Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
6 mins read

Publishers: Should you get an app?

Mobile apps have advantages over websites. It’s not cheap but for reader revenue-based news orgs it might just make sense.

In this column, I have written about why newsletters matter for publishers, about podcastsfinding your North Starhaving a clear value propositionsubscription pricing strategies and building in-house media products (like a CMS).

Observant readers may have noticed I spent little time on the importance of mobile apps.

So, let’s start with a question I often hear from small to medium publishers: Should we get an app?

As with many other things, the answer is more complicated than it seems. Anyone telling you a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without knowing your business most likely doesn’t know they are talking about.

Should you have your own news mobile app: Yes or no?

For big publishers having a mobile app is a no-brainer. The BBC, CNN, NYT, Daily Mail, The Guardian, Bild, Le Monde and many others have had apps for ages. Most also have a dedicated team in charge of their development.

In 2017, Ken Doctor reported in NiemanLab that NYT’s iOS and Android apps accounted for 27% of daily active users and generated 37% of overall pageviews. That’s huge!

The Vox Media publishing house has been a notable exception. But even they have been playing around with the idea of what a mobile app would look like.

A key reason for having a mobile app is being able to build deeper relationships with your audience. Of course, there are functional advantages. Like being able to send push notifications to readers, getting them to subscribe or register more easily (more on that later) or delivering a more personalized content mix.

Today, building a website, having newsletters and launching podcasts is very easy. You can use (or rent) various solutions from Substack to Ghost or WordPress.

Building a mobile app requires more effort. Even if you start with a white-label solution, it will cost thousands of euros just to get started. Maintenance is also pricy. Some CMS providers offer a white-label app together with publishing tools (see Arc XP by WaPo).

An app doesn’t have to be just a next step in an outlet’s evolution. Take Tortoise Media. In a recent interview publisher Katie Vanneck-Smith explained how they launched a successful Kickstarter campaign (more here) with a website and a mobile app in beta and a community of just 3,000 or so. Now they have 130,000 members (including paid and trial accounts).

An app is considered your own property, even though you go through Apple and Google’s stores. The tech and users are your own. It can be a one-stop-shop for all your content.

According to the 2021 Reuters Digital News Report, smartphones are the no.1 device used to access news online, and 8% of under 35-year-olds get news mainly via push notifications.

To find out if you need an app consider the cost and benefits. For an independent writer an app is useless, newsletters and podcasts offer better price-performance ratios. A small newsroom may opt for a mobile first website with the right tools for audience monetisation.

For a mid-sized organisation it’s about audience commitment and brand building (having your logo on readers’ phone screens is a good reminder you exist; people spend 5-6 hours daily on their phones).

But first of all it has to make sense on the business level. Is the app driving direct revenue? Are you seeing better conversion rates for subscriptions than via a website? Have you measured the retention rates or customer lifetime value of your app users?

The mobile app as a retention tool

From my own experience of working on news apps on the product side, the development compared to a website can be faster and more iterative. An app is a good place to test ideas.

On one hand you have the built-in beta programs of iOS and Android. On the other hand your most loyal followers and supporters will be first to use the app. They are much more open to be experimented on.

Which brings me to a report from Mark Stenberg over at Adweek where he laid out WaPo’s plan to boost its app team and strategy to drive more subscribers towards apps.

Stenberg found subscribers who used The Post app were more likely to read more and stay subscribed than website-only peers. Also, subscribers who were also app users consumed more content. Basically, WaPo found mobile apps are a good way to keep subscribers subscribed longer and doubled down.

Now, the lesson here isn’t that every subscriber of any outlet is the same and mobile app usage helps with retention. Rather it’s a hint of what you can ask your team to measure and decide if you want to try a similar approach.

When working on mobile app development I saw subscription conversion rates via an app were higher than via a website. Both Apple and Google have features like free trials in their app stores you can switch on with a single click.

Of course, you have to count in the “app store tax” – you have to pay both platforms for the privilege. But anti-monopoly pressures from regulators and governments worldwide have led both Apple and Google to slash their 30% cut to 15% for news apps.

Test, video, audio and the idea of super-apps

Jakub Parusinski recently wrote about ideas to help media managers succeed in the next decade. He gave examples from markets like Belgium and Russia where banks realized mobile apps were a top converting product and started adding extra features. 

The Belgian bank broadcast soccer highlights, while Russia’s Sberbank offered users business classes and online cinema, among others (with gaming on the way).

The industry term for what they’re building is super-apps (versatile, multifunctional apps). The idea emerged and took shape in China where super-apps like WeChat have replaced the whole mobile operating system – one app to rule them all.

In the past, Spotify has been on record talking about its app becoming a super app (specifically an all-encompassing audio app).

At the moment, Spotify is mainly about music and podcasts with some audiobooks. A second app, Spotify Greenroom, is an evolution of the Locker Room Clubhouse-like app for live audio that Spotify acquired in early 2021.

Rebranding and upgrading Locker Room was just a first step. The endgame for Spotify is to incorporate live audio in their main app. Sensor Tower data suggests Spotify Greenroom downloads have been rather underwhelming. (You need a convincing reason for people to download yet another app). Still, the same data shows that Spotify’s main app is beloved.

Some of the recent app work by news publishers has a similar goal: create a super-app for all their content. Not just text, but also video and audio.

The first few generations of news apps were mostly called readers, as reading articles was their main feature. Many evolved into full-fledged copies of their websites. The best ones took advantage of all features not accessible via website, like with the NYT app and personalization.

Audio is playing an ever-growing role. For example, Der Spiegel and NYT both added a dedicated audio tab into their visible menu bars. It’s not just podcasts, both offer audio versions of articles as well.

Just ask your audience

To sum up, if you are undecided, I have a suggestion – think of building an app like your media’s startup idea. Do some market research, look at what competitors are doing, explore prices of white-label apps and app developer agencies (don’t forget you will need at least 2 mobile apps – for iOS and Android). Calculate how many users it would take to break even. Then decide.

Also, tap into your community, there is a high chance you have readers who would love to help you build an app and have the skills. For them, it can be a good way to support your work without having to pay directly.

I realize this is somewhat a tricky proposal. I have met particularly small publishers who are stuck with their old websites just because someone is maintaining them for free. Maybe having some kind of financial commitment is a better long-term proposal, even if you would pay your developer less to start with and agree to increase once it breaks even.

Either way, whatever you decide, think about your audience and what would you be bringing them with a mobile app. Having a one-stop-shop is in my opinion a very good proposition.

Even better, do not listen to me and ask them. Maybe you will find out your audience is more eager to get something else from you than a mobile app.

David Tvrdon

This piece was originally published in The Fix and is re-published with permission. The Fix is a solutions-oriented publication focusing on the European media scene. Subscribe to its weekly newsletter here.