Editor’s note: This is one of 19 case studies featured in INMA’s strategic report “Smartphone App Lessons for Media Companies,” released in July.   

The Toronto Star’s smartphone app is a significant part of the overall marketing strategy, but has not become a primary focus. Its long-term value is still very much under consideration, according to Ali Rahnema, chief operating officer for digital at Star Media Group. 

“We are undecided on the value of continuing to offer a mass appeal app, and as such, do not dedicate significant resources towards developing a unique user experience,” Rahnema says. “We are currently evaluating the value of a mass appeal offering and determining whether or not moving to several niche apps would be better in meeting user demand and needs. An alternative path we may take is to not offer any native apps at all.” 

The Star’s lone app was developed internally and is offered free of charge, with both banner and native ads generating revenue. In its current state, the app offers readers a replica of the mobile browser experience within an app shell, coupled with some basic functionality only available on native applications, Rahnema explained.

Its appeal to readers lies mostly in the Star’s distinctive journalism rather than in the app platform, he says.

The Star measures success for the app by examining both audience reach and revenue, and so far both have been only moderate, Rahnema says. This has led to the current re-evaluation of its approach. By observing reader behaviour, the Star has concluded that in curating content, it needs to treat differently the reader experience for each of its platforms.

“App users are, by the nature of the experience, much more reliant on the homepage for navigation,” Rahnema says. “App users are also more likely to consume more content in a single session. In general, these are more loyal users, and their consumption patterns reflect both their loyalty and the nature of the experience. If we want to drive deeper levels of engagement, we must treat these users differently than those accessing our content through mobile Web.” 

But because it reaches significantly larger audiences through its mobile browser and Facebook offerings, the Star currently focuses more of its curation efforts on those platforms, he says. With stronger bases, social media and the mobile browser are looking like stronger media through which to engage readers in the future, but the Star is continuing to investigate potential for growing user engagement through apps. 

“While the commercial model remains very much a work-in-progress, mobile is our biggest area of audience growth and a key area of priority attention, despite unknown ROI,” Rahnema says.