Early News Apps Evolve Based on Lessons Learned, User Demands

By: Nu Yang

Early News Apps Evolve Based on Lessons Learned, User Demands

When Apple introduced the iPad tablet in 2010, many newspaper publishers were eager to step up and create apps for the device. These early adopters recognized the tablet as an important medium to attract audiences and gain revenue, and they introduced apps that ranged from digital replicas to video libraries and breaking news alerts.

Two years later, the market for news and newspaper apps on the iPad continues to look promising. A report released by analytics firm Distimo found that iPad users spend up to $70,000 each day on digital magazines and newspapers, and news apps accounted for 7 percent of the top-200 grossing apps.

In April of this year, Apple announced its best-ever fiscal second quarter. The company sold 35.1 million iPhones, representing 88 percent unit growth year-over-year for the same period, and 11.8 million iPads, a 151 percent unit increase from the year before. All indicators suggest that this trend of explosive growth will continue — a fact that timid publishers can no longer ignore.

Since the iPad’s debut, newspapers have done some on-the-job learning about what works in an app, and what doesn’t. Now, with a few years of experience under their belts, these publishers are fine-tuning their products to address reader concerns and advertiser demands. The resulting crop of second-generation apps serves as a bellwether of where the news apps are heading, and where others should start if they’re just now entering the market.

Freedom Communications’ flagship newspaper, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.), celebrated the one-year anniversary of its iPad app, The Peel, in April. The interactive, magazine-like app features stories that invite readers to swipe, tap, and twirl in 360-degree views, and contains documentary-style videos. The app is currently free to download in Apple’s Newsstand.

Freedom Interactive president Doug Bennett said that during the app’s initial 90 days, the paper wanted to build an audience and target a younger demographic. But the team soon realized that people who downloaded the app were mostly looking for classifieds and obituaries.

“That audience was comfortable with the Register’s print brand,” Bennett said. “We realized we had to start marketing the app to the correct audience, so we changed our marketing. We had to pursue the audience rather than the platform.”

The Register quickly went to work on a rebranding effort. The app’s new name — The Peel, which debuted last November — differentiated it from the print product. New content included television-like shows such as “Tough Knocks,” a weekly series covering local high school and college sports, and “P.O.V.,” where athletes wear a camera on their helmet as they participate in sports.

Another challenge was educating the sales force and advertisers about the app. Bennett said that although advertisers had been supportive since the app’s launch, there was an internal struggle over how to explain what kind of advertising belonged in the app.

“Ads are placed in between pages like a magazine,” Bennett said. “The sales force realized they couldn’t sell it like the Web, where there are ads on the page. It had to be sold differently.”

Advertisers also had to understand that price measurement was no longer about cost-per-impression, but rather was about share of voice, or how long readers stay on an ad page. According to Bennett, the average time spent on advertising has grown from eight minutes to 11 minutes compared to one year ago, and page views have more than doubled. He said four to five new advertisers sign on as sponsors each quarter.

Another lesson the Register learned in that first year was how to label the content and market it in ways the audience can relate to. “They’re not called articles; they’re called shows, like TV, so they should be marketed more like TV programs,” Bennett said. “It’s not traditional content.”

The Peel keeps content exclusively for 48 hours, after which the Register’s Web team has the option of porting that content to the paper’s website, which Bennett called “a crossbranding opportunity.”

Bennett summed up his advice to other publishers looking to develop apps of their own. “Find appropriate branding. The platform doesn’t mean it will bring in the audience, but original content will. Put in the extra effort and resources, and the benefits will come down the road. For example, we put together a separate iPad team who had TV and entertainment backgrounds.”

As of January, The Peel reported it was the 66th most popular news app in iTunes and averaged close to 15,000 active users.

The Daily, the News Corp. publication that launched exclusively for the iPad, also celebrated its first anniversary this year. Launched in February 2011, the digital-only newspaper announced it now has more than 100,000 paid subscribers. The Daily offers subscriptions to the iPad edition for 99 cents a week or $39.99 a year. The publication also launched on Android and iPhone earlier this year.

“A year ago it was about launching, about getting it into the market quickly,” publisher Greg Clayman told Lauren Indvik in an interview for Mashable. “And now it’s about listening and understanding how people use it, what do they want more or less of, where they are going, and where the platforms are going.”

The Albany (N.Y.) Times Union launched its iPad app last year in conjunction with three other dailies owned by Hearst Corp. — the San Francisco Chronicle, Houston Chronicle, and San Antonio Express News.

The Times Union app is free to download, and content is free for print subscribers. For non-subscribers, content is free for 30 days and $5.99 monthly thereafter. The app is divided into sections similar to the print edition, allowing readers to swipe pages featuring local, state, sports, business, and feature stories. The app also includes slideshows, video, and blogs.

“We’re going to be in print for a long time,” Times Union editor Rex Smith said when the app launched last November. “But this gives people who like reading print the opportunity to experience the vibrancy and immediacy of digital.”

In the U.K., The Telegraph launched its iPad app in 2010. In a blog entry for the International Newsmedia Marketing Association, Telegraph Media Group’s director of mobile Mark Challinor discussed the lessons learned and advised that publishers shouldn’t try to do everything all at once.

“A crawl-walk-run approach lets publishers show results early, get critical executive buy-in, and then progressively build on success in later phases,” he said. “When (the Telegraph) launched our first iteration of our iPad news app, we made it free, had it sponsored to pay for it, then used the next six months to road test with readers and advertisers as to what version two would look like. We asked readers what they would like to see in it and, crucially, what might they be prepared to pay for.”

A key component of the Telegraph’s iPad strategy was educating advertisers on the ways customers were consuming content, and why that was important. “Advertisers … look to us for guidance as to what is the best model in terms of things such as ad tenancies, ad formats, contextually based ads, location-based ads, and sponsorship opportunities,” Challinor said. “Here is our chance to lead and be the experts as we learn quickly about our own markets and digital interactions.”

Constantly innovating
As The Peel looks forward to year two, Bennett said his goals include creating a Sunday edition (The Peel is currently delivered at 6 p.m., Monday through Saturday), adding HTML 5 content, and creating two or three new shows. Bennett also said he has heard feedback from users who want to create a more social experience by sharing items on Facebook and Twitter. A second app, The Orange County Register News Edition, is set to launch this fall and will serve as a breaking news app.

With Apple continually innovating and improving technology in each new model of the iPad, and Android tablet manufacturers also raising the bar, app builders must be prepared to adapt and think creatively too.

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently revealed the first augmented reality edition of the paper. After downloading a free app, readers can scan photographs or advertisements in the paper to access multimedia content such as websites, videos, or slideshows with their smartphones. The Inquirer said it is the first U.S. newspaper to use the image-and-pattern recognition technology developed by Aurasma.

Launching an app is a uniquely personal venture, requiring sound planning, goals, and expectations to be mapped out early and often. Overall, those who have gone before agree that app strategy should focus on the consumer experience.

“People use mobiles and tablets differently … we need to understand all this and tailor our products and services accordingly,” Challinor said. “If we get these three things right — relevance, experience, content — we will only then start to drive loyalty and engagement.”

“(Apps) are unique to an audience. There are apps for news, sports, apps like The Peel with information just for our Orange County demographic,” Bennett said. “It’s not just one app for all. It needs its own design, content, and platform — and that evolution will continue to happen.”

New app on the block: The Columbia Daily Tribune
After a year of development, The Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune launched its iPad app in April. The Web-based application is compatible with the iPad as well as some desktop and laptop browsers. The design is similar to print, but readers can flip from one story to the next with cleaner navigation and the ability to share stories on social media. Although access to the app is free, the Tribune’s online subscription rates apply — readers can access 10 free local stories per month before being asked to pay. According to the paper, more than 9,000 people are paying for online access through one of the subscription options.

“I saw a demand for this presentation, and when the iPad launched, the growth was staggering,” said Tribune general manager Andy Waters. “I wanted to take advantage of it and be right there at the beginning.”

Waters said that although developing the app took longer than anticipated, the process went smoothly. All content is originally published in the print edition, and the feature stories are aggregated into a virtual magazine called Columbia Life. Waters said the magazine will eventually include original content.

The paper does not put out an electronic edition, so the Web-based app serves readers who use their desktop to read the news. By choosing a Web-based app as opposed to a native app that must be downloaded from the App Store, the Tribune also opens the door for more devices without having to build separate versions for Apple and Android.

“Our goal was to create a premium product complementary to print,” Waters said. “It’s appealing to readers who want a more comfortable reading experience.”

Advertisers were excited about the opportunity to reach a broader demographic — from young people to older, affluent readers. “I went out personally with the sales staff to pitch the app to our advertisers,” he said.

Feedback from readers and advertisers so far has been “overwhelming positive.” In the next year, Waters said he wants to see the iPad app as a “real, solid alternative product with other offerings.

“I hope to see steady growth and continued support from advertisers and the readers to see more of its value,” he added.

Waters said there are also plans to add more features such as offline reading. “The app is not intended to replace our print product, which is still very important to us,” he said. “We’re going to keep doing a good job with (print), but the app is another one of our products.”

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