It’s no secret publishers have an on-again, off-again relationship with apps. They’re de rigueur one minute, and ill-advised the next.

App usage trends haven’t helped. Audiences may download plenty in earnest, but they typically only visit a handful over and over.

And, let’s face it, vying for audiences in other apps such as Facebook’s newsfeed, is, in many ways, just doubling your workload. (Check out this article on Medium explaining why fighting with Facebook’s algorithms for audience attention is a losing battle.)

Appealing to an app's user helps increase its likelihood of being well-received.
Appealing to an app's user helps increase its likelihood of being well-received.

But it’s social media that may have something to teach publishers about building engagement with audiences. We expect most of you have a great mobile Web offering already, but when it comes to your app approach, it might be time to look beyond recreating your front page.

Treating publishing apps more like “social media” and not “another home page” is a natural progression given the unique features and abilities of apps over mobile Web. Those features bring users back to an app once they’ve downloaded it, and drive time spent once they’ve re-engaged (making those users your most valuable).

So what exactly makes apps so unique? You’ve heard it before, but smart personalisation is one distinction.

The advantage of a native app is its highly interactive and intimate nature. Ask anyone to hand over his iPhone to you with its screen unlocked. Chances are he’ll outright refuse. What makes our phones so addictive is that they’re an extension of ourselves — highly personal and reflective of who we are as individuals.

You can capitalise on this by focusing on it like social media networks do. Allow your users to personalise their interaction with your brand and your content — they’re craving the ability to engage with you this way — and you’ll all but guarantee they’ll use the app.

Who says your app can’t look more like their profile page?

The personalisation of Bustle's app has resulted in an average seven-minute session time.
The personalisation of Bustle's app has resulted in an average seven-minute session time.

Take Bustle. The news media company, founded in 2013 and focused on Millennial women specifically, revamped its companion app last year. While the old app simply recreated Bustle’s home page, the revamp offered users the chance to pick and personalise from curated topics to match their interests.

Forbes reported in March that more than 250,000 readers have downloaded it. Granted, this isn’t a huge number. But the app boasts a 4.5-star rating in the App Store and the average session is seven minutes. This is certainly a brag-worthy metric to strive for, considering it relates to audiences viewing your content (and your ads), your way.

Once your users have identified their personal interests, you’ll have ample opportunity to monopolise their attention — provided they’ve enabled push notifications. Push is a way for your media company’s voice to live in their pocket. Push notifications will light up a phone and be the invisible pull that tugs a phone’s owner across a room. What other electronic cue wields that kind of power over us?

When that telltale alert goes off and the accompanying message is welcomed, a push notification fulfills our most basic needs for connection. But if this isn’t the case, look out. A frivolous update is likely to be met with an angry response.

The key here is making sure your users asked for the information. Personalisation goes hand-in-hand with push.

Push notifications on the Breaking News app are used sparingly so as to remain relevant.
Push notifications on the Breaking News app are used sparingly so as to remain relevant.

The Breaking News app has turned this truth into a thriving business model. The app not only has 50,000+ topics users can select from, it takes it a step further by layering multiple notification options like “news near me” into its personalisation model.

Along those lines, the Breaking News team launched an “emerging stories” feature just last year — but promised not to push too frequently or inundate users with anything they don’t want to see, ensuring the company keeps the delicate balance tipped in their app’s favour. 

Breaking News and Bustle are proving that taking a lesson from social media rather than competing with it might be the key to winning in the app landscape.

Personalisation and push notifications are one lever to pull in this approach. And, as to the question of whether you should even have an app, investing in an end-user experience you can completely control is never a mistake.