Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

The best strategies for creating specialized mobile apps

Think about the mobile apps or websites your organization uses to reach the public, and ask yourself two questions: what do they do, and who are they for?

If the answers that come back are “everything” and “everyone,” we’re about to change that.

A mobile app or website that serves all your traditional content to a general audience is a fine first step, but only a first step. In this paper, an American Press Institute Strategy Study on best practices in mobile niche apps, we will call these “brand apps”, the ones that simply package all the traditional news content and information from a publisher’s brand in one mobile edition through an app or through responsive design.

Niche apps present an opportunity to reach new target audiences, deepen the engagement and loyalty of their users, and grow new revenue.

But the data on how people use mobile technology suggests that to develop a true “mobile-first” strategy publishers have to think about how people use mobile devices, in what context, and what unique, customized experiences they can create for mobile users.

We call these specialized mobile products “niche apps” — an app (or possibly a mobile-optimized website) that deeply serves a specific content topic and may even provide specific useful mobile tools beyond conventional news content.

Niche apps present an opportunity to reach new target audiences, deepen the engagement and loyalty of their users, and grow new revenue through well-defined audiences and well-positioned products.

This paper is the first of a new form of American Press Institute research. Called Strategy Studies, they are a cousin of the familiar “case study” but different in a couple key ways. First they draw insights from multiple cases; second they focus less on the examples themselves and more on the lessons, and actionable insights for others to borrow. They also are designed to be realistic and note the potential obstacles to change.

The best practices in this report draw on examples from various publishers, including The Dallas Morning News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Detroit Free Press, Digital First Media and McClatchy Co., highlighting specific tactics and strategies that worked for them and can work for other publishers, too.

One of our goals of this paper is to show that developing niche apps isn’t just for giant news organizations flush with technology resources. In this Strategy Study we specifically sought examples of how news organizations have done this with only modest resources and low risk of failure.

And at the end we’ll give you a simple worksheet to build a strategy that’s right for you.

Niche is about being the very best at something

Research shows mobile news consumers want niche products that work exceptionally well.

A 2013 survey by the Reynolds Journalism Institute found that smartphone and tablet owners who read news on their devices are more to likely have downloaded niche news apps than the traditional brand apps of newspapers, TV or radio stations. Nearly 70 percent of smartphone owners downloaded niche news apps, while only 47 percent downloaded newspaper brand apps.

News-consumers-prefer-to-download-niche-apps-chart

What does this look like in action?

ESPN has a brand app tied to the SportsCenter franchise, but also niche apps for watching live video, fantasy football, college basketball, college football, and more.

Yahoo has a suite of mobile apps specializing in niche topics like weather, finance and sports. The New York Times has niche apps for real estate and things to do.

The best tools do one thing and do it better than anything else.

The niche strategy is also prominent among retail companies, an industry that has in many ways been on the leading edge of mobile technology.

Target, for instance, has a brand app, but also a specialized mobile app for coupons and discounts called Cartwheel. Amazon has a brand app for general shopping, but also niche apps for barcode scanning, Christmas wish lists, student textbooks — even an app to shop by just taking pictures of real-world objects around you.

The concept of niche apps make a lot of sense when you think about the common experience of a mobile device user.

We know that smartphone owners tend to “snack” information on their devices: they pull them out dozens of times throughout the day, often for brief, focused sessions with a specific task to accomplish. Smartphones are sometimes used for gaming or music or other entertainment, but for most people most of the time they are a utility device — they help the owner get something done.

It helps to think of the smartphone as a virtual Swiss Army knife — a single device with many individual tools suited to specific tasks. In the analogy, apps are tools — instead of a blade, scissors and corkscrew there is an email app, a calendar and Angry Birds.

The best tools do one thing and do it better than anything else. The blade is a great blade, the tweezers a great tweezers.

Smartphone owners have access to thousands of apps. If yours is to stand out, it has to be the very best at something — the best at one thing, not average at a lot of things.

Unfortunately most news organizations’ basic brand apps fall into the latter category — a little bit of a lot of stuff, none of it particularly special. The basic brand app may be useful for your power users, a relatively small group of people who are very loyal, frequent readers of much of your content.

Unfortunately many users’ experience with a general brand app will be the following:

  1. Download it, thinking “I know that brand, it might be cool to have their app installed just in case,” then
  2. Rarely use it, because no specific “case” brings it to the front of their mind.

Conceiving and building niche apps is about identifying a specific target audience, assessing what information and utility needs they face, and developing a customized product that is better than any other at meeting those particular needs.

Draw upon your community's passions

Thinking about any potential new product should start with identifying the audience and its needs.

Consider the major annual events in your community, the popular hobbies/activities, sports teams, major civic problems, major industries — in what do people show an unusually high interest?

Now identify the potential niche audiences that have information needs particularly suited to a mobile context. Think about which passion areas contain needs that could be solved with on-the-go information or interactive information tools. Think about location-based needs, time-sensitive needs, and convenience or personalization-based needs.

Remember that audience size isn’t everything here.

Attracting a large audience is good — but when going after niche markets there are other valuable attributes. One is loyalty. It is good to create something people will use repeatedly, that has real value. Another consideration is that to create a revenue-generating products, it helps to target an audience that is able or highly motivated to pay or otherwise attractive to sponsors (think 18-34 demo, influencers or ready-to-buy consumers).

Hip Hops helps users find information about beers and bars in the St. Louis area.

Hip Hops beer app

Hip Hops helps users find information about beers and bars in the St. Louis area.

One example comes from St. Louis, home of the Anheuser-Busch brewery and a thriving craft brewing scene, where the Post-Dispatch created a Hip Hops mobile web app powered by the expertise of local beer columnist Evan Benn.

The article announcing the app launch in 2011 noted how this niche product was targeting a community passion:

St. Louis’ beer scene is exploding like a cask of overcarbonated ale. We’ve got new breweries popping up around town, out-of-state breweries clamoring to get their beers into our hands, and established local breweries producing some of the most exciting and innovative beers in their histories.

It’s time consumers had a mobile tool to help sort the swill from the sublime and to keep them abreast of the latest happenings around town.

Hips Hops is an example of a mobile niche app that hits all three audience goals —
a community passion with a large following, information needs with a strong mobile context (what do I drink at this bar?), and a valuable audience demographic. (Benn left for a job at the Miami Herald this year, but other staffers have picked up the beer beat.)

Another way to identify niche app ideas is to look for “information markets” in your business community, said Grey Montgomery, director of mobile initiatives for McClatchy Co.

Ask whether there are there local industries where companies would be willing to pay to be informed better and faster than competitors.

McClatchy, which happens to own newspapers in five state capitals, identified capital politics and policy as a prime information market to serve.

There are various overlapping audiences — politicians, staff, administrators, lobbyists and the many state workers who interact with the government as an employer.

these are all tests. We are trying to find our way with what maximizes revenue.

McClatchy has created premium mobile news apps for Sacramento and Olympia. There’s also a mobile app as part of the premium NC Insider news service in Raleigh. that cost about $5 to $20 a month or $50 to $200 a year. A similar product will launch soon in Boise, Idaho.

The Capital Update app for Olympia, Wash.

Capital Update app

The Capital Update app for Olympia, Wash.

These products were launched in 2013, and it’s too early to have much data about their financial success. But it’s notable that they are priced for a premium market.

Sacramento’s Capital Alert costs $20 a month or $200 a year. Subscriptions for Olympia’s Capital Update are $50 a year, but access is also free to subscribers of the Olympian or the Tacoma News Tribune. “We will market Capital Update as one more reason to subscribe,” Montgomery said. “Like everything, these are all tests. We are trying to find our way with what maximizes revenue.”

Another way to approach this niche audience question is for publishers to look at their current overall audience, especially any paying subscribers they may have. Do some research into what particular topics or information needs drive their loyalty to your publication, and then try to hit those niches with new premium products.

“We do see that some people subscribe to our digital paid content products to more or less access one category of content. The question is, what if we were to super-serve that category of content?” Montgomery said. “If you’re paying $7 a month to access charlotteobserver.com, and we observe that all you’re consuming is a lot of retail banking content, what if we doubled or tripled the amount of retail banking content that we’re providing to you? Would you be willing to pay then instead $15 a month? Maybe.”

For McClatchy’s many state-capital markets, that means politics apps. Elsewhere, such as at The Wichita Eagle, it means niche apps tracking sports at local high schools (Varsity Kansas) and Wichita State University (Shockwaves). Both are free, ad-supported products. Other McClatchy markets are investigating travel and recreation products, Montgomery said.

The overall strategy for McClatchy is to try to amass niche audiences through targeted products, while still offering the kinds of mass-market information that newspapers have been known for, Vice President of News Anders Gyllenhaal said.

“It’s pretty clear news organizations … have to be both the generalist and the specialist,” he said, “because readers want both those things.”

Draw upon your staff’s passions

Once publishers have an idea of the potential audience segments for niche apps in their market, they need to look internally at the resources and expertise they have (or don’t have) to meet those needs.

What does the newsroom already cover very well that could be repurposed for a niche audience?

One way to start with small, cheap experiments to test these niche markets is to make use of the content and knowledge that an organization already has in house. Later they may choose to make a greater investment, but for now it is best to try to limit the upfront cost and risk.

Just as publishers must examine their community to identify audience passions, look around your own company to identify the experience and passions in the newsroom, the IT department, marketing and elsewhere.

What does the newsroom already cover very well that could be repurposed for a niche audience? Do you have star reporters or columnists with whom loyal readers might want deeper engagement via a new niche product?

The Hip Hops app in St. Louis is an example of this — without a popular beer columnist like Benn already on staff, it would have been much harder to create this app. The McClatchy state capital apps are possible because the newsrooms had decades of staff experience covering state politics.

Publishers should keep in mind they may also uncover some internal expertise that has nothing to do with a person’s day job or beat assignment. At the Dallas Morning News, for instance, copy editor Tatia Woldt loves taking her dog along whenever she goes out and accumulated encyclopedic knowledge of which local businesses were dog-friendly.

The app helps users find dog-friendly venues nearby.

Dog About Town app

The app helps users find dog-friendly venues nearby.

Woldt had started writing a column on the topic, and Jennifer Okamoto, the company’s senior product manager, drew on Woldt’s knowledge to create a niche mobile app called DFW Dog About Town.

“Finding hidden talents in the staff and making the most of them is wonderful. Fortunately, we have a number of people on staff who have done that for me,” Okamoto said.

Dog About Town is a guide to more than 450 spots where people can bring their dogs with them while running errands or hanging out. It uses the phone’s location data to find nearby locations quickly. It’s one of about a dozen niche apps the Morning News has created, many of which involve listings of place to eat or visit.

“To me, one of the big opportunities we have is connecting those dots between lists of events and places with the customer’s location and schedule,” Okamoto said. “That could be events and places for dog lovers or it could be historical monuments for tourists, or stores with big sales for shoppers. To some extent, it could even be local politics or crime news, although that’s harder to work with.”

Once you’ve identified your staff’s strengths, it’s time to make some decisions.

Where do your organization’s internal strengths overlap with the community’s greatest passions? In business terms, where are you capable of increasing supply to meet the audiences demand for additional information?

Take those topics, and circle the ones that have user needs related to timeliness, convenience, personalization or location. Those are some of the needs mobile products can address better than other platforms.

Now you’re ready to start designing and building.

Adopt a user-centered design process

If you aren’t familiar with user-centered design, you can infer a lot just from the name. It is a process that puts the intended users of a product at the center of your decision making.

The potential strength of a niche app strategy is that it targets a particular defined audience. But here’s a problem: You are not your audience.

You don’t live their lives, you may not share their interests. So instead you have to listen as best you can and empathize. User-centered design is the key to understanding the audience so you can actually serve them well.

Design is the process of deciding what value the product creates and how it functions, not just what it looks like.

This is also sometimes called “design thinking” or “human-centered design,” but the ideas have much in common. The principles have been notably institutionalized and advanced into the business world by Tom and David Kelley of consulting firm IDEO, closely linked with the Institute of Design at Stanford University.

A note of caution: This is not about asking people what you should create. Deciding that question is still your job. User-centered design is about observing, understanding and empathizing with the needs and preferences of users, so you can figure out what problems you should solve for them.

This process will force publishers to look past their own business goals (which are still important, but the audience has to come first) or flashy software features that aren’t actually desirable.

Another point of emphasis: The “design” part of user-centered design is about much more than visual appearance. Design is the process of deciding what value the product creates and how it functions, not just what it looks like.

How it worked in Detroit

The Detroit Free Press used human-centered design processes in a lot of its strategic planning during the 2009 transition to three-day-a-week home delivery. It worked with IDEO on its overall communications and product development strategy, and the process became ingrained in the company.

The 2011 version of the marathon app

Detroit Marathon app

The 2011 version of the marathon app

The lessons about how to derive insights from users were a great help in 2011 when the paper decided to create a special mobile app for its annual Detroit Free Press Marathon, which the paper owns and has been producing since the 1970s.

After each year’s race, the organizers survey runners for feedback and get thousands of responses, executive race director Rich Harshbarger said in an interview. When trying to design a marathon app, they went even further by bringing in runners for in-person research.

Because each runner registers his or her gender, age and hometown, the organizers could invite a diverse mix of runners. Runners were screened in advance and the final group of six or seven runners were offered gift cards to participate.

The runners had some homework to do in advance — organizers gave them several screenshots of a blank iPhone screen and invited them to draw their idea of a perfect marathon app, showing features and what it would look like.

Then the runners came in for about a 90-minute conversation.

“We set up a conference room where they would be seated at the front and then we would have 20-30 chairs for the audience. There was no separation, no two-way mirror or anything like that. It was just an open, moderated discussion,” Harshbarger said. “Some of the attendees would be folks from the business side, some reporters would be there, some editors would be there. It was all off the record, but it was just a way to understand their experience.”

The conversation helps the paper understand the other products runners use, like MapMyRun or RunKeeper. Participants talk about what they would pay for, or what they expect to be free.

The design thinking process

How do you do this? There are many possible tactics, but the most important common element say advocates of user-centered design is to observe and interview real users. Talk to people about the problems they face related to the topic you are studying. Observe and understand how they do things now, and look for pain points to relieve. Watch them use a prototype of your product and see if they navigate it successfully. Empathize, in any way you can.

It is best to approach this process in stages, so you don’t get ahead of yourself:

  1. Strategy: Understand the target audience, what is the market for your product and who are the competitors.
  2. Features: Based on the audience’s needs, decide what jobs the product needs to do for that audience. (Provide news, map locations, enable searches for data, etc.) These are the core software features of your product.
  3. User experience: How will the user navigate the app to find and use these features. Wireframes and storyboards help you specify basic organization, flow and layout.
  4. Visual design: Now is the point at which a one is finally ready to decide what all that should look like. Fonts, colors, design elements. Again, keep the focus on usability.
  5. Evaluation and iteration: Continue to test, learn and revise as you put early versions of the product in users’ hands.

These user-centered design practices can help shape many facets of news coverage and products, not just mobile ones. Digital First Media Project Thunderdome features editor Laura Cochran has drafted strategies for the company’s coverage of niche topics like technology, health, travel and entertainment by using a “persona” process.

The persona tool was pioneered by software designer and programmer Alan Cooper, whose consulting firm uses and teaches the principles widely today.

Personas are fictional characters who embody significant audience segments and behaviors identified through research. These archetypes are as real as possible — each has a name, gender, hometown, education level, occupation (including income bracket), a family status, and most importantly a defined goal or problem they want to solve and a defined motivation for doing so.

“Personas help you humanize,” Cochran explained. “One of the other big challenges people face in newsrooms is, when you are trying to talk to other people who are unfamiliar with what you do [the personas] are actually the characters in your narrative. So I can easily talk to someone on the sales side, I can talk to business development, I can talk to developers and say, ‘This is why I’m doing what I’m doing — because Julia is trying to do X and I need to help her do that.’”

These personas aren’t just an exercise in creative writing, however. They originate from research.

Cochran starts with as much quantitative audience and market data as possible from sources such as comScore.

Then she and colleagues will do in-person interviews with 12 to 14 diverse people who represent the extremes of beliefs and desires within the target audience.

For example, in the case of researching their technology audience they gathered people who were early adopters and those who saw little use for technology in their lives. They asked people questions about what the word “technology” means to them and the role technology plays in making their lives better.

They found many people cared more about household convenience like more advanced faucets and vacuum cleaners, or parenting issues like how to stop a teenager from texting while driving. This gave them a unique insight for moving their coverage beyond just new iPhones and drones.

“You want to get them to tell stories, you want to understand their lives and the challenges they have. You want to really understand why,” Cochran said. It helps to group interview subjects who know each other so they are comfortable talking and feed off each other.

Then the secondary market data and primary interviews get synthesized into a handful of personas that represent the major themes.

Finally, the team makes a strategic choice about which persona to target with its coverage or product. Now, with a clear target in mind, the product can be designed to meet the company’s needs and solve the users’ problems.

Unleash your hacker culture

Now you have a pretty good idea of a mobile product you might build. You know what your audience wants, what your staff can sustain, and the features that users need it to include.

But how do you actually create it?

Make it a side project

In the spirit of starting small and cheap, many publishers may not be in a position to hire new staff with new skills, at least not yet. An alternative is to find volunteers who would enjoy building your app as a side project.

Maybe a student or class at a local university is looking for real-world projects to build as a learning experience. Maybe you have a web producer who’s learning to code on the side and wants to try making her first app. Or maybe a systems support specialist in your IT department is bored with updating computer software all day and would appreciate a side project that lets him unleash his creative side.

This is how the Detroit Free Press created its marathon app.

When the marathon organizers started toying with the idea of what would a marathon app might be, the race director Harshbarger turned to the company’s web technology team, which included a few developers and supervisors.

After some examination, the group decided that none of the other major marathons had created a robust mobile experience to complement their races. The brainstorming group at the Free Press embraced the challenge.

“It really was the collective of eight people in three or four departments that were just sort of brainstorming one day and everyone said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this!’ And it’s that that we are proud to still hold on to,” Harshbarger said. “Coming together across divisions to work on projects is still very much central to our culture in a lot of ways.”

The team gathered on their own or after hours to work on the project because they were excited about the potential and tackling the problems. “The passion and excitement that the digital development team brought to the project — their ability to say ‘let’s get this done’ was a real inspiration for us,” Harshbarger said.

The development team took real ownership of the project and divided up tasks among themselves, added Jennifer Sims, the marathon’s digital director. They even set up a booth at the race expo to help runners download the app and answer their questions.

Use a low-cost vendor

If the staff side project approach doesn’t work out, you can look at hiring a company that specializes in quickly generating mobile apps from pre-fabricated templates.

The costs are low because the company is reusing a framework it has already developed and uses with other clients.

For that reason, you’ll also have few customization options. You can plug in content feeds or map some locations, and add your own logos and colors. But the underlying technology will be pre-baked.

Common vendors that provide these types of “white-label” apps include Verve, Shoutem, Spreed and DoApp. Each will vary a bit in its pricing and features, but all can get you up and running quickly and cheaply.

Build on free, simple software

You may be surprised at how simply and cheaply you can power some of the core services of your app by using freely available tools.

For instance, all the data that flows into the Post-Dispatch’s Hip Hops beer app is stored and updated in simple Google Drive spreadsheets.

“I could just fill in different data in terms of beers that we were highlighting, breweries, bars, restaurants, that sort of thing.” Benn said. “It was super easy for me to update. I just would go into that Google doc and at a click of a button it would be instantly updated so I could add beers and really keep it a fluid, live thing … I made that part of my weekly routine to add new beers, new reviews, new breweries that were opening.”

If you want to explore this idea further, Alan Palazzolo of nonprofit news service MinnPost explained in a blog post how Google spreadsheets can be used as an app data tool:

You can use this in your application because there is an API that is provided to pull the structured data in the spreadsheet into your application. This is actually really powerful, as Google Spreadsheets provides a nice interface to collaboratively create data that can be used in an application.

At MinnPost we used this approach to power the editorial side of our 2013 legislature tracker which provides up to date information on what is happening with specific bills in the legislature and also a reusable application. Specifically we used Google Spreadsheets because we needed to allow our reporters to supplement the data about bills. A key ingredient to utilizing Google Spreadsheets in our application is Tabletop.js, a JavaScript library to help utilize the API effectively.

A caveat of using Google Spreadsheets is that Google puts bandwidth and rate limiting on the API, and does not provide information on when and how this happens. To protect against this, we built a very simple, easily deployable on Heroku (free tier) proxy that caches the results from the API. Another approach is, with an API, you can easily create a script that downloads the spreadsheet data and then embeds it in your application as needed.

If your app succeeds and you decide to get more serious about it, you may have to invest in more professional development. Your quality standards will rise, and the project will start to require more time and attention.

But just hacking it together is often a good way to start.

Make room for ‘beta’ app experiments to grow

Steve Jobs famously told the team building the first Macintosh computer in the early 1980s, “Real artists ship.”

That motto echoes as the delivery of news shifts to mobile and publishers must move there quickly and then refine. Despite all the energy spent planning, designing, building, testing and refining a new app or product, nothing really happens until you ship it.

Putting a new product in the public’s hands as early as possible gives you valuable feedback about how they use it and how they want to use it. It stops you from wasting time on features you wrongly thought users might want. It proves whether there is a market worth pursuing further.

News organizations need to think this way about their niche apps.

In every case you will be entering some uncharted territory. You have a theory about what app you should build and how it will be received, but you don’t really know. You could be wrong. You could be close but missing a bigger opportunity.

So publishers need a strategy that enables them to quickly and cheaply ship “beta” versions of new apps.

The Dallas Morning News has a good way of thinking about this. They classify their apps into three “tiers”:

  • Tier 1: Flagship apps that represent the core brand.
  • Tier 2: Specialized apps that have proven their popularity with audience or advertisers. These include FD Luxe, SportsDayHS and SportsDay Talk.
  • Tier 3: Experimental niche apps.

Niche apps start off in Tier 3, made quickly from pre-fabricated templates by Seattle Clouds white-label app builder. The templates come with basic design, navigation and technology features and all that’s required is plugging in content and branding. The News pays about $500 a month for unlimited use of that platform, Okamoto said, and there’s just a marginal cost for each app.

Tier 3 is the incubator — the space where it’s safe to try new things without fear of failure.

The templates get some light tweaking and customization by Okamoto and designer John Hancock. But mainly they just launch and see what happens.

If they perform well with audiences and advertisers and “are in harmony with other goals of the company,” these apps may escalate to Tier 2 or higher where they get further investment and commitment, Okamoto said.

Tier 3 is the incubator — the space where it’s safe to try new things without fear of failure. They give you small-scale tests of audience and advertiser interest. The News doesn’t budget for any revenue from Tier 3 apps, but does include run-of-site ads in all of them. Apps in Tiers 1 and 2 are more revenue-focused.

The News has launched five or six Tier 3 apps since starting this strategy in March 2012. The Best in DFW restaurant recommendation app may graduate to Tier 2, Okamoto said. DallasSkyline, a guide to the history and architecture of landmark buildings, also has done well and provides a model to repeat for local tourism apps or walking tours. This is something any local newspaper could do in its market.

At McClatchy, Grey Montgomery has an idea for helping every newsroom in the company launch its own experiments.

To try a new product currently, a McClatchy editor would have to find a vendor, do the legal paperwork, develop requirements, create custom content feeds, wait for development, then test the technology.

“The whole thing, under the best circumstances, is a two-month process from conception to reality,” Montgomery said.

But that will change soon with a new technology platform the company is building that will empower newsroom editors to create simple apps in just one day with no new technology to learn.

“I’m trying to create a technological infrastructure where a newsroom could make a decision on the spot that they see an opportunity or they just want to test something, and throw up a product and have the product out the same day and test a hypothesis price point and see what happens. And do all that without having to involve corporate,” Montgomery said.

That technology should be available to McClatchy newsrooms within a year, he said.

These companies’ approaches vary, but all these examples are solving the same core problem in the same basic way — set up some technology in advance so your people have quick ways to experiment with new mobile products.

Obstacles you will face

In the earlier chapters we have shown why targeting a niche audience with a specialized mobile product is a powerful model that fits the modern era of media and technology usage. But it’s not without challenges.

Publishers that venture into this territory will face some obstacles and potential pitfalls.

Whatever the challenges, we have reached a point where publishers cannot afford to ignore mobile audience needs and arguably should be prioritizing mobile needs over other traditional platforms.

One is that these specialized mobile products will draw a different kind of audience than a publisher’s core news product.

The audience will be smaller, which is a challenge for advertising reps and sponsors accustomed to the bigger scale of a mass-market product. But the audience will also be more targeted and more loyal, because you are serving a specific group of people a specific solution that is relevant in their lives.

Because of this, publishers will need to reimagine the revenue model that supports a niche app. Try targeting sponsors to whom this unique audience has a unique value. That means selling a high school sports app sponsorship to a sporting goods store for a premium price, rather than selling it to a familiar car dealer or department store sponsor at traditional (low) ad rates.

Publishers may alternatively choose to bundle access to niche apps with subscriptions to the core product. The downside is it may hinder an app from reaching a new, unique audience that isn’t interested in buying the general news product. This notion of reaching new people is critical. But it could win over a few new subscribers who now see more value in the bundle subscription because of the more relevant niche products.

Another challenge to anticipate is that developing specialized software services like this pushes the boundaries of a traditional publisher’s core mission. People who see the organization’s job as crafting and delivering news stories may be skeptical of going in a direction driven by more advanced technology and information services.

People advancing this cause should be prepared to explain to skeptics the realities that make this approach necessary (many are outlined in the overview of this report). And be thoughtful about picking your spots — look for the niche opportunities that do overlap in part with some of your current audience interests and staff competency.

But whatever the challenges, we have reached a point where publishers cannot afford to ignore mobile audience needs and arguably should be prioritizing mobile needs over other traditional platforms.

A majority of U.S. adults now own smartphones, and that share continues to grow. Gartner estimates 1 billion smartphones will be purchased in 2013.

More than a quarter of all time spent with media is spent on mobile devices, now outranking time spent with media on TV or PCs. And half the people in the world go online primarily or exclusively through a mobile device.

Perhaps most importantly, mobile ad revenue is expected to total $11.4 billion in 2013 and more than double by 2016.

The mobile market will be won by companies that serve it best. Starting with a fresh strategy for niche products that help particular types of users fill particular needs in their lives is the best bet.

Strategy worksheet: Make your plan

We developed a worksheet with a series of planning questions to get you started with conceiving and creating niche mobile products that are right for your audience.

Consider sitting down with a few creative collaborators from across your organization to tackle these questions together.

Download the strategy worksheet here.

  • alexandra.kwc

    Congratulations! Apple has accepted your app and now it is live in the AppStore. Now you just sit there and wait for downloads?

    Don’t expect to suddenly see thousands of downloads. That, unfortunately, very rarely happens unless you promote your app. Here’s a check list to help you get the word out to potential users.
    https://www.snappii.com/resource-center/10-tips-market-live-app/

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

Featured topics

Go deeper on…

Dive deep on everything we produce about these key topics.

Strategy Studies

The best practices for innovation within news organizations

This Strategy Study presents examples and insights about journalism innovation, offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward.