By: Heidi Kulicke
Are you stuck with a mediocre app that’s a mere replica of your print product? Trying to figure out how to maximize your app’s potential or, perhaps, still trying to wrap your head around the whole tablet idea in the first place? Whether you love it or hate it, the fact remains: Apple’s iPad will forever change the way information is accessed, and competitors are in hot pursuit as tablet technology gains momentum throughout the world.
According to the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers mobile Internet trends report released in February, the first three quarters of iPad sales were three-and-a-half times greater than the first three quarter sales of the iPod and the iPhone combined. Plus, Forrester Research estimates one-third of U.S. online consumers (82 million people) will own a tablet by 2015. Forward-thinking newspapers must respond by investing in the future and embracing digital technology in all of its forms, especially tablet apps.
Rethinking Your App
Every newspaper is looking for a way to become more profitable and flourish in a digital world; however, “many sectors of the traditional news industry have been slow to embrace changes brought on by digital technology,” according to “The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism,” a report released in May on digital news economics from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Tablets have changed the way people consume information with their wide range of capabilities, such as 360-degree views, scratch-off graphics, infographics, slide shows, and video. “The companies who take advantage of this and give people a truly robust experience while using the iPad are the companies who are going to win,” said Doug Bennett, president of Freedom Interactive, a division of Freedom Communications. By providing information in an entertaining way, organizations can captivate an audience disinterested in print or e-editions, he added.
An informal review released in March conducted by Damon Kiesow of The Poynter Institute concluded that the majority of newspaper apps are still PDF-like versions of the print edition. “The wide use of PDF apps points to an industry-wide failure to capitalize on the new opportunities mobile touchscreen tablet devices allow. Replica apps have their place in a portfolio of mobile offerings, but they cannot and should not be viewed as anything other than niche and transitional models,” Kiesow said.
According to John Crisp, director of sales and new media with The Toledo (Ohio) Blade, the key to any digital platform is that it must become a complementary part of the overall strategy until revenue growth of the digital platforms matches or exceeds print. “Without the paper, we would not have content or resources to have the strong digital products,” Crisp said.
Freedom Communications’ flagship newspaper, The Orange County Register, debuted its second iPad app — an interactive, magazine-like app dramatically different than the original — in April. Freedom plans to unroll similar apps throughout the remainder of its publications. First and foremost, Freedom is focusing on distribution, and in time may consider charging for the app, which is currently free. “We need eyeballs to make our advertisers happy, so we’ll build up our audience first,” Bennett said. National advertisers are paying attention and have signed multi-month contracts. “That’s a strong indicator that even though we don’t have a big audience yet, advertisers want to experiment with what we’re doing.”
Should You Outsource?
The Register has hired a team to work exclusively on the company’s iPad app, but not every newspaper has the ability to do so. Creating a superstar app in-house and keeping up with advancing technology once the app has launched can be a daunting task. If current technical knowledge or resources are lacking, outsourcing your app to a company that specializes in app-building may prove to be beneficial.
“Creating or improving an app should be approached with three objectives,” said Jason Gould, senior vice president and general manager of Inergize Digital, a Minnesota-based mobile app company. “Remember the goals and objectives of the newspaper, advertiser needs, and the value proposition to the consumer.”
AdPay, Weather Central, and Inergize Digital are under the umbrella of News Synergy, a mobile app builder focused on locally branded media companies. Popular features include an interactive weather radar; integrated and searchable classifieds; self-serve advertising; geo-located advertising and weather; ad pacing, forecasting, and yield management; user-generated content; and content sharing via email, text message, Facebook, and Twitter.
The Brainerd Dispatch, a small daily in central Minnesota, hired News Synergy to create a local-centric iPad app. And with the locally controlled News Synergy Admin system, the Dispatch is able to make changes to the app whenever necessary. Plus, a locally branded app user interface and developer account ensures the extension of
the newspaper’s brand.
Demographics of Acquisition
When revamping a current app or creating one from scratch, a look into who iPad users are could be beneficial. Research company comScore found that owners of iPads in the U.S. skewed heavily toward 25- to 34-year-olds (27 percent) in comparison to that demographic’s makeup of total mobile audience (17.6 percent). iPads are also popular in the 18-to-24 and 35-to-44 age groups. The demographic profile is similar to that of the overall smartphone user base.
In addition to analyzing iPad users, understanding the habits of readers by device and time of day helped Bennett establish the publishing strategy for the Register app, which publishes new content on a daily basis at 6 p.m. “What we’ve found is that the majority of users access their iPad at night. They don’t want to look at news they’ve already seen that came out at 5 a.m.,” Bennett said.
As newspapers broaden their offerings across multiple platforms, a firm understanding of the current and potential audience is vital. Catering to different demands helps determine transition and acquisition strategies, Gould said. “In the case of a multi-platform distribution strategy, newspapers should seek a cumulative distribution strategy, similar to what they are achieving with websites,” he said. Newspapers can also offer niche or event-oriented apps for high school sports, college sports, a local festival or fair, and so on — creating a hub for local information.
Newspapers could attempt to transition their current print audience to the iPad, but Bennett said he doesn’t see that as a viable strategy, because “a news organization’s print audience and mobile audience are completely different.” An emphasis on the iPad audience and centering content around that audience data is vital, he said. “We didn’t want to transition our current audience to a new device if that audience isn’t growing anymore. Otherwise, we’d be transitioning a smaller and smaller audience,” Bennett said, because “the younger demographic isn’t using the core print product; therefore, we’d be creating a downward slide in business.”
The transition strategy will eventually happen for all newspapers, Bennett said, once readers over age 50 fully embrace tablet technology. In the meantime, the goal is to acquire new readers in the younger demographic. “If we’re not creating an experience that revolves around our users in the 25- to 45-year-old age group — we’re back in transition,” he said.
A Competitive Edge
Newspapers should take the time to research their market and markets of comparable size to determine which media apps are successful and why. They should also research internal, advertiser, and consumer audiences to determine mobile app needs, Gould said. “Consumers will only download and continue to use apps that are useful to them. Therefore, determining the must-have content, features, and functionalities to drive user engagement is imperative.”
If outsourcing app creation, publishers also must be prepared to research development options and select a solution that best meets their needs. Thorough research of individual outsourcing companies will help newspapers avoid being fooled by virtual companies with limited support and no proven track record.
By focusing on the creation of relevant content within the editorial and advertising messages, newspapers have the opportunity to grow their user base. Using social media as an example, newspapers can reach out to younger users and interact with them, Crisp said. “Add targeted advertising to the mix, and there are certainly opportunities to turn these different products into meaningful revenue streams.”
When designing the Blade’s iPad app and other digital offerings, five focus groups were organized to discuss the paper’s print and digital strategies. “We evolved our products from these discussions,” Crisp said, and the result is a different, more meaningful product for the local community. “We don’t view The Daily as competition, even though technically all media is in competition with one another. This goes back to the relevance conversation for us,” he said.
The Register app has six sections — news, sports, business, trending, things to do, and photo gallery. Within each section are the top 10 items believed to appeal to the tablet audience, Bennett said. The goal is to avoid the Web experience of clicking from link to link and page to page to find a story of interest, and instead, create a user-friendly, sensory experience.
Tablet-exclusive features should be designed to lure users to the app instead of the website or print product. For instance, the Register used a hybrid car feature in its app to not only compare various hybrid models, but to showcase videos, audio, photo slide shows, infographics, and an interactive “scratch off” on the car’s hood to reveal the look of different car engines.
The company hopes to create a 60/40 model, with 60 percent of content coming from within and 40 percent coming from freelancers and other websites. An RSS feed provides up-to-the-minute news, but the bulk of the app aims to focus on what appeals to the audience: what they want to see, hear, and do with a tablet.
“We need to bring in experts from other sources to attract a younger demographic. We think long-term it will show that it’s OK to bring bloggers and freelanced work into our own product to create the best content for our audience,” Bennett said. “Just because we didn’t write it doesn’t make it bad. To generate a new audience, newspapers need to change their business model to focus around their audience instead of trying to be all things to all people.” Ultimately, your brand is giving credibility to the information you’re trying to put out, he added.
Almost all online news sites practice some form of aggregation, by linking to material that appears elsewhere or acknowledging stories that were first reported in other outlets, according to an analysis of 199 leading news sites by the Pew Center’s 2010 Project for Excellence in Journalism. The analysis found that most of them published some combination of original reporting, aggregation, and commentary and that the mix differed considerably depending on the management strategy, the site’s history, and the budget.
Pew categorized 47 of the sites it surveyed as aggregators/commentators and 152 as primary producers of original content. In the aggregator/commentators group, four-fifths of the sites were online-only; of the original-content group, four-fifths were connected to traditional media. Traffic is highly concentrated at the top of the list, with the top 10 sites accruing about 22 percent of total market share. Seven of the top 10 sites are “originators.”
The study found that consumers use these different kinds of sites quite similarly. Sites with original content do slightly better at keeping visitors for longer stretches and leading them to more Web pages.
The Big Picture
Technology has clearly left its mark on the industry and will continue to do so. Basic newspaper content has evolved to be compatible with multiple screen sizes and processing capabilities. When evaluating your current strategy, two questions remain: First, do your digital publishing systems allow for quick change, and second, do you have the internal resources to dedicate to this quickly changing environment? An affirmative answer will guide publishers as they fine-tune their products.
Engaging consumers is the key to driving tablet app usage, Gould said. “User-generated content, polling, contesting, push alert notification, and social media linking all provide the most engaging and interactive consumer experience possible.”
Whatever your app strategy, one thing is for certain: Don’t get tunnel vision. Look at the big picture and set clear, defined objectives. With the bottom line at the forefront, and print and digital products centered around the objective, newspapers can leave their mark in the busy world of tablet apps.
Six Strategies for Competitive Apps
1) Offer consumers compelling and relevant content in an intuitive user interface.
2) Provide advertisers the ability to geo-target ads down to the street level with yield management, pacing, and forecasting.
3) Extend the newspaper’s brand with a locally branded user interface and locally branded developer account. There is no need to build your app developer’s brand or compete with their national mobile app.
4) Leverage a locally controlled admin to dynamically publish content, send push alerts, manage user-generated content, and so forth.
5) Integrate social sharing features to extend newspaper brand and reach.
6) Implement a promotion plan, the key to driving downloads.
— Jason Gould, senior vice president and general manager of Inergize Digital