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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.

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