Understanding the exponential growth opportunities in mobile


I had the privilege of listening to one of Russell Buckley’s great presentations at the Mindshare Huddle last week.

The event itself is an amazing feat of logistical engineering. Every hour on the hour, between 10 a.m. and noon and 2 and 4 p.m., delegates – a mixture of Mindshare clients, journalists, and analysts – can choose from 20 sessions to attend. Each runs for about 40 minutes.

That’s 120 presentations in one day, or the equivalent of a week’s worth of material presented in a day.

Having put together the speaker programme for a few conferences of our own over the past three years, I know the work that goes into getting a dozen people to the right room at the right time on the right day with the right material. So my admiration for the team behind the event comes from the heart.

For anyone unfamiliar with Buckley, he was one of the original mobile evangelists. In 2000, that’s 13 years ago, he was one of the people behind ZagMe, a company that offered an opt-in, location-based, text message offers service at the Bluewater shopping centre in the United Kingdom.

Shoppers who opted in to the service were targeted with text messages enticing them into participating stores with offers when they came within a certain distance of that store.

This was a couple of years before that much-referenced (in mobile circles, at least) scene in “Minority Report,” in which Tom Cruise’s character is recognised by his retina and bombarded with advertising messages as he makes his way through a shopping mall. 

The difference in ZagMe’s case was that it was opt-in.

The company was about to close a round of funding the day of the attack on the Twin Towers in the United States, at which point the investors got cold feet. Buckley admits the idea was ahead of its time.

“They made the right decision for the wrong reason,” he once told me.

He then consulted for a few years before becoming AdMob’s first employee. He left not long after the small firm was bought by a much bigger one – Google – for US$750 million in 2010, and now works as an adviser to the UK government, helping to attract outside investment for UK start-ups.

At the Huddle event, he spoke, as he often does, about exponential growth and about how, when an industry is experiencing such growth, it’s easy to get caught out.

He has a number of stories to illustrate the power of exponential growth – the idea that something doubles in size over a given time period. One involves characters from the old cartoon show, “Wacky Races,” traveling across America — one in a very fast car, the other in something that starts out much slower, but doubles in speed every mile.

No prizes for guessing which one wins.

Another involves a sports stadium filling with water, drop by drop, except the size of the drop doubles every minute. In this story, he asks how long before you drown if you are sitting in the seats at the very top of the stadium.

The answer, from memory, is 49 minutes. But the interesting thing is that after 45 minutes, the water barely covers the pitch.

At the Huddle event, he had a new way of explaining exponential growth. “If I took 30 steps from here, I would be over there by the coffee machine,” he told delegates. Then he asked them: “If I took 30 exponential steps, where would I be?”

His answer: on the moon.

Even to someone who has heard this sort of stuff before, this sounded unlikely to me. So, like the sad, slightly math-obsessed headcase I can sometimes be, I put his assertion to the test.

Assuming every step is a yard, the sequence goes: 1,2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512. That’s 10 steps and he’s covered 500 yards. The moon still seems a long way off at this point.

Now for the next 10, and I’m rounding down a little here to make things easier to follow: 1,000 (now take the thousand as read and the sequence repeats), 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512,000. That’s a half-million yards, or 284 miles, so still some way to go to the moon. (239,966 miles to be precise.)

So the final 10 and again the sequence repeats: 1 million, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256,512 million yards, or 290,909 miles. So, in fact, he’s not actually on the moon. But as managers of football teams in the United Kingdom like to say after a good victory, he’s over the moon, by about 50,000 miles. And yet, just one existential step earlier, he was still 100,000 miles short.

The point of all this is that when something is in flux — such as the way people consume content is right now — things happen so quickly that you can at least underestimate them, and at worst get left behind.

To bring this back to publishing, Buckley went on to explain how the Financial Times got its mobile forecasts, in his opinion, wildly wrong, in 2012.

In May of that year, the publisher forecast that 60% of its readership would be via mobile by 2012. Wrong, he said.

Based on a then-recent report – that the mobile Web accounts for just over 10% of all global Web browsing, up from 3.81% in 2012 – Buckley forecast FT’s mobile readership would actually be more like 20% come 2013, 40% in 2014, and 80% by 2015, based on this theory of exponential growth.

In fact, speaking at our Mobile Marketing Live event in October, FT.com Senior Product Manager Chris Smith told delegates that 30% of the FT’s online page views come from mobile. (And, interestingly, among subscribers, this figure increases to 50%.) Of course, this is 30% of online, rather than total readership, but it still serves to reinforce Buckley’s point, I think.

There’s more evidence elsewhere.

Last week, Zach Leonard, digital managing director of ESI Media – which comprises the Independent, the i paper and the Evening Standard – told Mobile Marketing: “A year ago, 20-25% of our Web reads were coming from mobile. Including our apps, we’re now solidly north of 40% every single month.”

Also last week, figures from comScore revealed 63.4% of the Mail Online’s visits in September were on mobile devices, despite lacking a mobile-optimised site.

Exponential growth might seem an unlikely concept. But as these figures illustrate, the publishing industry is experiencing it right now in terms of mobile access.

Anyone who chooses to ignore or deny it deserves everything that’s coming to them.

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