Posts Tagged ‘ mobile apps ’

Goodnight Peel. Lessons Learned.

The Peel Original Development Team

I’m pretty sure most of us have experienced at least one dramatic shift at a certain point in our careers.  One thing I have always prided myself on is reflection and willingness to learn from every major shift.  The most recent buyout of Freedom Communications and subsequent changes with senior leadership led to many strategy shifts and even total elimination of certain products.  One of the products discontinued was the iPad application called “The Peel”.  Those of you integrated into the process of developing The Peel are fully aware that its production was hard labor; countless hours of blood, sweat and tears.  Well maybe not blood but certainly the sweat and tears. However, those of us intimate with this product saw a light at the end of the tunnel, which we calculated to be about 2 years after its initial launch; we had projected 2 years just to get to break even on the profitability front. That investment period was abruptly ended – cut short by one year.  Its new owners failed to acknowledge the future of this product. So back to my original point: Anytime a major change takes place in my career, I need to reflect on the “why” and “what did we learn along the way” questions.  To give a proper response, I’ve written this post on the lessons learned from our experience with tablet publishing.

I’ll start with the reason that The Peel was eliminated: The new owners of Freedom stated that the focus of the company moving forward would be on subscribers and profitable products.  Seems reasonable for new owners to say.  The problem is that the premises of The Peel was to gain a new audience – to reach a much younger demographic than traditional newspapers. A demographic that is adverse to subscription-based models.  We were, in fact, creating a new way of publishing, using the iPad as the main vehicle; with more video, original content, local information and events than a typical news platform.  As I see it, if a newspaper’s main focus is on subscriptions and profitable products, it makes it very difficult to invest in creating new and different new sources of content.  Regardless of the decision, there were valuable lessons learned that I thought I would share. I know many of you are trying to figure out how to publish for a new audience, and how Mobile and/or Tablet can play a role.

The Good Stuff

  • We learned a key factor in attracting a younger audience was to brand the product with a unique name (non-replica of the newspaper), and play down any connection to its legacy brand.  We fought this battle constantly, both internally and externally.  It may be that your legacy brand is important for initial credibility, but not so much that your readers think it’s the exact same content that’s in your traditional print product.
  • Collaboration is very important with existing content sources, as the resources available from the legacy brand are vast. The large scope of news gathering and related content available for your product is critical to success, and therefore your relationships with legacy journalists are crucial.  We had a great rapport with the local content center; they loved that we were focused on expanding the audience.  They appreciated our role, which was to aggregate relevant content, and to design new elements that brought the content to life on the iPad. Our everyday decisions revolved around our target audience, not what was on the front page of the legacy newspaper or on the homepage of the legacy website.
  • Video must play a major role in the development of content.  Our most viewed stories were usually video-focused stories or features.  We created original series based on prep sports, behind-the-scenes insight into local entertainment, coverage of products & people from our local community and fashion trends.  We had 5 original content series, or “shows” as we called them, in The Peel, We aired the shows on consistent days each week, and we adopted a TV-like marketing effort.  Most of these TV/video products also became hits on The OC Register website.  However, we always kept original show programming exclusive to the iPad for 48 hours.
  • We inspired many other content businesses to follow our lead and produce content similar to The Peel.  We also showed the importance of hiring employees to work on these projects that came from entertainment, TV, production and design.
  • The key component of The Peel each day was the feature story.  The feature stories were brought life with written content, short videos, high-res images and interactive features created in HTML5.  In fact, our usage patterns would go off the charts when we had a rub & reveal HTML5 function in a feature story.
  • We ended up averaging around 5,000 “Uniques” per week and had over 125,000 downloads of the app.  “Time Spent” with the product averaged 13 minutes each time a person opened the app.

The Not So Good Stuff

  • We started out thinking the best thing we could do was to tie our publishing efforts into our existing content management system and workflow.  What a mistake.  Most legacy publishing systems start with a page-layout system that does not understand HTML5 or high-res images; we spent countless hours each day trying to make our desired functionality work within a system that didn’t want to accept it. We had wanted to focus all efforts around the needs and expectations of the end user, and not what the system would or would not do.  Sounds naive, but we missed many opportunities to grow upon content functionality due to being held back by the publishing system.
  • We should have developed more video and original content sooner.  We were so busy just trying to make our deadlines each day in the early stages, that we didn’t have time to collect data that would dictate what changes were needed.
  • The name change to “The Peel” (from its original name “OC Register Tablet app”) occurred when we had realized that most of the users of the iPad app were actually the same people who received the daily traditional print and website versions of the newspaper.  These readers were actually upset that they couldn’t find the stories from the web in the iPad app.  They were expecting an iPad rendition of the website and print products.  We quickly made a strategic shift away from the flagship brand, and what a difference it made. However, again a little late.  It’s not always easy being on the edge of new technology.
  • We should have created a Sunday edition of The Peel.  We were so focused on the Monday through Saturday readers, that we didn’t realize the Sunday users want a similar experience.  We were thinking Sunday was a time when people would slow down and take a look at the printed newspaper.  In fact, what really occurred was that our younger readers were used to experiencing the Monday through Saturday editions, and were actually disrupted by not getting the same experience on Sundays. And, they were not users of our other products; therefore there was a gap in their daily flow of news.
  • Finally, sales and advertisers weren’t ready for this new medium’s type of analytics.  Selling “share-of-voice” was foreign to our sales reps and advertisers, who wanted to talk cpm based buys.  I’m not sure much progress could have been made in this realm, as we simply didn’t have enough scale to gain major sales.  We sold advertising to casinos, sporting goods and some retail, but nowhere else.  The ads that we created for these particular advertisers looked great on the iPad. It was impressive. In the end, we ended up with the budgeted sales we had hoped for, but those numbers didn’t create profits.  I truly believe that we could have been profitable based on our original 2-year timeline. However, with new ownership comes new expectations, and the investment period for The Peel was cut off a year before we could witness that success.

The knowledge gained from this experience has allowed me to become an industry expert in Mobile and Tablet publishing, but boy did it come with some bumps and bruises.  I believe the future is bright for products designed to engage and deliver what a user expects from the device they are using.  I am a strong advocate of creating or publishing around audience expectations, and not trying to repurpose traditional newspaper content to fit the screen of the device.  I hope this post allows others to learn from my experiences and win the pursuit of new audiences by utilizing a new and different way of thinking and publishing.

Publishing for Mobile and Tablets, Why Does It Have To Be So Hard?

My Interactive team has been driving the mobile strategy for the company since 2007, launching hundreds of mobile apps, mobile websites and iPad apps. Those products have been revised over the years, but it’s become clear lately that we need to take our approach to mobile to the next level.

Over the past few months, we have been putting the final touches on a next-generation mobile and tablet apps strategy. We used user data as well as analytics data for our mobile websites, apps and iPad products.

Generally speaking, our news apps have been fairly easy to maintain since they are RSS feeds into a template design. iPad publishing on our “The Peel” app, however, is a different story.  The Peel features a combination of curated and original content.  The process to upload this original content is time-intensive. We have to manually work with each story to create a uniquely interactive experience for iPad consumers that expect dynamic functionality.

As we considered our next generation of products, it was apparent that we needed to improve on the user experience and increase our speed to market (improving on productivity with the backend content management system).  With 2 years of trials and tribulations under our belt, I can certainly say that our strategy for content, design creativity and innovation clearly outweighs our ability to deliver at a desired speed-to-market using the current legacy systems we have in place.

Advertisers expect a unique and compelling experience on mobile and tablets, as do consumers.  But how do we meet these needs when we continue to pull from existing legacy content production systems with ever increasing limitations? Example of limitations: Photo & video resolutions in existing systems don’t take advantage of hi-resolution retina display on an iPad. News stories are currently laid out to fit desktop or printed page, not mobile or tablet, and HTML5 is a foreign language to most.

The answer? Bite-the-bullet! Recognize that if you want to succeed you MUST publish for the future and think about investing in non-legacy products.  Easy enough? Not so much. More issues are arising with each upgrade of smart phone and tablet operating systems. Not easy to stay ahead of the technology curve when newspapers are inherently print-oriented.

Rahul Patel wrote Are Publishers Failing on Tablets:  “Tablet readers expect the best of both worlds.  They want real-time content and web-like interactivity within a user-friendly brand experience that “feels” like the same brand found on the web and in print.” This comment is more focused on magazines but the basic premise is correct for newspapers as well.

So, how can legacy media businesses evolve with technology?  Well, this is our attempt at it:

1)   We focused on the desired design layout.

2)   We decided how often we wanted to publish new content.

3)   We focused on how we could deliver original content that took advantage of HTML5 elements to bring the information to life.

4)   We looked carefully at how smart phone design and functionality differed from tablet design and functionality.

5)   We created our next-generation layout, and assumed it would last about 12 months.

6)   We also asked ourselves “How do we continually feed this beast”?  After all, we had been going on the assumption that we could continue with our legacy systems…

7)   CMS (Onset) & our publishing system (CCI) provide what we need to publish, however the process is labor-intensive, and this production process gets heavier as technology progresses faster and faster! We are just adding to the production time each day as we pursue the best possible experience for our audience.

It’s now time for us to rethink another next-generation process, as we must free ourselves from the current time-intensive workflow environment.  A publishing system and or process should not drive what you deliver to your audience.  That’s the job of the audience.

The Interactive ‘think-tank’ has devised a system where any CMS would feed into a “normalization engine” which would then put all content into its proper place.  The normalization engine would feed the templates automatically, therefore increasing the speed of production.  A dashboard would allow for manual manipulation of the content.  We could pull in HTML5 components, hi-res photos etc.  We could then push to any template we have in place regardless of the device.  Assuming success, we would now spend our time on the creativity of design and interactivity, changeable at your fingertips! This new process would break the heavy production cycle.  The content becomes ubiquitous and our time could be spent at the dashboard level making each interactive experience the best ever.

Not such an easy task… and the hardest part is foregoing the existing production system/workflow environment. If you don’t, you’ll never be able to deliver the experience expected in mobile and tablet publishing on a time-sensitive basis. The key to success is not allowing process or outdated publishing systems drive product.

Stay tuned, every day we learn more.

Publishing Content For A Device Does NOT Equal New Audience

I have been immersed in digital media for over 17 years. And, although the digital world has evolved at rapid speed most recently, my main goal has always stayed the same: deliver content when, where and how people want it. Then, monetize the content via advertisements, subscriptions and ecommerce.

Traditionally, media companies have a large database of content that meets the needs of one mass audience, and it’s no secret that most traditional newspaper organizations have a strong foothold in the 50+ age group.  The newspaper creates a piece of content, and then delivers that content on multiple platforms.  This is driven by a “let the brand do the work” mentality.

Here’s the problem. Building content for one mass audience doesn’t work anymore.  Placing the content on smartphones and tablets that is pulled directly from your print newspaper and website, doesn’t mean you will all of a sudden attract a new and younger audience that’s using these devices.

Younger audiences expect news and information built specifically around their likes and dislikes. More so, they expect it to be structured to meet the different digital platforms.

Let me give you an example from my own company.  When we moved existing web content to smart phones, we found it met the needs of our current print and web audience of 50+, yet we weren’t reaching a new and younger audience. The traditional newspaper subscribers want convenient access on smart phones to the exact same stories as in print and online – just shorter versions of those stories.

With the iPad project, we decided to take a completely different approach. We looked at design and content differently in an effort to reach a younger demographic, that we knew was extremely active on iPads. We weren’t trying to satisfy/grow the current traditional 50+ demographic that made up our print/website brand.

For the iPad app, we started with a design that was very graphical and that categorized information around typical interests of a 35-45 year old. We developed original content and we curated existing content to focus on providing entertaining information as well as news. We were developing content around a specific audience, rather than driving the effort around the specific device.

Early results have been positive.  We continue to build a new audience that is very different than the traditional newspaper reader.  Our iPad app users are more engaged, spending on average approximately 11 minutes for every visit.  They are heavy users in the evening, from 6-10pm.  The majority of users fall in the 25-45 age group.  At least 60% of the iPad app content is still being created by our existing ‘traditional’ content center, but a separate iPad production team is curating it.  Our original content offering, in addition to the curated content, has proven to be very successful at building a new and younger loyal audience.  However, must continue to grow this audience to a size that rivals our other online efforts, in order to call this a true success story.

This being said, we know it’s time to cater to the traditional newspaper audience as well, as they too are purchasing iPads and consuming news on them. We’ll give this audience what they want by providing  a format similar to the structure of a news focused product.  It will still take advantage of the technology but in a fashion that is consistent with expected content for the traditional audience.  Call it an interactive newspaper.

In the end, when looking at the early successes of our current iPad app product, we’ve learned our challenges go beyond apps and devices when delivering news to reach new audiences.  We can’t build one content database and deliver it on multiple platforms. Whether its iPads, smartphones, online, or print, we must continue in our iPad app curated and original content mindset, by building content for specific audiences and specific platforms.

Audience Acquisition with iPad Product “The Peel” Is it working?

Back in May 2011 we launched our tablet publishing effort (The Peel) seeking to attract a younger demographic utilizing Apple’s iPad.  It has been an exciting, yet daunting task.  Today, I am happy to say we are making great progress.  When we set out on this journey, we laid out milestones that we wanted to reach within a year.  The key milestones were 20,000 loyal users and a primary audience in the 35-45 year old demographic, 50,000 downloads, deep user engagement of at least 8 minutes per session and advertiser acceptance.  I have been receiving calls from industry friends fairly regularly since the launch of The Peel asking how we are doing.  Many of those calls from traditional media businesses still trying to figure out if they should pursue an audience acquisition strategy similar to what we have done.  We believe we are heading in the right direction with this product.  As The Peel continues to show good results, we will be adding another tablet product focused on a traditional newspaper audience in the 50+ age demographic.   I thought everyone might like to see how we have done after 8 months of publishing The Peel, so I included an infographic on the topic.  Our strategy is paying off.

HTML5 or Native App: What works best on mobile and tablet devices?

The mobile market has grown rapidly over the past couple of years and with the addition of tablets we will continue to see double-digit growth for quite some time, as reported by eMarketer in a recent report.

With all this growth comes a tremendous challenge. Which mobile platforms should a business pursue to optimize growth of audience and revenue, while keeping in mind associated development costs? Should you develop mobile optimized websites, native apps or most recently web apps?

Along with the mobile evolution comes HTML5.  This evolving web technology is a cornerstone of the growing Web App development effort.  Many publishers like HTML5 because it costs less than developing a native app for each mobile platform/Operating System (i.e., iOS, Android, Blackberry, etc.).  With HTML5 web apps, essentially, you build your app once and it will work across all mobile devices.

So, what is HTML5?

It is important to have a layman’s understanding of what HTML5 is  in order to assess the most optimal utilization.

Wikipedia describes it

“A language for structuring and presenting content for the World Wide Web, a core technology of the internet and as of August 2011 is still under development.”

The promise of HTML5 is cross platform development.  It is designed to deliver as close a native app experience as possible but deliver it via the open mobile web.  Since it is the web it does not matter what platform you are using. It can be accessed by any device without going through a proprietary app store front operated by a manufacturer or any other third party.  Just for clarity sake, a native app is an application specifically designed to run on a proprietary platform, taking advantage of its native platform functionality. Without the need to be connected to the Internet.  There is much more to it than that but I did say layman’s discussion.

At present, HTML5 has several strong attributes but it doesn’t offer the same functionality – and doesn’t work as seamlessly – as a native app.  For example HTML5 doesn’t allow deeper integration of the device accelerometer, camera, video and GPS capabilities.  Shown below is a table I borrowed from Worklight. It identifies specific features and shows no single approach is capable of delivering all of the benefits all of the time. Choosing the right approach depends on the specific needs of the organization and can be driven by parameters such as budget, timeframe, internal resources, target market, required application functionality, IT infrastructure and many others. Most companies today face an obvious tradeoff between user experience and application functionality on one hand, and development costs and time to market on the other.

It may sound like HTML5 is long on promise but short on actual results, while a native app delivers a better consumer experience but is more costly and takes longer to develop.

The Hybrid Approach

I believe the best way to pursue a mobile strategy in today’s environment is a hybrid approach.  A hybrid approach takes advantage of the best of both HTML5 and native app technologies to deliver apps with the optimum blend of user experience and cost/time to market.  HTML5 based web apps have exciting possibilities and it’s critical for an organization to developing expertise in this new and fast evolving technology.  But because of its current limitations it is too much of a risk to fully embrace.  The consumer experience may suffer and as fast as the market is moving you could cause harm to your business by not looking savvy to your audience and/or advertisers.

So what is a hybrid app model?  It is merging native app capabilities and functionality with an embedded browser inside the app that runs some of the user interface.  This is all transparent to the user.  You can be assured they don’t care how we get it done, they just want a great user experience.  A benefit of a hybrid app is maximum audience reach.  A hybrid app will be accessible via web search, as well as through app store distribution.

Shown below is a graphic that shows the correlation between a great user experience and the cost and time it takes to create an app.

                                                    Credit Worklight

The hybrid approach allows an organization to develop apps that employ native capabilities and functionality and leverage existing resources to minimize development cost development cycle time. So instead of rewriting code for each proprietary platform which is time consuming and costly, you can write some of the app in HTML or JavaScript (web technology jargon), and re-use it across all platforms.  This type of development opens a whole host of opportunities for the app.  You can now have an app load pages from a web site or even have some or the entire user interface in HTML 5.  Since this is a hybrid app it is still native and needs to be downloaded.  The portions of the app requiring an embedded browser will act and feel like a native app but the user will need internet access to make it all work seamlessly.

From a strategic standpoint I am an advocate of the hybrid approach.  It is not suitable for all app development needs but it does provide a cost effective solution for a wide range of apps.

Here is an article on Web vs Native App development you might find interesting reading.

http://www.informationweek.com/news/development/web/231500197

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