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 Ottawa Citizen, part of Canadian media company Postmedia Network, takes a platform-agnostic approach to reaching its readers.

“We think about our strategy more from an audience perspective, and that means via browser and apps on the smartphone,” says Liane Brodie, a director of app development for Postmedia, which also owns the National Post, the Calgary Herald, and the Edmonton Journal.

“We have a very broad reach through the browser, where consumption tends to be one and done. Our app users consume close to five times more content per visit, so that’s a narrower, but highly engaged audience.”

To serve that audience, Postmedia works to develop apps that don’t just keep them informed of news that is important to them, but does so in a way that demonstrates an understanding of where and when they are consuming that content, Brodie says.

With smartphone penetration reaching 78% of all mobile phone subscribers in Canada, “it would be an understatement to say it’s a critical lever in our overall marketing strategy,” she says.

“With penetration even higher among 18- to 34-year-olds, odds are that someone’s first experience with our brand is going to be on a smartphone,” Brodie continued. “We need to make that experience a great one, and then build on that to move them from awareness of our brands through to brand advocacy. That’s the brass ring.”

Postmedia develops its apps through collaborations between its internal team and an outside development partner, with each having its own areas of expertise.

Experience has shown the company that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all technology platform solution, so it applies its development resources toward the specific features and functionality demanded by each different product, Brodie says.

The Ottawa Citizen launched “an entirely re-imagined set of products” in 2014, with the goal of attracting new readers and engaging existing readers more deeply across all of its platforms.

“Our new Ottawa Citizen smartphone app is a completely unique product that’s tailored specifically with a younger audience in mind,” Brodie says. “The experience is designed very carefully with consideration for the context in which the reader is consuming it. There’s a single, constant stream of ‘live now’ local news for quick and easy skimming, and each story is written specifically with the understanding that our audience is consuming in micro-moments throughout the day.”

The app also has a “personality” that is different from anything Postmedia has done before, she says, speaking to the reader in a different voice than the Citizen would in print or on the Web site, while staying true to its position as a trusted news brand.

And the app is trying new ways of using alerts to attract users’ attention, not limiting them to just the biggest breaking news stories, as is more traditional.

“We’re experimenting a lot and learning along the way,” Brodie says.

Revenue for the app comes from advertising, mostly display ads, though video and native content are driving growth, Brodie says.

To measure its success, the company looks at usual business drivers, such as unique visitors and pageviews that will drive impressions and ultimately lead to revenue. But it also has strategic goals for the app, such as attracting a new audience.

“We’re still the same trusted local news source, but we’ve put a different personality into this product, one that (hopefully) resonates with readers who are used to getting their news from their social feeds, aggregators, or newer ‘info-tainment’-style brands,” Brodie says.

“It’s still [in the] early days, but we’re seeing success on both fronts. We’re making inroads with a younger audience in Ottawa, and our mobile revenue continues to grow. It’s still under-indexed relative to time spent, but with new advertising solutions coming into the mix, we see more opportunities.”

The company has seen remarkable increases in user engagement through its apps, but it has also encountered challenges as well as opportunities. As readers shift from desktop to smartphones, marketing strategies must keep up with them.

“Brands are looking for more creative ways to break through with their messages. And since smartphones are extremely personal devices, there’s a greater opportunity to create more bespoke solutions and avoid alienating users with the wrong kinds of creative,” Brodie says.  

The company’s creative teams are working more closely with advertisers to develop programmes and solutions that fit seamlessly within the content stream. The programmes must be relevant to readers, and advertisers must think contextually and craft their messages accordingly.

Says Brodie: “One-size-fits-all campaign executions are thing of the past. It means a little more work and collaboration for everyone, but the payoff potential is high when we get it right.”

Postmedia is also working to optimise both the reader and the advertiser experience in mobile video, seeing untapped potential there, as well as in native content, where Brodie says the key to success will be in delivering both editorial and advertising content that is relevant to the audience.

There are challenges in being able to get a full, cross-platform view of a user’s behaviour through mobile platforms, she says, but Postmedia is beginning to see some viable solutions emerging. 

“The more we can close that gap between the known audience and the unknown one, the better able we’ll be to evolve our products in meaningful ways for our readers and advertisers alike,” she says.