twitter-292994_1920-700x466“You must have an app.”

No doubt all publishers have been told this at some stage probably as a singular statement of fact, rather than part of a cogent argument.

But the rise of apps shows no sign of abating and whilst the traditional website is far from dead – indeed, the most recent research suggests that desktop usage has plateaued and that increased usage of apps is as well as not at the expense of desktops – the usage rates of mobile device-based apps has, arguably, reached a tipping point for most publishers.

So, let’s explore what advantages apps bring to publishers, the different types of apps and which you should be choosing.

Lock-in

Whilst it’s not difficult to install an app, it does require a little effort – not least in deciding which app to install – and that makes a huge difference.

It’s highly unlikely that a user will install multiple apps for the same domain (why have multiple sources of the same content?) and whilst on the web, an alternative source might only be a Google search away, with apps that process of adding a new app is often enough of a hurdle to discourage “app churn”.

Of course, that also means that getting that initial install is even more important than getting that first visit to a website.

Constant Contact / Notifications

The ability for your website to be able to periodically prod your readers with a “hey, remember me!” is pretty limited and will usually be via an alternative channel such as an RSS reader – does anyone use RSS readers nowadays? – or email, still a crucial communication channel.

Not so with apps.

Apart from potentially being reminded of your existence every time they look at their home screen you can very effectively give your users that virtual prod with notifications, the messages that popup on your phone or tablet, and badges, the visual reminder (usually a number) that new content is available.

Both these features can be controlled by the user but most will not switch them off so It is essential that your app makes use of them.

Opportunity For Experimentation And Innovation

One of the most overlooked advantages of apps is the opportunity they provide for experimentation and innovation.

Apps give you an opportunity to explore new markets and produce new products. Espresso from The Economist is a great example, and reminder, that you don’t have to just replicate your website when you build an app. There’s an opportunity to try something new by repurposing both your content and your workflows.

Better User Experience

Although the gap is narrowing, the user experience on an app is generally superior to that of a generic website. There are a number of reasons for this but primarily apps have not been constrained by convention in the same way as websites.

Apps usually also have a much narrower focus and this lack of having to please everyone has encouraged innovation and a certain amount of risk taking. This has been heightened by fierce competition with traditional publishing rivals as well as pure digital newcomers.

Ease Of Access

Switching on a computer to access content is a hurdle especially when compared to the near-instant on of a mobile device.

Having your content available via an app means that it can be accessed almost immediately the user thinks about it with practically no hurdles. Easy access results in frequent access which results in a habit.

Monetization Is Easier

Just the fact that apps are found and installed from “stores” conditions readers to expect to pay for the content either by purchasing the app or via in-app purchases. This makes apps hugely attractive for publishers and sits in stark contrast to web-based content, that may be making headway in user pays but still has a long way to go.

Offline Content

One of the biggest advantages that apps have over websites is offline storage: once downloaded that content is available without the need for an Internet connection.

Connection independence will matter more to some audiences than others but the instant access is applicable to all users as an unwritten law of content seems to be that it increases in size as connection speeds increase, resulting in a download time that remains constant.

So there’s a number of reasons why you should be seriously considering an app for your content. But what type of app should you be choosing?

Unfortunately, there’s no straight answer to that question as it depends on a number of factors such as:

  • the lifespan of your content
  • the length of your content
  • the subject matter
  • how quickly it needs publishing
  • your audience’s consumption habits

Let’s look at a few examples to help you decide which model best suits your situation.

The News Streamer

DK Sports, owned and pubished by popular Pittsburgh sports journalist, uses a WordPress-powered website and a UniPress-powered app to deliver content to paid subscribers.

The app pulls the content directly from the website and storing minimal data on the device itself. The website and the app share the same paywall, allowing subscribers to access content on both their mobile devices and the website. With a short content lifespan and a high publishing frequency the DK Sports app focuses on displaying the latest content every time it’s opened.

Issue-based Apps

The antithesis of the streamer is the issue-based app: curated content delivered in a single package on a scheduled basis.

That schedule can be whatever makes sense: whilst many publishers have maintained their print schedules of monthly or quarterly, some have experimented and Espresso from The Economist publishes its issues on a daily basis. In virtually all cases the issue is downloaded to the device for offline availability and most make use the app stores subscription services to provide on-going income.

Either free or driven by the subscription service provided by the platform app store, they model the traditional print model. Whilst those publishers targeting Apple devices had to decide whether to go standalone app or Newstand app, the recent announcement of the new iOS News app also saw the demise of the Newstand app and now all publications will become normal apps.

Standalone Apps

These are mostly for one-off publications such as the influential Al Gore-inspired Our Choice, which really kicked-off interactive publications when it was published back in September 2013.

Free or paid for with a once-off purchase, these are really eBooks on steroids and best suited for content that will have long lifespans in much the same vein as their paper-based cousins.

Finding Someone To Build Your App

There are many, many ways to build an app and there are hundreds of services out there that will offer you the “simplest, easiest way” to create your app.

Before you decide on a service or a developer, you need to build your checklist:

  • How long is the lifespan of your content?
  • Are you going to publish using issues?
  • How frequently are you going to publish?
  • Do you need to store content for offline access?
  • Do you want your app to pull your content directly from your website?
  • If so, will your website handle the extra traffic?
  • If not, do you need to host the content elsewhere?
  • Are you going to charge for access?
  • How many subscribers are you anticipating?
  • Do you want to use the same paywall across the website and the app Notifications and badges – these are non-negotiable, you must have them
  • Which platforms are you going to be targeting – iOS, Android, Windows?
  • Do you want to be identified as the publisher in the various app stores?
  • What is your budget for set-up and on-going?

With your checklist in hand, you’ll be able to review and compare the various services or put a reasonable brief together for a developer.

Apps are not easy – they take time and resources to put together. They are also not the path to infinite riches and if you think it’s a case of “build it and they will come” then you are going to be disappointed.

The various app stores are massively crowded and unless your app becomes an Editor’s Pick, you’ve got very little chance of being discovered. There are no shortcuts when it comes to marketing your app: it’s search-friendly content on your website, promotion through your social networks and perhaps some advertising.

Most important will be word-of-mouth, either literally or via your users’ own social media channels. So, just like in the offline world, giving your readers high-quality content wrapped in a best-in-class interface will be the key drivers for your app’s success.