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Mobile apps for news: Do something!

by: Amy Gahran |

June 17, 2011

Mobile apps for news: Do something!

One thing is obvious about smartphone users: they like to DO stuff. Rarely will they passively read or watch anything on their phones for more than a minute. Unfortunately, the vast majority of news orgs’ mobile news apps mostly just repackage the content of a complete news website. That is not a very compelling mobile app experience.

So try making news apps that do what apps do best: experiment with releasing smaller, special-purpose apps that focus on interactivity…

By Amy Gahran

The whole point of offering a mobile app is to increase the size of your digital audience, and how often they engage with your news content and brand, in order to support your mission and business model. Typically news orgs gauge an app’s success by the number of downloads, but that’s misleading. Recent research shows that 25% of all apps downloaded are only opened once—and only 25% get opened 10 or more times.

So in general, the vast majority of all kinds of mobile apps aren’t very engaging. This is why it’s important to keep an eye on your app’s open/usage rate to see whether you’re hitting your mark.

News shovelware is an old mistake. From the perspective of today’s mobile user, news shovelware apps generally add little value over your mobile web site.

For most news org apps, aside from reading/watching news stories, typically the only things users can do is rate stories, share web links to them via social media or e-mail, and maybe mark stories as favorites or leave comments. People should already be able to do all that from your mobile web site—and for a lot of reasons (especially streamlined and less costly/complex development), that’s why your mobile web site is probably the best place for those activities.

Examples of effective news apps

Several news organizations are doing a great job of delivering interactive apps—at least for users who are browsing the web via a desktop or laptop computer. These efforts often aren’t labeled “apps,” but they are indeed interactive web apps because they allow individual users to interact with, query, or otherwise manipulate or play with your data or content.

Here are a couple of examples:

1. Bay Citizen Bike Accident Tracker. This nonprofit news site recently updated its interactive online presentation of bike accident data from the counties surrounding the San Francisco Bay. Users can query the database and see results displayed on a map or in comparative charts, and also report bike accidents.

All of these tools would be compelling for mobile users. So far this microsite only displays well and is usable on a full web browser, but it could be optimized as a mobile web app and also a native smartphone app. (The Bay Citizen did publish the raw data for anyone who wants to try.)

2. You fix the Minnesota Deficit, MinnPost.com. This project uses game mechanics to engage people with civic issues and news, and allows users to share their results. The Texas Tribune and the New York Times have a similar budget web apps. None of these are currently optimized for mobile use, but they could be reworked as mobile web apps and/or native apps.

These might make especially good games because users get to save their results and try again, continually tweaking their budget fixes to see what kind of different various strategies make. This would make it compelling for, say, mobile users who have a few spare moments in line at the DMV, wondering “what if we changed how highways are funded?”

More ideas for mobile news apps.

Almost every news organization has information or data that would be highly engaging if presented in an interactive, mobile-friendly format—rather than only as a narrative story or infographic. These could be spun off as small, special purpose mobile apps, released as mobile microsites and/or as separately downloadable native apps.

Here are some possibilities to consider:

  • Community calendar. Almost every news organization publishes one, but usually the digital presentation and interactivity is sub-optimal—and for mobile users, downright abysmal. However, this is exactly the kind of information that would appeal to people on the go. It could also be tied in with e-mail, SMS, mapping, ticket purchasing, click-to-call, and calendar export to take full advantage of mobile handset capabilities.
  • Geotagged news. More news organizations are taking advantage of geodata and geotagging to make the connection between stories and place—but so far, news sites and apps don’t generally make much use of this. (Although the new Google News mobile feature News Near You does.) A mobile app could tap into the user’s location and display a list of local news stories that involved that location and the surrounding immediate area—perhaps with a map or timeline interface. This could provide an interesting glimpse into hyperlocal history.
  • Legal notices and classifieds. These are still a key revenue source for many newspapers, due to continuing legal requirements in many states that specify print publication. The Craiglist mobile app is highly popular—why aren’t news orgs doing something similar? In particular, legal notices may represent an opportunity for paid apps, based on niche uses—people who actually read legal notices tend to do so for business or professional reasons.
  • Legislation tracking, with alerts. News stories mention lots of legislation in progress, and most legislative bodies (at least at the federal and state level) offer online access to bill text, status, and sponsors. While many sites and apps exist to track legislation, a nice twist would be to also present news stories that mention or are otherwise relevant to specific bills. This could be delivered via the web (standard or mobile), but it could be integrated with opt-in SMS alerts and calendar reminders.
  • Crowdsourcing. As more news orgs (and other organizations) experiment with crowdsourced reporting—from analyzing documents, to disaster/crisis reporting, to identifying photos and more—an app can be a good way to make it easy for people to participate. Check out existing citizen journalism apps and consider what tools and resources a project-specific crowdsourcing app might include.
  • News games. People often use their mobile phones to kill spare moments, so mobile apps or services that challenge people to demonstrate their knowledge or creativity can be a fun way to engage people with news. How about a news quiz of the day, or an OKCupid-style cascade of news questions? A point system for people who answer the most questions correctly? A “caption this photo” contest? A news game microsite or app could package several challenges or fun news-related activities, while also linking back to stories. Leaderboards or badges could encourage competition.

These are just a few off-the-cuff ideas for how news orgs might make more appropriate, effective use of the app concept.

The good news is that it’s easier to experiment with smaller, focused projects. When you’re not trying to repackage all of your content, you have more options.  Just make sure to track how, and how often, these apps get used. If they’re sufficiently engaging, they can become a good “gateway drug” to the rest of your offerings.

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

By Amy Gahran, 06/17/11 at 1:27 pm

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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