Lessons From Five Years in Mobile News Apps: #1 Don’t have a news app.

I spent five years working on a mobile news app — first as an editor helping curate and package content and then as a product manager shepherding it through a complex visual and technical redesign.

And here’s the #1 lesson from my experience: If you are a small or medium sized publisher don’t have a news app. If you already have one, shut it down. Use your resources to make your mobile web site better. Kudos to The Atavist for making this decision.

A corollary: When major publishers do niche apps (NYT Opinion etc), they lose their built-in scale and become the equivalent of a small publisher for that category.

If you are one of the top ten publishers in your category — print, online or TV- then have a flagship news app. Think New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed (not Buzzfeed News), Univision, CNN or ABC News. It’s just another channel to reach your readers but remember the corollary from above.

Native apps are difficult to build and maintain
Want to add a feature, change some part of the UI, change the colors, or fix a bug ? You can code as quickly as you want. But then you have to wait. Apple typically takes two weeks to approve any change to the code base. And till then your readers can’t see it. In those two weeks, they are usually pounding you on the App store with reviews and one star ratings. Reviews in app store are the single most corrosive thing that can happen to an app. 50% of the time user complaints are right, in which case, you are scrambling to fix problems, while the negative ratings pile up. And the other 50% of the time they are wrong — yet you are forced to change direction to stop the user venom. Google’s Android platform is better because of no approvals but Android users hate paying for anything there and its users are less into news apps than those on Apple’s App store. Developing for apps is also different than developing for a browser because connectivity changes all the time. The dreaded “low connectivity” when the device thinks is trying hard to reach the network but can’t means for your reader clicking around in the app — images won’t load, articles won’t pull up. And to get around that you have to build a robust caching experience, focus on performance — initialization and load times, and have good error messaging (nothing is more frustrating in an app than a white screen where you can’t understand why something is not showing up.) If you don’t have the engineering resources to do all this, why not instead focus on the mobile web?

Growing your customer base is slow and expensive
New apps usually add a flurry of users when they launch and then after six months stall out in terms of growth or have growth in very low single digits.
The most effective marketing strategy for a news app is “Get featured by Apple or Google on the app store.” The problem is Apple doesn’t make marketing commitments. So if getting featured on the app store happens, you probably got lucky. And that cannot be a business strategy. That leaves two options for customer acquisition: spend $$$ on an expensive ad campaign or pepper your website with banners asking readers to download your app. Neither is effective. What you gain in downloads, is lost in customer retention. While you may have added 10,000 new users, less than 30% of them will eventually come to your back after three times. And over time, growth stalls out. Every once in a while, you will hear someone bring up deep linking, but I have yet to see that done well anywhere. The idea that if you put an app on the app store, people will download it and use it at all the time doesn’t work — unless you are Facebook.

Most of your users won’t use your app
Most people spend 80 percent of their time on three apps on their phone and, probably, twice as many on their iPads. The apps that most people have room in their life for: Facebook, a music app and then probably some sort of news app. That means there’s a greater chance that they will go to their favorite big name news outlet (hint: NYT, WSJ, Guardian, BBC or an aggregator like Flipboard). That’s why app download numbers are not an effective metric. Curiosity can drive initial downloads but doesn’t mean users will keep coming back. Just about a quarter of those who have downloaded the app will open it regularly. That means an even smaller base of daily or monthly active users. So on a base of 40,000 downloads, you will probably end up with about 12,000–15,000 monthly active users — and a significant investment in engineering to keep that base happy. App stores are littered with news apps that are not updated regularly and don’t integrate the features from the latest operating system.

Anything a news app can do a mobile website can do easier, better.
Why are you doing a mobile app? For growing your audience? For helping your content load quickly on mobile devices? For a curated experience? For a nice UI? Anything a news app can do a mobile website can do easier & better (except if the answer is vanity — vanity apps inhabit a different universe where the normal rules of business don’t apply.) If you have a bad mobile website, spend the engineering resources to fix your mobile website. If you want great design, change the UI on your mobile website. If news apps are all about offline reading, then really offer one. If the sole reason you are doing a native app is to offer offline reading then well it better be a 100% technically awesome solution. Offline reading on news app is difficult to get right because you have to engineer for different network connectivity, low bandwidth connections and constantly updating content that needs to follow a certain hierarchy.

Apps aren’t magical universes. They are part of a platform that is not viral, resource-hungry and hard to grow. So why not bet on the mobile web instead?

Want to talk more? Email me at: pg2147@gmail.com. All views are my own and not necessarily those of the companies I have worked with in the past or present.

Published in #SWLH (Startups, Wanderlust, and Life Hacking)