We take a hard look at the role apps play in the dissemination of news online - apparently, they're great for reader retention and business.
Each time news dotcoms release commercial films, they invariably punctuate the message with a plea we are all familiar with - they implore users to download the mobile app. In an era of well designed, adaptive and responsive mobile-friendly websites, why are web publishers in the news space so gung-ho about the mobile application?
Does the amount - and equally importantly, the type - of traffic differ significantly when the conduit for it is the mobile browser versus the mobile app? Is it really easier to monetise traffic on the app? Or do the reasons for publishers' collective obsession with the app transcend traffic and revenue-related arguments - and take us into the realm of intangibles like loyalty, commitment and long-term branding? Or maybe the app experience is simply more... how should we put it, convenient, for both publishers and consumers?
Turns out, there is merit in all these arguments. In fact, experts corroborate that the behaviour of users varies when they consume news content on a mobile site versus on an app, both in terms of the time they spend reading/watching it, as well as their readiness to psychologically 'commit' to the content.
FIRST, A QUICK LOOK AT THE LAY OF THE LAND...
Global consulting firm EY projects that India will have 2.2 billion networked devices by 2022, of which 38 per cent (849 million devices) will be smartphones. As per web analytics service StatCounter, between May 2018 and May 2019, mobile dominated 71.89 per cent of the total web traffic in India, while desktop's contribution was 27.66 per cent and the share of tablets stood at 0.45 per cent.
According to EY-FICCI's 2018 Report, 'A Billion Screens of Opportunity', approximately 56 per cent of all digital ad insertions were on the desktop, while 44 per cent were on mobile. Mobile advertising share is expected to grow at over 40 per cent this year and is estimated to exceed the desktop share by yearend. Consequently, web publishers are laser-focused on existing and potential mobile audiences.
"The pattern that we observe today in India is that a large part of the traffic, both on mobile and desktop, is a result of referrals either through organic search on Google or through social media. But though that is a big source of traffic for news sites, it cannot be a substitute for an app," says Puneet Singhvi, president, digital and corporate strategy, Network18 (Firstpost, Moneycontrol, Cricket Next). Why so?
WELL, IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT TRAFFIC...
People who land on online news content through an app, as opposed to a mobile browser, actually behave differently. And these behaviour patterns have very real consequences for publishers.
Citing the example of TV18's business news brand Moneycontrol, a platform on which an average user typically lands around eight to 12 times a day, Singhvi explains, "The time spent on the platform is far higher in the case of an app user. We have also observed that while a user on the mobile browser reads one story and moves on, our app users explore multiple pages, like stock prices, portfolios, analysis and all, in a single visit."
"App users," concurs Suparna Singh, Group CEO, NDTV, "are more engaged and consume a lot more data. On average, app users consume 20-30X more content than users coming to our mobile site. They login more frequently and in each session, they consume more content than people coming to our website."
Of course, social media continues to drive traffic to the websites of digital news publishers, but there's a difference in the way news is consumed when that happens. Specifically, a social media platform is unable to curate news stories based on a reader's interests. "So...," reasons Gautam Sinha, CEO, Times Internet, "... it's a 'hit or miss' experience for those who want to bookmark articles they want to revisit later, as the links often get lost in constantly updated Facebook or Twitter feeds."
APPS AND THE MONETISATION GAME...
All arguments about browser versus app traffic and the behaviour of the two kinds of users therein, finally come down to one pertinent question: Which kind of content is easier for publishers to monetise - browser or app? The answer is multidimensional.
Over 40 per cent of all ad insertions across digital platforms were banner ads in 2018, followed by HTML5. Video insertions were at 22 per cent, which, according to EY, have more than doubled over the last two years as they tend to garner higher ad rates for publishers. Banner ads were most prevalent in 2018.
"For publishers in India, despite the growth of mobile traffic, monetisation is still predominantly higher on desktop," says Network18's Singhvi, adding nevertheless, "But of all mobile traffic, app traffic is significantly more valuable. So, the revenue coming in on the app is higher than that on the mobile browser."
Others, like Times Internet's Sinha, believe that both news apps and mobile web platforms offer similar opportunities in terms of the most common methods of monetisation, which include subscription, advertising, sponsored stories, and events. "However, since a user is often more engaged on the app, upselling premium products is easier and more effective there than on a website," he concedes.
NDTV's Singh considers her app users her most "premium users". About them, she says, "They consume a lot more content, which, in turn, generates the most revenue for us, per user. Advertisers, especially premium brands, are very keen to own the NDTV app audience and are willing to pay a premium for this."
"Advertisers like Nestle or Cadbury, who want massive numbers, for them you need the app and the web traffic as both together manage to hit a large number of impressions. Then there are advertisers who want very targeted advertising; for them, engagement ratio or conversion etc. matters more than the large number of impressions and that is where the app becomes critical," says Suchita Salwan, founder and CEO of LBB, a publisher that is not solely dependent on news for traffic.
She gives an example, "There are advertisers who are basically offline stores, they come to us and say - can you drive 'X' amount of footfall to our store? In such cases, the app traffic becomes crucial."
NEWS APPS AND MOBILE REAL ESTATE...
Interestingly, in this context, 'premium' has connotations beyond revenue and monetisation - in an intangible context of brand love and loyalty. After all, it's an era in which brands across types and segments fight for precious space on our crowded mobile screens. The act of downloading and installing a news app is a grand show of commitment that publishers simply cannot ignore.
News apps are heavy, and though the storage capacity of most smartphones is better than it ever was, the variety of apps available for download has increased too. The NDTV app doesn't compete with just a Times of India app; rather, both compete with each other as well as with a PubG, a Need for Speed, a Bumble, a Swiggy and a Dineout, an Ola, and a Paytm, among numerous other apps we are convinced we need. Not to mention the emerging rival category of news aggregators like Dailyhunt and Inshorts. "Your app needs to make space in the user's mind. Only then will it find space on the phone," says Singhvi.
Of course, quality control and a sharp product offering always help. "You need to ensure your app is differentiated and is the go-to destination in your genre. That's the biggest challenge," says Gaurav Thakur, director of marketing and business development, ESPN India.
Thakur believes marketing plays a vital part in getting the app downloaded. "In all our communication, we talk about Cricinfo as a platform for all screens," he says, adding, "But we know for a fact that the app audience is qualitatively much better and way more engaged." All ads for the platform end with slides imploring people to download the app. Experts call this 'call to action' messaging.
USER RETENTION - THE ULTIMATE CHALLENGE...
Installing an app is only half the battle won. As any e-commerce marketer or product head would agree, user retention is the ultimate goal. Thakur says, "We need to ensure people do not come only during match time go away as the match or tournament ends. Making them stay on the platform and sample other content on it is a big challenge."
In a bid to generate 'stickiness', travel aggregator brand ixigo recently launched web series content on its app. If a bookings-led app can make long-form shows to get users to spend more time on the app, it's not hard to think of the lengths news apps could go to the same end. It's about entertainment for the sake of commerce.
Another aspect that web publishers would do well to keep in mind is the user experience they offer on app. Sinha observes, "A majority of news and entertainment apps from Indian publishers are merely mobile adjusted versions of their websites that fail to deliver an engaging user experience. Hence, Indians often prefer consuming news on social media rather than mobile news apps."
Often, readers download news apps because of the sheer convenience they offer. For example, apps afford the option of saving articles for later reading or reading in offline mode.
IT ALL COMES DOWN TO BIG DATA...
There's no denying the fact that apps offer publishers priceless information about users, which, in turn, enables the latter to customise and personalise their offering, down to the individual. Being on a person's mobile is like having access to his virtual universe.
"On the ESPN Cricinfo app, for instance, if someone declares he is a fan of India, or Mumbai Indians or Royal Challengers Bangalore, then he would get recommendations as per that area of interest. That is something you cannot do if you do not have an app," says Thakur. For Cricinfo, users spend a staggering 400 per cent more time browsing the content when they come through the app as compared to the mobile browser.
Finally, can mobile-friendly, well designed, responsive websites, coupled with upgraded web browsers and up-to-date social media tools, negate the need for news publishers to invest in apps? To rephrase, can a news publisher survive without an app? "In the interim - yes, but in the long-term - no," answers Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst and founder-CEO of Greyhound Research, a technology and innovation research and advisory firm.
Gogia is of the opinion that content-based websites that do not have many occasions for user interactions can manage to run with responsive websites. But news publishers do need apps, eventually. "Over time, as news publishers develop a dedicated reader base, having an app becomes imperative. It helps maintain a relationship with users..." Here's where there's little difference between news publishers and marketers of regular consumer-facing brands; it's all about understanding the end user better over time and building a personal relationship with each one. This also helps news publishers build their own brand over time.
"An app," opines Sinha, in this context, "should enable users to express and share their interests and thoughts on certain articles, with their friends and family. This way, we will be able to offer an engaging experience that is different from the experience of merely reading the news on the web..." This builds consumer loyalty over time, goes his argument.
(This story was first published in our magazine afaqs! Reporter on June 15, 2o19.)
A Note From the Editor
If you access a piece of online content through an app, as opposed to a web browser, does it mean you are more loyal to the source of that content, or that you will engage with that information at a deeper level? Probably not.
However, if you visit a specific platform to access important information on a regular basis, then does it matter whether you receive it through an app or a mobile site? Maybe. And this is especially true when the act of accessing the information is inherently repetitive, or as I like to put it, ritualised.
The behaviour in question here is something we're only too familiar with - the act of checking the news online. As comScore's Kedar Gavane once said, "Indians just love to read the news!"
This fortnight, we explore the role of the much fussed over mobile application in the dissemination of news online. Despite the fact that most news websites are now designed for easy navigation and reading on the mobile screen, publishers continue to invest time and money in improving their mobile apps. Why?
This was the subject of one of the panel discussions I moderated at Digipub World, our annual convention on the business of web publishing, in 2017. And it's even more relevant today. Turns out, the behaviour of people changes when they access the same news content through a mobile website versus through a mobile app. What exactly is different? The time spent on the content, the number of pages explored, the level of engagement, and the long term affinity towards the news brand.
The app race is a tough one, though. That's because a news app doesn't just compete with other news apps for space on a user's mobile screen; it competes with news aggregator apps as well as apps from other segments like banking, shopping, utility, food, ticketing, and entertainment.
Question is: What makes the race worth it?ASHWINI GANGAL