Can Publishers Rebuild Customer Loyalty with Apps?
It wasn't too long ago that apps were enthusiastically touted as the future of publishing. The launch of the iPad brought a wave of optimism and a flood of digital publications – but the euphoria was short-lived.
For most publishers, initial downloads were impressive but usage was dismal and revenue, either from sales and subscriptions or from advertising, was non-existent. The closure of Apple’s Newsstand marked a symbolic low point in the publishing app’s rapid rise and fall.
But overall app usage is up, way up, and although this is no easy fix, mobile apps may be an opportunity for publishers to regain a little of the loyalty their brands have lost recently to third party platforms like Facebook.
Mobile now dominates digital media usage: Smartphones and tablets claim two-thirds of time spent with digital media, according to comScore’s 2016 US Mobile App Report. The mobile web, where it’s easier to link and share, accounts for the highest number of users; mobile web audiences are almost three times bigger than app audiences and growing twice as fast.
But the real opportunity for publishers is with apps. Mobile apps now account for almost half of digital media time and three out of every four mobile minutes. They lead the mobile web by a margin of 7:1 in terms of time spent, a ratio that comScore says has held constant for the past two years.
Prolonged engagement on apps is good news for publishers looking to build back loyalty and develop subscription revenues or ad propositions based on dwell time. But first publishers need to win audiences back from the apps that have a secured user base, most obviously, Facebook.
Increasingly, magazines and newspapers have been struggling to keep their place at the table. Print reading habits used to be robust. Whether we waited for our favourite titles to drop on the door mat or we picked them up at the newsstand on our daily commute, reading was routine.
Digital reading habits are much less routine, randomized by our social feeds. Thanks to social media, update frequencies have been amped up, competition for attention has soared, and the time to indulge our off-screen habits has been squeezed.
The publisher apps that will succeed will win by re-imagining old-school reading habits.
Late last year, Bloomberg launched a revised consumer app and announced plans to introduce more throughout 2017. The stated mission for the business publisher’s app portfolio is to deliver “personalized content to users in a more seamless and controllable fashion than what’s currently available on the mobile web and inside social platforms.”
That sounds very like a certain specialized social stream and anyone that’s used the Facebook app will notice how the Bloomberg app looks similar, a deliberate attempt to learn from the leader’s success. “Who better to copy that the biggest platform in the world,” Scott Havens, global head of digital for Bloomberg Media, told Digiday.
Bloomberg built the app using React Native, cross-platform development tools created by Facebook and made available under an open-source license. It took its development team five months to develop the app, half the time it would have taken without React Native, according to the Tech at Bloomberg blog.
Bloomberg has said that it is aiming to double usage of its consumer app in 2017 by using a content package that changes according to what time of day it is. The new consumer app can also be personalized according to location and by specialization, including Markets, Technology, Politics, Opinion, or Pursuits.
Other successful publisher apps focus on similar enhanced information frequency and functionality. The Economist’s Espresso gives readers of the news weekly a quick-hit daily option that guides them back to the website for more information. The Quartz News app introduces a call-and-response texting style that lets readers interact with a news bot, bringing users in twice a day.
Creating a Winning App
It’s easy to imagine that the app market is all sewn up. Between Facebook and Snapchat who has time for any more apps? But comScore reported at the end of 2016 that, although the market is tightening, we haven’t reached peak app usage yet.
Recent concerns over fake news and clickbait have put the spotlight back on quality content and that could give publication apps a boost. With the ‘Trump Bump’ in the U.S. fueling subscriptions and the ‘Brexit Bounce’ in the U.K. having a similar impact, the opportunity to charge for app content has never been stronger – original content from a trusted brand and protected inside an app can take up a premium position.
Not every publisher has the content resources and tech budgets of Bloomberg, The Economist, or Quartz. But at their core, the best publishing apps follow a replicable formula, offering regular updates and deeper functionality than the mobile web, to develop habitual usage.
But before you rush off to secure a development budget, ask yourself a few questions to make sure that an app is right for you:
- Will your audience put your app on their home screen? According to comScore, 7 out of 10 smartphone users prefer to keep their most frequently used app on their home screen. Apps elsewhere don’t get used as much.
- Can you refresh your content often enough to make regular usage meaningful? ‘Notification Fatigue’ has led to more users turning off new content alerts, so your app content needs to be compelling enough for your audience to go to it.
- Can your audience do anything in your app that they can’t do on the mobile web? Apps that make life in the ‘real-world’ easier tend to get used more – think Uber, Fitbit, or Tinder. Publishers that can bring a service element to their apps will do better.
- Can you monetize your app without crashing the user experience? Ad-blocking on mobile is at similar levels to desktop. Developing native ad units that are not intrusive or charging for app content will bring better returns than fish-stick banners.
- Can you convert social and mobile web audiences to app users? ComScore says publishers must get better at onboarding mobile web visitors. Equally important, they need to be able to bring audiences out of social media.
Related story: Email, Mobile Are Key to Building Reader Loyalty
Peter Houston runs Flipping Pages Media, an independent consultancy and training firm, helping publishers identify and dismantle the barriers between print and digital content. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing conference and judges a number of magazine awards. He was formerly editor at large for themediabriefing.com and group content director for Advanstar Communications, Life Sciences.