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Content-driven apps pay for themselves in year 1 at South China Morning Post

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.   

Mobile represents an integral component of the South China Morning Post’s digital business strategy. Like most publishers, SCMP has seen mobile access increase exponentially during the past few years, and the share of the company’s mobile edition in its user base is “sizable and growing,” according to Ben Abbotts, deputy director for digital business development.

“The SCMP Mobile Edition is very important as we are a subscription-based news product that bundles access across all of our platforms,” Abbotts says. “It is imperative that we give our readers the ability to access our content on mobile in a user-friendly and optimised manner, ensuring that we can maintain and grow both our user and subscriber bases.” 

SCMP developed its approach to apps holistically, in conjunction with its other digital platforms including desktop, HTML5, and tablets: “Tactically, it is to be consistent, device-agnostic, and customised to align with the strengths and habits of a particular platform,” Abbotts says. 

The media company’s Web site includes an integrated meter, and its array of products, including mobile products, are bundled together into subscription plans. Users can subscribe to monthly or yearly plans, which include access to news content on desktop, mobile, mobile app, and tablet.

“We see mobile as a critical component of our subscription bundle and offering to subscribers,” Abbotts says. 

Its three native smartphone apps for iOS, Android, and Windows mobile all offer a customised experience intended to increase engagement. The apps offer breaking news push notifications, user personalisation, article bookmarking, and access to trending content — most viewed, most shared, and most commented. 

They also contain an integrated QR Code reader to help create connectivity between its print and mobile platforms. Revenue is generated by integrated advertisement units, including adhesive, in-line, or full-page ads.

SCMP’s core app is the news-focused SCMP Mobile Edition. Its developers are focused on iterating and improving this app “to take advantage of new technologies and functionalities as new devices are launched and new operating systems are introduced,” Abbotts says.

“That being said, we don’t rule out creating an ecosystem of apps to support our various integrated businesses; for example, we also have recruitment platforms within our organisation with their own specific apps.” 

The SCMP team is responsible for strategy, design, user interface, content, and application programme interface creation. But the company outsources the development side to a local app development partner with expertise that gives it an edge in remaining current with changing technology.

“It is also more manageable from the point of view of maintenance and bug-fixing, as there is always a raft of OS (operating system) upgrades to test against and optimise for,” Abbotts says.

SCMP’s apps are driven by content, Abbotts says, so its editorial team strives to publish content as quickly as possible without compromising credibility or quality.

“We place a lot of emphasis on usability to make our apps easy and enjoyable to use. We iterate our mobile apps a number of times each year to add new features and functionality, to add new content, or to improve the user experience based on user feedback and analytics.” 

The media company also wants to give readers options for finding content that might be of interest to them, so it doesn’t only present news in an order similar to its desktop platform, but also offers alternate ways to view content, including lists of “most viewed” or “most commented” articles. 

SCMP has seen a significant difference between user behaviour on its optimised mobile platform compared to its native apps. “Our native apps are used more by our engaged loyal readers, whilst our optimised mobile platform generates a lot of traffic via SEO and social media,” Abbotts says. Such differences in behaviour have driven its sales team to adapt to sell ads across a range of different devices. 

To measure the success of its apps, SCMP closely monitors key performance indicators such as articles-per-user, unique users, pageviews, session times, and in-app purchases. Abbotts could not reveal details about its return on investment, but says “it’s fair to say that the apps paid for themselves within their first year.”

In the coming years, the company expects to see mobile use continue to grow, and apps become even more sophisticated and integrated across the media industry. The launch of the Apple Watch, Abbotts says, “is another example of the proliferation of mobile devices and, of course, wearables,” and SCMP has extended its Mobile Edition app for the Apple Watch, making it among the first developers and publishers available on the new device. 

“There is a big opportunity awaiting publishers who are able to combine mobile app usage with data to facilitate targeted ad campaigns on mobile devices,” Abbotts says. “This will be a powerful tool when it comes to demonstrating value to advertisers on mobile devices, and may ultimately help convince them that mobile is more valuable than the traditionally low (costs per thousand impressions) may have previously suggested.”

About Jeremy C. Fox

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