Lessons from five years of working with mobile news applications. Rule number 1: Do not deal with news applications

Original author: Priya Ganapati
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I spent five years working on a mobile news application - first as an editor to help with the search and preparation of content, and then as a product manager who guides the application through a complex visual and technical redesign.

And here is the most important lesson that I learned from my experience: if you are a small or medium publisher, then do not tackle the news application. If you already have it, give it up. Use resources better to create your mobile site. Respect to Atavist for making such a right and radical decision.

Pattern: when large publishers create niche applications (for example, NYT Opinion), they lose their full scale and are equated with small publishers for a particular category.

If you are one of the publishers that is in the Top 10 in its category (print, online or TV), then create a flagship application. Think of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed (not Buzzfeed News), Univision, CNN, or ABC News. This is another channel for attracting readers, but do not forget about the pattern written above.

Native application is hard to build and maintain

Want to add a feature, change some parts of the user interface, change colors, or fix bugs? You can write code as fast as you want. But then you have to wait. Typically, it takes Apple two weeks to approve any changes to the code. And at this time, your readers do not see the changes: in these two weeks, they usually bombard you with bad reviews on the App Store and put one star.

Negative reviews in the app store are the most crushing thing that can only happen to the app. 50% of user comments are justified, in which case you are in a hurry to fix the problems, while negative reviews continue to be collected. And the remaining 50% of the comments are groundless, but you still need to change the development vector to stop the flow of poison emanating from users.

The Android platform is much better because it does not require the approval of changes, but Android users hate paying for applications, and they are less interested in news applications than buyers of the Apple App Store. Application development also differs from development for the browser, because the speed and ability of the Internet connection are changing all the time. The terrible status is “low connection speed”, when the device struggles to connect to the network, but it doesn’t succeed, it means for the user only aimless clicks in the application - images and articles simply will not load.

And to get around this, you need to provide fast caching, focus on performance: initialization and boot time, and have clear error messages (nothing disappoints more than a blank white screen and a misunderstanding of why something doesn't work). If you don’t have the engineering resources to do this, why not focus on the mobile site instead?

Attracting a user base is expensive and long

Most applications usually gain new users immediately after launch, but then within six months the growth is reduced to zero or goes at a very slow pace.

The most effective marketing strategy for news apps: "Get on the Featured Apps list in online stores from Apple or Google." The problem is that Apple does not create any marketing obligations. So, if you find your application in the Featured Apps list on the App Store, then you are probably just lucky. And this cannot be a business strategy. Therefore, there are two ways to acquire users: spend $$$ on an expensive advertising company or place banners offering to download your application on your website. Both of these solutions are ineffective.

What you get in the downloads is lost while retaining customers. You can recruit 10 thousand new users, but only less than 30% will return to you more than three times. And over time, growth goes away. From time to time you will observe how someone tries to improve the situation with deep links, however I don’t remember something that would give a good result. The idea that if you put your product in the application store, people will download it and use it all the time, does not work - unless you have Facebook.

Most of your users will not use your application.

The vast majority of people spend 80 percent of their “mobile” time with three applications on a smartphone, and for tablets this number can perhaps be doubled. Here are the applications that have won their place in the lives of most people: Facebook, some kind of music application, and possibly some kind of “newsletter”. This means that they will choose their favorite product with a big name (hint: NYT, WSJ, Guardian, BBC or a news aggregator such as Flipboard). That is why the number of downloads is an unreliable criterion. Interest can contribute to the number of downloads, but this does not mean that users will come back. Only about a quarter of those who downloaded the application will open it regularly.

And this means that your user base for a day or a month is much smaller than you might expect. Thus, out of 40 thousand downloads, you may receive about 12-15 thousand active users per month. And besides, significant engineering resources must be invested in order to make this user base happy with the service. Official stores are cluttered with new applications that are not updated regularly and do not support the functions of new operating systems.
Everything that a news application can do is available to a mobile site, only in the best possible way.

Why are you developing a mobile application? To increase your audience? In order to ensure quick download of your content to mobile devices? For a good UI? Everything a news application can do can be done by a website - it’s only better and faster (except if you are led by narcissism - applications cherishing your vanity belong to another universe where the usual rules of doing business do not apply). If you have a mediocre mobile site, then spend engineering resources to improve it. If you want a stunning design, change the UI of your mobile site.

If the possibility of offline reading passes through the "newsletters" with a red line, then provide this function. If the main reason that you are creating a native application is the ability to offer offline reading, then make a 100% amazing technical solution. This is not easy to achieve, since you need to consider the conditions of a network connection, low-bandwidth connections and constantly updated content that must obey a certain hierarchy.

Applications are not magical worlds. They are part of a platform that is unpopular, resource-intensive and characterized by slow growth. So why not turn to the creation of mobile sites instead?

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