Research: Plan cellphone news products


In the US, cellphones already outnumber laptops and Americans without a cellphone have become the exception. News organizations are struggling to keep pace with the public’s changing media habits—and there is great pressure to deliver news via cellphones. But what news do people most want delivered to their cellphones? And in what format? And what cellphone-delivered products are consumers willing to pay for?

We found that those who are already using their cellphones to get most of their news want constant updates about business and international news. Being on-the-go, they don’t want to shop around different news websites: they prefer aggregated content. And they are not passive news consumers. Cellphone users want to get involved, too. This is especially true for political updates and is especially relevant for news organizations as the US approaches the 2012 presidential elections.

Why Cellphone News?

A Pew Internet and American Life Project report estimated that some 80% of American adults own a cell phone and 37% use them to go online. The same report said that at least 26% of all Americans also use their mobile phones to access news, especially about the weather and current affairs, a promising market for news organizations.

But the problem for many newspaper and broadcast news organizations is how to package news into cellphone-based products. Answers to these kinds of questions depend on who you ask. And they depend on where people are in the process of adopting and adapting new technologies into their lives.

Everett Rogers, a communication theorist, faced the same kinds of questions during the 1970s. He came up with a theory that demonstrated how new technologies diffuse out into populations at different speeds and in different formats for people who differed from each other in their willingness to change. The diffusion was quite predictable. Some people were innovators. They were the first to buy and use new technologies. Innovators tended to be highly educated, male, and had money. Quick to follow were people referred to as the early adopters. But the vast majority of people waited much longer to adopt the technology. Rogers called these folks early and late majorities. They had less money, less education and were older.

In this study we identify people in five stages of cell phone news diffusion. We found they are different in terms of demographics, news habits and preferences. We recommend that news organizations use this same approach with their own audiences, and then roll out cell phone news products first for the innovators, then later for early adopters, and as these products become increasingly viable, finally turn to the early and late majorities.

The logic here is simple.

  1. Design the news products first for those who already say they get most of their news from cell phones.
  2. Then turn next to those who say they depend most on the internet, which is just a short hop over to smart phones.
  3. Finally, start looking at products for the majorities of audience members who are still most dependent on television—and a little on radio.

What is crucial here is to understand the market and its segments—and this is what our study does.

In our own national phone survey, we found that only 4.5% said they mostly used their cell phone for their news. Who are these people? What drives them to get news from their mobile phones? What can news organizations learn from their news consumption? And what are the best ways to capture the loyalty of these innovators?

People are Different

For the analysis, we grouped people in our survey in terms of their most preferred news source. This builds on Rogers’ diffusion of innovations theory that classified people into groups in terms of their adoption of new technologies.

Following Rogers’ classification, we can consider

  • Those who relied primarily on their cell phones for news as innovators. This is the smallest group (4.5%).
  • Those who relied on the internet primarily for news are called early adopters (39.2%).
  • Those who relied on television form the early majority (38.4%).
  • Those who relied on radio account for the late majority (6.4%).
  • Those who still relied on newspapers are considered laggards (11.5%). This is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Preferred News Source

This five-fold classification is compelling because the demographics of our groups closely match what Rogers found. The innovators and the early adopters were much younger than the other groups, with news consumers who relied on their cell phones being the youngest (32.24 years old, SD=12.48). Innovators also tended to have started or finished college (see Table 1). They reported slightly lower scores on frequency of news access as laggards accessed the news in general most often (see Figure 2).

Table 1

Innovators (Cellphone) Early Adopters (Internet) Early Majority (TV) Late Majority (Radio) Laggards (Newsapers)
Age 32.24 years 36.33 45.34 45.04 50.15
Gender male and female male male and female male male and female
Education finished or in college finished or in college HS or some college finished or in college graduate degree
Frequency of News Access 4.29 out of 5 4.34 4.38 4.88 4.51

Figure 2

Frequency of News Access

Note. The scores represent ratings in a 5-point scale with 5 referring to “all or most of the time” and 1 to “never.” The respondents were asked: “Some people like to follow the news all or most of the time. Others don’t follow it that often. How about you?”

Different People, Different Wants

These groups also differ in terms of news topics that they want. Innovators (cell phone users) reported the highest levels of interest in accessing business and international news on their cell phones. The early adopters reported the highest levels of interest in accessing sports content and content that provides them an opportunity to relax and be entertained. The early majority were the most interested in accessing entertainment news on their cell phone (see Table 2).

Table 2

Offers personal time out Business News International Affairs Sports Entertainment
Innovators (Cellphone) 2.50 3.63 4.27 2.44 2.13
Early Adopters (Internet) 2.87 3.09 3.87 2.93 2.51
Early Majority (TV) 2.70 2.79 3.27 2.61 2.60
Late Majority (Radio) 1.87 2.83 3.87 1.96 1.78
Laggards (Newspaper) 2.10 2.64 3.38 2.33 1.93

Note. The scores represent ratings in a 5-point scale with 5 referring to “very interested” and 1 to “not at all interested.” The respondents were asked: “On a scale of 1 to 5, please tell me which types of news you would be interested in getting in a mobile news application?” In each column, we highlight the highest score. For instance, stories that offer personal time out is preferred the most by the internet group. Stories on business are preferred the most by the cellphone users.

We also looked at possible political communication uses of the cell phone and innovators, as expected, scored the highest for being interested in using their mobile phones not only to keep themselves updated about political news, about where candidates are and what they are saying, but also to be able to text questions to their candidates (see Table 3). This is critically important because with the upcoming 2012: Now is the time to start designing political cell phone news products.

Table 3

Updates on Political Races Where Candidates Are Text Questions to Candidates
Innovators (Cellphone) 3.69 3.50 4.06
Early Adopters (Internet) 2.90 2.80 3.00
Early Majority (TV) 2.70 2.77 2.64
Late Majority (Radio) 3.00 2.91 3.43
Laggards (Newspaper) 2.07 1.93 2.14

Note. The scores represent ratings in a 5-point scale with 5 referring to “very interested” and 1 to “not at all interested.” The respondents were asked: “On a scale of 1 to 5, please tell me which types of news you would be interested in getting in a mobile news application?” In each column, we highlight the highest score. For instance, updates on political races are most preferred by the cellphone group, rating it 3.69 out of 5.

Preferred News Formats and Delivery Features

Next, we asked about what news formats and delivery our innovation groups wanted. The respondents, regardless of their preferred news source, all own mobile phones. However, only innovators as well as the late majority and laggards prefer longer form (e.g., full articles). This is not surprising: laggards, being newspaper readers, are accustomed to full-length newspaper articles. Innovators, being cell phone users, are willing to try almost everything. TV users, who are used to short news segments, disliked accessing full articles on their cell phones, as expected.

The survey also asked respondents if they would like quick-reads on weather, sports and traffic, among others. All groups agreed. However, only innovators would like to receive aggregated content from multiple news sources (see Table 4). These two formats can be easily combined: A cellphone news app can provide aggregated quick reads from different sources. Such news is shorter and easier to read and cellphone users need not visit different news websites just to get a sense of what is happening during the day.

Table 4

Longer Form Quick Reads Aggregated Content
Innovators (Cellphone) 52.9% 82.4% 76.5%
Early Adopters (Internet) 40.1% 70.7% 48.3%
Early Majority (TV) 29.4% 75.4% 47.5%
Late Majority (Radio) 60.9% 50% 50%
Laggards (Newspaper) 56.4% 71.4% 48.8%

Note. The percentages refer to the proportion of those who said yes to the question: Please tell me if you would like this way for news content on a cell app to appear. For example, of all respondents whose primary news source is their cell phone, 52.9% said yes to longer form.

In terms of how they want to be notified of news on their cell phones—through text, email or an alert within the app itself—there were no significant differences among the five groups. The email is the least preferred way while the alert within the app itself, like a tiny star displayed above the app, is the most preferred by all groups
(see Table 5).

Table 5

Texted message Email Within the news app
Innovators (Cellphone) 58.8% 29.4% 88.2%
Early Adopters (Internet) 51% 47.9% 77.3%
Early Majority (TV) 55.3% 43.6% 71.1%
Late Majority (Radio) 37.5% 33.3% 73.9%
Laggards (Newspaper) 40% 33.3% 57.1%

Note. The percentages refer to the proportion of those who said yes to the question: How would you like to be notified about news updates by your app? For example, of all respondents whose primary news source is their cell phone, 58.8% said yes to notification by getting a text message.


For practitioners, it might sound as an oxymoron, but Roger’s diffusion of innovation theory is a practical guide to news organizations wanting to explore the cell phone as a new platform for news. The key is to first target innovators. So what does this group want from a news app?

  • They want news about business and international affairs.
  • They want some level of participation, as they like the capability of not only monitoring political news but also being able to text questions to candidates.
  • They want some of their news in long form and some in quick reads, like those about the weather.
  • They want aggregated news from different news sources.
  • They want to get notifications through a news app itself.

Innovators may be a small core group, but they are young and usually financially capable to try new things. They are important in achieving the so-called critical mass, a point where enough people have adopted to sustain the innovation. Innovators and early adopters are also opinion leaders who try new things and influence others about the innovations they embrace.

That journalism must be re-shaped into a form based on people’s preferences and the affordances of the technologies they embrace might jolt traditional newsrooms. But isn’t this what journalism is about—telling people what they need to know, wherever they are and however and whenever they want it?


The data in this paper are based on telephone surveys from March 9 to April 1, 2011. The random digit dialing (RDD) of cell phone numbers yielded 398 respondents (response rate was 42%). Half of the sample (n=398) was aged 40 or younger and the average age was 41 years (SD=16). Some 54.8% had either finished or were attending college. The majority were white Americans (70.4%). Half were earning below $60,000 per year. The sample was almost evenly split into males (55.4%) and females (44.6%).

About Zoran Opalic

Professional in design and publishing industry. Conceptualize and orchestrate designs and redesigns that effectively reinforce and build brand images. Proven ability to drive record-high campaign in increasing publication sales and execute successful product launches...


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