The Case for Building a News App in 2020 Is Stronger than Ever

The Reuters Digital News Report shows a significant increase in usage for news apps between 2016 and 2017. You could argue it’s the “Trump bump”, but this is true across countries, including the UK, Japan, Korea, Sweden, Australia.

I think it fits better within a context of ever growing reliance on mobile devices, more and more embedded in our lives, and a recent transition away from social as a channel for news – for the information that matters to them.

Although social is still important for publishers, people are finding it’s easier to trust known brands than whatever they see on Facebook (for those that haven’t deleted Facebook yet) or Twitter.

Nieman Lab-News Apps
The proportion of people using news apps weekly is only increasing, and it’s a global trend

Making the Case for News Apps

For innovative publishers, there are some clear benefits of news apps over mobile websites (which are a must) or a social media presence.

We go through the main advantages of creating a news app below.

  1. The case for News Apps
    1. Own Your Channels
    2. Better User Experience
    3. Higher Engagement
    4. Push Notifications
    5. Revenue Opportunities
    6. App Store Presence
  2. Aren’t apps expensive to build?
  3. Easily create apps for a WordPress-based news site
  4. Will people download your news app?
  5. Follow in the steps of leading publishers
  6. Wrapping Up

1. Own Your Channels

What’s nice about your website is that you control the channel.

You do rely on Google and social media networks to decide when it makes the most sense to put it in front of your readers, but you’ve built a great and valuable asset you can count on, especially if users are registered, for the site or a newsletter.

You’ve probably already seen the impact of Facebook’s recent changes to the newsfeed. Social traffic is drying up.

Building a business on top of social networks is dangerous territory – you have to take advantage of social traffic and encourage sharing, of course, but you know you’re on rented space. And the rent is going up. Organic traffic is down to a trickle and the networks are clearly pushing their pay to play strategies, after all, that’s their business.

If you publish your own mobile app, you’re in full control. It’s your own property, you control your listing in the app store, and you have a direct relationship with your audience.

Fostering this direct relationship is critical for audience development and ultimately revenue.

It’s like your website. But it comes with a subscription mechanism directly embedded in it, push notifications. More on that later.

2. Better User Experience

Like all of us, your readers have come to expect a native app experience from all the brands they trust to consume content from. They want fast loading articles, offline use, no intrusive banners or popups, easy navigation designed for a thumb.

The average mobile site takes 15 seconds to load. Responsive sites are particularly terrible, as they’re bloated with code trying to cater to desktop devices and mobile ones. Tracking and advertising code from the providers you use on your site are only making it worse.

Google’s results are clear: 53% of visits are likely to be abandoned if pages take longer than three seconds to load, while 50% of people expect a page to load in under two seconds.

AMP has made things better, but it applies to search results and Google properties, what’s the experience for your most loyal readers, those that come back every day?

Progressive web apps can bridge the gap somewhat, but often don’t do enough to create a truly mobile-first experience and lack push notifications and most of what makes them an “app” for iOS users, a part of your readership you can’t ignore.

A native mobile app seems the only logical choice if User Experience has to be the main criteria in choosing how to serve your audience on their devices.

3. Higher Engagement

There’s something quite unique in how readers engage with a mobile app. As the American Press Institute explained:

“Unlike the mobile website, the app is where you serve a loyal, familiar audience. They know you, and they’ve come here thinking, ‘Let’s open up the app and see what you have for me today.’”

A mobile app presents a great opportunity to connect with loyal readers. With a presence on the user’s home screen and regular touch points with push notifications, you have the tools to grow traffic and engagement.

Mobile web users have to do a lot more work to remember that your publication exists and then get inside it. They have to load up their browser, type in your web address, and then locate the stories that interest them. A native application holds dedicated space front-and-center.

Mobile websites generally tend to be much slower than apps, with the average load time on the mobile web being 10.5 seconds. Mobile apps don’t force users to wait, thanks to the ability to cache data locally.

Engagement with other mobile options pales in comparison, according to this data shared by Luke Wroblewski:

Luke W Minutes Per Visitor

A native news app is a tool for engagement, loyalty, and retention, as well as to develop a deeper relationship with readers. There’s no reason to settle for less… unless a news app really just isn’t a good fit for your publication.

4. Push notifications

Mobile websites do not afford readers this luxury. If your readership would benefit from offline access — especially if they reside in developing countries or the majority of them spend ample amounts of time traveling — a native app is a must.

In order to connect with your audience in real time, you can’t rely on social media anymore. With personalized push notifications from your mobile app, you have a more effective means to communicate with readers and get stories in front of them when it counts.

According to eMarketer research, only about 10% of news app users won’t click on push notifications:

eMarketer News Push Notifications

Also something to keep in mind: iOS12 has recently changed how notifications work on iOS devices: users can now automatically opt in to (silent) push notifications the way Android has done for years. You can win users’ loyalty with meaningful engagement right from the start.

5. Revenue Opportunities

A mobile app gives you more opportunities to generate revenue for your publication, including:

  • Displaying banner ads throughout the app – and you don’t have to worry about the loss of revenue from ad blockers.
  • Displaying app-only ad formats like full screen ads, offer walls, native ads that fit well within your content and promote relevant (mobile specific) offers.
  • Selling in-app subscriptions to loyal readers who want to access premium content or pay to remove ads from the app and continue supporting your work.
  • Selling sponsorship for the app – you can get creative here, but it won’t be hard for you to show your sponsor’s logo in the app’s splash screen or above every article.
  • You can use a paywall that offers a number of free articles and then requires users to buy a subscription or just require a subscription to all users. Purchasing access to content is so easy in a mobile app when using in-app purchase.

6. App Store Presence

What happens when you search your brand name or related keywords on the App Store? Give it a try and then assess if you might be missing out.

Sources of downloads for mobile apps
Apps are mainly discovered with searches or browsing on the App Store

On iOS, 65% of app downloads come directly from a search on the App Store. The rest would be driven by app store lists, category charts, ads in other apps, word of mouth, web links, etc.

At a Google I/O event Ankit Jain confirmed that even on Google Play search makes up the vast majority of installs.

John Koetsier of TUNE analysed the 500 top app store keywords and found 9 out of the 10 top keywords are branded. So we know that users search mostly for brand names they already know, including, if you’re known in your space and people might expect to find an app for what you do, your brand name.

Apple and Google haven’t released much in terms of data and statistics from searches on App Store and Google Play, but things like search auto-suggest on iOS confirm brand searches come up at the top, with a long tail of keyword searches on which we have little information on.

With even a basic App Store Optimization strategy in place, you’ll be found for mentions of your brand and related keywords.

But beyond organic searches, there’s a whole world of possibilities for publishers willing to invest in app install ads, with both Apple and Google making it very easy to promote apps within their stores.

Ok, but aren’t apps way too expensive?

Some argue that if you’re not a major news publisher, you shouldn’t bother with a native app.

This argument is true if you’re approaching it the way the largest players do: hiring an app development team, building separate apps for iOS and Android, and coding them from the ground up.

Of course, that will be time-consuming, complicated, and costly, not to mention the ongoing costs of maintaining them. It’s usually only a smart choice for the biggest news sites around.

Ask Jason Calacanis who changed strategy and stopped using native apps for Inside:

“To build a truly modern app startup at ‘reasonable scale’ you need to have about a dozen folks: two developers for each platform (iOS, Android, and web), a product manager, designer, a CTO, growth/marketing, and a couple of business folks (CEO, COO).”

The Inside mobile app became too expensive to manage with a full-time team of app developers.

“A dozen people means you’re spending around two or three million a year in San Francisco. My back of the envelope math in guessing how much a startup spends is $12k a month ‘all in’ per person in the Bay Area, $10k outside the Bay Area.”

But native news apps don’t have to cost that much. 

You can have a mobile app built and customized for you in the same way the major brands can, with a service like MobiLoud but at a fraction of the cost and in weeks rather than months.

There’s a better way, if your site runs on WordPress

If you already have a WordPress site for your publication, you have no excuse not to build a native app. It’s very easy and comes with a much more affordable price tag than custom native app development done internally or with an agency.

MobiLoud’s team of experienced app developers will customize, build and publish your app for you, and maintain it over time. The average time from sign up to an app published is about 2 weeks.

Business Insider NL news app
Business Insider NL’s app, built by MobiLoud


Here’s why you might want to consider building your app with MobiLoud:

  • The MobiLoud News service is tightly integrated with WordPress. This means that all the  content, features and functionality your readers have come to expect from your website can be available in your app too.
  • Your app will be fully native, built in Objective C, Swift and Java, and it will run super fast, loading within a fraction of a second.
  • The app has its own native design, separate from your site design, but it’s fully customizable and completely branded with your name, logo, colors and no mention of MobiLoud (fully whitelabel).
  • It works with any WordPress theme and plugin, so you won’t have to worry about incompatibility issues.
  • Content updates automatically whenever you post something new on the site, so you don’t have to manage the app separately.
  • You can make updates to your app’s configuration remotely, without issuing a new version to the stores, which is slow and tedious.
  • Push notifications are integrated directly into the WordPress dashboard, so your editorial team doesn’t have anything new or complicated to learn.

Will people download my app?

Some say it’s hard to get people to download an app, it’s easier on the web – is it? Downloading an app is super easy, what’s hard is having people invest their limited time in whatever you do, whether it’s content or a service.

An app can only remove friction (see the icon, one tap and it’s opened) – you can’t say it’s easier to remember about you, load a browser and type your address, right? When’s the last time you did that on your phone?

A mobile site is a good enough experience for those finding you on the web in a mobile search, or coming from a link shared on social media, but what’s your offer for readers that want to access your content every day or multiple times a day? The mobile browser is just NOT a great experience.

After 900 or so apps published, we have seen it all. We can confidently say that if you have a brand, an existing audience and great content, you’ll be successful with an app.

Don’t expect an app to be the magic bullet that skyrockets an unknown publication into a super popular app with tens of thousands of downloads – we’ve seen it happen, but only in lucky niches where there’s a lot of app store search traffic.

But give it enough promotion on your website, newsletter, use smart app banners, promote it on the stores and you’ll see the results.

Big name publishers lead the way

Need some inspiration? Great publishers have already created engaging digital content and news apps that users are flocking to download.

The New York Times is one of the most interesting examples (see our case study).

The NYtimes app has over 10 million downloads on the Google Play Store and is the #3 app in Magazines & Newspapers on the UK iOS app store. It also was the very first app to surpass over 1 million digital-only subscribers.

With a total of 3.8 million subscribers in 2018 — 2.9 million of which come from digital-only — the NYT has really turned things around and demonstrated how a focus on mobile app readership and the experience that’s specific only to them is one worth aligning to.

A daily newspaper out of the UK, The Guardian has been around for nearly two centuries. Recently, they’ve been more and more focused on membership and reader loyalty. Over the last few decades, designers have also attempted to shake things up at The Guardian, and push it more in favor of the modern-day news reader.

The Guardian Native App
The Guardian mobile app on iOS

Currently, the Guardian is the #6 news app in the UK iOS store and has over 5 million downloads in the Google Play store.

Google published a brief case study regarding the Daily Mail and its mobile app counterpart MailOnline in 2015.

At the time, it had 225 million readers around the world, making it the most widely-read English language news site. It was also the #1 news app in terms of usage. Readers were spending over 5 hours inside the app per month.

Currently, the Daily Mail holds the #5 spot for news apps in the UK iOS store and has millions of downloads in Google Play.

The Economist originally launched a mobile app back in 2010. However, at the time, it was wary about the platform’s future, which is why it hadn’t invested much in making it a worthwhile experience for readers.

Today, the mobile app is strictly for paying subscribers, but it’s an experience that’s been carefully refined by The Economist’s mobile team.

“Our mobile team has looked carefully at how readers use their smartphones today to help inform the new app’s development, while of course remaining true to the goals and spirit of The Economist. An easy-to-use user experience and good performance have been a priority, and throughout the process we have tested the app with readers to make sure it does the job it needs to do…”

– Richard Holden, Deputy Head of Product at The Economist

It’s no surprise that popular publications like the New York Times appear in the examples of successful apps above.

But they’re clearly not the only ones who’ve unlocked the secret to success in building a mobile news app.

There are newer, smaller, and more geographically or topically focused publications on this list, too.

You’ll see evidence in the lists of top news apps around Europe.

6 of the top 10 news apps in the United Kingdom are based there:

UK Top News Apps

You’ll find even more local “loyalty” in readership in other countries around Europe as well (of course, language barriers affect this too):

Local News Apps Europe

This isn’t about competing against top publications. This is about creating a valuable product for news readers in your market to use and enjoy.

Niche publishers are having great success with native apps.

If you already have an established readership, the questions over whether you need an app or not is already answered.

Wrapping Up

If you’re unsatisfied with the experience offered by your mobile site and you know your readers deserve more, 2019 is a great time to get moving on a native news app.

Related reading:

Want to learn more? Have a chat with one of our team and ask any questions you might have on apps.

Written by
Pietro Saccomani

Pietro is the founder of MobiLoud, where he helps site owners grow their audience on mobile with their own mobile apps.

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