubles screen real estate. This is also pretty close to the typical e-reader screen size of 6 inches, which includes all Kindles except for the Kindle DX. E-readers copied that size from paperback books because it is considered the ideal size for a document if you're holding it in your hand while reading it.
At the same time, we've seen a huge surge in responsive design and mobile websites, so that most sites now handle smaller screens much better than only a year ago. Combine this larger screen size with a richer online environment and the smartphone becomes a much more attractive option for web access than it used to be only six months ago.
Other possible causes are changes in online behavior and faster connection speeds. However, there's no sign of change in mobile web access patterns. People are not accessing the web at different times, or from different places, nor are they changing what they do online. In fact, behavior patterns like this have been almost static for the last two years. The change is certainly not happening because phone connection speeds are improving, because they're not.
Akamai's quarterly "State of the Internet" reports compare page download times on broadband and smartphone connections over many countries every quarter. There's been no significant change in 2014, with page download times for smartphones remaining around five seconds. So people are still doing what they used to, at the same speeds -- they're just doing it more on smartphones and less on tablets.
So what are the implications?Online sales
To match the domination of the smartphone as the mobile device of choice, responsive design and mobile sites should focus on smartphone screen sizes first and tablets second -- but most have been doing that anyway. Larger tablets don't really need responsive design and can usually handle a traditional site. However, sites designed before the rise of mobile can be completely inaccessible on small screens.
This puts the emphasis on improving the experience of the smaller screen. A website visitor using a 10-inch tablet will respond to the site in much the same way as someone with a computer. They'll generally bounce at the same rate and convert at the same rate, though their average order value will tend to be a little lower on shopping sites where the typical sale is over 100 units (U.S. dollars, euros, or British pounds). For these sites, average order value on tablets tends to be closer to smartphone levels. In other words, shoppers appear more comfortable spending significant sums seated in front of a large monitor or a laptop than they are when holding a small device in their hand. On sites with lower average order values, there's no real difference in spending between devices. If you are interested in getting an average order with a value over 100 units, your best strategy is to look at a multi-touch approach in which you gain interest via smartphone, then have the customer return and purchase when they are at their computer.
Smartphones sales are extremely sensitive to design issues. A site which has never considered smartphone users and doesn't work well on smaller screens may see conversion rates as low as 0.1 percent. I have seen this jump to 4 percent overnight when the site introduces responsive design or a mobile version. So it is possible to get the same conversion rates on smartphones as on desktop computers, but only if the site is coded for screens sized 5 inches or less.
As indicated in the preceding section, multi-touch marketing becomes more important for higher order values as more people switch to smartphones. It therefore makes sense that multi-touch attribution systems should become more central to your marketing strategy. It also follows that the message needs to change with the device. Tablet and computer visitors are more responsive to material aimed at securing a sale or another form of immediate response, while smartphone material should focus on building awareness and generating interest. The smartphone becomes the primary channel for extending reach, while the computer (and tablet) becomes the primary channel for increasing revenue.
This strategy also indicates that mobile sites should focus more on building product interest rather than closing the deal, concentrating on mechanisms aimed at getting someone back to the main site when they're at their computer. This is fairly straightforward when you have a dedicated mobile site and can offer different content from the main one. However, if you're using responsive design to merely rearrange the same content for different screen dimensions, it's going to be difficult to deliver messages based on visitor device. This need to deliver different messages to different devices is a key reason that dedicated mobile sites may be preferred over responsive design. We're still learning how device use fits into the customer's journey to purchase, so having different sites for different devices leaves you free to incorporate future lessons as we learn them.
The situation is different for smaller purchases. Many mobile payment systems are arising, so making small purchases on smartphones is becoming easier. This means that sites aimed at small purchases by smartphone users become more viable and could open a new niche in the online economy aimed at the impulse buyer.
Ad placement is also affected by the move from tablets to smartphones. Google's research has shown that the location of a banner or other ad format on a screen has a very large impact on whether it will be noticed, but that this varies according to screen dimensions. With tablets, the higher up the screen the ad sits the better. The very top of the screen is best, though the quarter of the screen immediately underneath these top few pixels is worst.
Ad visibility is also very low in the bottom quarter of the screen. In many tablet screen dimensions, ad visibility on the bottom quarter of the screen is so poor that the ad might as well be on the next page. The middle half of a tablet's screen is OK, with visibility improving as you get lower down until you hit the dead zone in the bottom quarter. Interestingly, at the top of that bottom dead zone, one-quarter of the way up a tablet's screen, visibility suddenly spikes and is almost as good as the very top of the screen. So for a tablet, the best positions for ad visibility are the very top of the screen, or three-quarters of the way down.
Smartphones reverse this. The top of the smartphone screen is a terrible place for any ad you want people to see. On most smartphone screen dimensions, the top of the screen is the least likely place for an ad to be noticed. On any size smartphone, the bottom of the screen is the best place for ad visibility. For some screen sizes, the difference can be extreme. The general rule seems to be that the narrower and taller the screen, the better the bottom of the screen is for ad visibility. All smartphone screens share a pattern -- as ads get placed lower they become progressively more visible, so the middle of the screen is better than the top, but not as good as the bottom.
So, in general, the ads should be placed at the top of tablet screens and the bottom of smartphone screens. The top quarter of the screen is a poor location for any ad on any device. Tablets have a visibility "hot spot" three-quarters of the way down, while on smartphones, visibility improves as you go down the screen in a steady progression.
Ad size is also important, but doesn't relate to screen dimensions so much as to ad shape and the amount of screen real estate taken. Vertical banners are more visible than horizontal ones, which are more visible than squares. Interrupting the visitor experience with a big square pop-up so large it obscures the content is the worst possible ad practice. Visibility is lowest for such ads, maybe because people are looking for the button to exit, not reading the content.
The more of the screen the square occupies, the less likely people are to engage with it, so the smaller the screen and the larger the ad, the worse the performance. You're more likely to fill the screen of a smartphone than a tablet, so square pop-ups will become less productive as more people switch to smartphones. Digital marketing veterans won't be surprised by this, because we learned that pop-up interruptions were ineffective when they first appeared on traditional websites in the 1990s. That's why they're not used in traditional web advertising anymore. It's therefore no great surprise that the lesson remains the same on mobile devices -- never get between people and their content.
Summary & Conclusions
Stop worrying about pleasing tablet users and start worrying about smartphone users -- especially those with the new, larger screens. It's possible that one day we'll see tablets as a historical phase, the distinction between tablet and laptop meaningless. Larger tablets perform online just like laptops, while smaller 7-inch tablets may just morph into large smartphones.
Smartphones require dedicated design efforts to get good sales performance, but will reward the effort. However, if you're interested in high-value purchasers, you may be in for a tough time. Here you need to focus on multi-touch marketing. If you're interested in lower value orders, encourage the spread of mobile payment systems, and you may be in for a bonanza.
Ad placement needs to be considered. The top is best for tablets, the bottom is best for smartphones, and a big square in the middle is the worst everywhere.
The move from tablets to smartphones is likely to continue for some time. It's a new trend in the rise of mobile. Clearly patterns in the mobile market have yet to settle. This presents some new opportunities and challenges, but no one has had enough experience to have all of the answers just yet. Having both a mobile and a traditional website positions you to adapt as we learn, and thus provides better flexibility than just a single responsive design site.
You can expect this trend to continue for another year or two, so this is the time to be nimble. Of course, you can't count on following strategies of the last year or two and get the same results. We need to accept we're moving into new territory, where the advantage goes to those who pay the most attention to their performance data, learn fast, and apply that learning first.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.
"Tablet and smartphone on an old wood" image via Shutterstock.