Is the mobile Web or an app right for your media company?

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


An app doesn’t create loyal users. Rather it serves them, according to Riske Betten, digital director at Mediahuis in The Netherlands.

“When someone is already loyal, the app is a good place to keep them or to offer them,” Betten told INMA members during a Product Initiative Meet-Up on Wednesday.

The Webinar, which focused on mobile Web and apps,  looked at questions such as how consumers use mobile and the relationship between apps and loyalty. 

The Telegraaf user loyalty and frequency are much higher in the app than mobile Web.
The Telegraaf user loyalty and frequency are much higher in the app than mobile Web.

App or mobile Web?

Betten shared some stats from the Mediahuis property, Telegraaf, on their user loyalty and frequency on both the Web site and apps.

“There’s a clear difference in how loyal people are on both,” Betten explained. “The app shows clearly that there’s a bunch of loyal people. For us, loyal means visiting us more than 11 times per week. The flybys — those who visit us only once a week — is the smallest [number of app users].”

These numbers are a clear distinction from Web site users, who do not return with nearly the same frequency. However, Betten clarified it’s not that the app is causing users to be more loyal.

“They are already loyal, and then we find them in the app.”

It’s not only frequency that is higher in the Telegraaf app than the Web site. Page/screen views are also higher, at an average 149.3 minutes in the app versus 60.9 on Web. Sessions are roughly the same, with 18.1 minutes in the app and 22.8 minutes on Web.

“At this moment, it’s a good argument for us to keep the app,” Betten said. “We have one-and-a-half million in the app showing loyal behaviour.”

Not all Mediahuis titles experience this drastic of a difference between app and Web users, she added, and making a business case based on the data is difficult: “For us, having an app is a good idea.”

One of the biggest drawbacks to the app was giving away 15%-30% of the profit to the app stores, as well as user data. That, however, looks to be changing. Product Initiative Lead Jodie Hopperton directed members towards a recent INMA article that looked at these changes with the Apple App Store.

“We do want to know our subscribers, because without that, you can’t speak of a relationship. And we do want to have a relationship with our users,” Betten said.

Are you going to be in the top five?

Next, Aron Pilhoffer with the Lenfest Institute in the United States shared some of his findings about apps. Agreeing with Betten, he said that was exactly how to view apps: They don’t create loyal users, but they are a valuable tool for serving them.

“Apps have to be viewed as sort of a niche product,” Pilhoffer said. “I’m a very data-led person, and I just haven’t seen any compelling evidence that apps create loyalty. But the app is a terrific tool for certain news organisations.”

If a publisher is going to enter the app space, they must be poised to be at the top.
If a publisher is going to enter the app space, they must be poised to be at the top.

For news organisations using apps or interested in doing so, Pilhoffer said there is a key question to ask: Am I going to be an industry leader in this space, or not?

“If you look at the top charts, you can see the apps that rise to the top are the ones you would expect in the States: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Washington Post,” he said. “Unless you are going to be at the top of your charts, essentially the first choice for a large number of users, you have to start asking questions about whether there’s a return on investment.”

Using The Washington Post as an example of how massive being at the top of the charts can be, Pilhoffer shared that the Post app (number six on the charts) enjoys 30,000 downloads per month and brings in a revenue of about US$600,000 monthly.

“The ones at the top disproportionately receive the most use, the most downloads.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer, on the other hand, is at No. 127 on the charts, its app only brings in US$20,000 per month, and it is downloaded less than 5,000 times per month.

“The other thing to keep in mind is that I think we who use a lot of apps — and I am one of them — we’re not normal. The average number of app downloads per month is zero,” Pilhoffer said. “Most people don’t download any apps in a month.”

People do not download and use apps that much, on average.
People do not download and use apps that much, on average.

This means news media publishers must ask themselves key questions about whether they should have an app and if they will be able to win in the space. The answer had better be yes, he cautioned, because:

  • Apps are expensive to build and maintain.

  • They require specialised tech teams who generally work only on apps.

  • Apps are not an acquisitions tool. There is no such thing as “drive by” traffic in an app.

  • There is a huge barrier to entry.

  • Pushing users to your app is difficult and might be impossible.

  • The average person uses fewer than 10 apps per day — will yours be one of those?

“For you to be among them, that is an enormous hurdle,” Pilhoffer said. “I think we in the news space are kind of fixated on apps. We spend maybe too much time thinking about apps because I think we love them. But for users, you have to ask these fundamental questions.”

A user must really want to use an app. They have to search for it on an app store, download it, register and/or log-in, and then, most importantly, use the app and not forget about it. Pilhoffer said that’s the reason the engagement figures on app usage is so high.

“You have to deliberately end up in an app in order to be a user. There’s a loyalty bar that you have to get over, a threshold, to even be counted as an app user.”

This leads to a real “apples and oranges” comparison to other access points, especially mobile Web. That doesn’t mean that apps aren’t a useful tool — they certainly are, Pilhoffer said.

“To put absolutely perfectly, apps serve loyal users. They don’t create loyalty. They aren’t the kinds of things you develop with the intention of trying to create loyal users, but they certainly are tools that loyal users will want.”

He thinks of apps more as retention tools, not acquisition tools.

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About Shelley Seale

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