Competing with Giants: A Guide to Marketing News Apps

News app marketing marks one of the more recent steps that news publishers must take to compete within an industry in a constant state of digitization and evolution. Developing and marketing a news app is essential for outlets looking to thrive in a landscape increasingly dominated by the most prolific and powerful brands around.

A recent Pew study suggests that 6 out of 10 US citizens prefer to read news on their mobile devices. The trend is growing throughout all demographics and age groups. Just as print media needed to reinvent itself for the digital era, the unstoppable rise of mobile content consumption is forcing news publishers to adapt again.

man sitting on bench reading newspaper

To break through the noise while gaining sufficient clicks and engagement to compete against the likes of Facebook, Google and Apple, publishers not only need to develop news apps that appeal but they need to know how to market them proficiently. In this article we will explore the importance of a mobile presence, present a guide for a winning news app marketing strategy, and explore some of the contemporary anti-trust battles shaping the future of the sector.

The Importance of Launching a News App

From the longstanding bastions of high-brow journalism like the BBC and New York Times to widely read tabloid press like The Daily Mail, every major news outlet now has its own app. No matter the quality of the journalism, news publishers face similar problems: plummeting physical sales and increasingly stiff competition from technology giants with unprecedented reach and resources.

Google, Facebook, and to an extent Apple are not only expanding their own news services but are hurting the ad revenue of major news websites by enticing readers to digest articles on their own platforms. Even Twitter categorizes now itself as a news site. Two-thirds of Americans report getting their news directly from social media platforms. With journalism acting as one of the foundational pillars of democracy, that is a statistic with widespread consequences which go beyond the bottom-line of media outlets.

Furthermore, in our increasingly unpredictable world, having news at our fingertips is more valuable (and valued) than ever. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how much people rely on their phones during seismic world events. Studies on app usage during the pandemic reveal just how important these apps can be for consumers and publishers alike.  

US Coronavirus COVID-19 cases
The NYTimes App’s Live Coverage of COVID-19

Running a news app is therefore highly beneficial for any publisher that does not wish to be reliant on the tech giants. They give back crucial control to the publisher while cutting out the middleman. The other advantages of running a news app include:

        Having a self-owned channel with full control and a direct relationship that is critical for audience development

        Increasing and diversifying revenue channels

        Protecting against the monopolisation of readership

        Circumventing ad blockers that hurt web-based banner-ad revenue

        Creating new functionality such as “Save for Later” or “Read Offline” features

        The ability to integrate extra engagement-building features that work well on mobile (such as The Guardian’s crossword section)

How Successful are News Apps?

The NYTimes App has over 10,000,000 downloads. It was the first-ever app to attain one million digital-only subscribers and it has since increased its subscribers to approximately 5 million. By betting on mobile, the organisation turned around its falling revenues.

Economist, App, Iphone, Phone, Smartphone, Mobile, News

After careful refinement, other news apps like The Economist and Guardian have also seen great success. As have niche magazines and local outlets with much smaller budgets. Since early March, Content and Media apps have performed admirably – with a 40% increase in DAUs. If you share a lot of content and you want to get noticed, you have a lot to gain from building your own news app.

News App Marketing 101

Any news app should ensure that it is easily navigable, organizing content by category, supplying diverse content, and interacting with user comments to enhance engagement and reader-relationships.

App Store Optimization and Localization

App Store Optimization (ASO) should never be viewed as a one-time event. When it comes to user-acquisition, having a strong ranking on app stores is essential. News apps should continually refine their copy while providing thorough answers to any questions or criticism. 

Keyword optimization has been proven to benefit smaller news apps in particular, and failing to optimize keywords will result in missed downloads.  

silver iphone 6 on table

ASO’s younger sibling “App Store Localization” is equally vital. It goes beyond merely translating pages and metadata, it requires the study of all regions where the app is marketed. Localization is arguably even more valuable for news apps than other apps because news apps are expected to be on top of breaking trends across the world. The internationalization of keywords is therefore of utmost importance. 

Use the Model Best Suited to Your Content and Readers

In our mobile-first world, any successful news app must adapt to user behaviour. This not only includes the style and format of the published content, but the monetization model and user acquisition strategy.

While some news apps survive purely on voluntary funding or freemium subscriptions (with metered paywalls), the vast majority rely at least partially on in-app advertising. While readers have become over-accustomed to pay-per-click web-based banner ads, news apps use more lucrative native ads (usually differentiated in news apps with a “sponsored” label) and video ads. 

Beyond the monetization of their app, news app marketers need a laser-focus on increasing its visibility while securing high LTV users. That means it is especially important for news app developers to be able to define their KPIs when launching their own user-acquisition advertising campaigns. Once more, in-app advertising campaigns prove to be incredibly useful. Cost-per-action (CPA) campaigns should always be the option-of-choice for news apps seeking to achieve scale.

Build native apps not hybrid apps

While it requires extra effort and investment, having native apps for web, iOS, and Android will provide better performance for non-text content, more responsive customised interfaces, better security, access to all native APIs and operating system-specific functions. Native news apps are also less likely to have content stolen and distributed on unofficial channels.

Capitalize on App’s UX Personalization Potential

Apps offer a far greater ability to personalize content for readers. This could be user-led (favorited topics, journalists, etc.) or algorithmic. 

Furthermore, it is especially useful for news apps to grant their readers meaningful control over push notifications. Give readers the ability to select notifications on topics that are important to them. Then use these push notifications to localize, build reader profiles, and enhance user retention. 

Other News App Marketing Tips

silver iphone 6 on brown wooden table

While the news app landscape is less saturated than on web, achieving meaningful success is no simple task. Any news app marketing strategy should also include:

  • Optimization for search engines – Once more, target the keywords that will drive downloads with the desired audience.
  • Social media functionality – While relationships between social media and news are changing, social media will continue to play a crucial role for the foreseeable future. Encourage and incentivize the sharing of content and make it easy to do so.
  • Diversification of ads – News apps are not just news. Some potential customers will not fully realize the additional features and advantages of downloading a news app unless they are shown them. Highlight all of your apps best features with a rotating series of ads. 
  • Paid social promotion – After monitoring the articles that perform well (such as hot-takes on popular topics and exclusive stories), pay to promote the best of them to targeted audiences.
  • Advertising in print Follow the examples of The Times and Wall Street Journal by making a big deal out of the app in relevant print/web publications. This will allow you to convert an audience already proven to be appreciative of your content. 
  • Video ads – A promotional video highlighting the best features of your app can not only be included on your app store page but also promoted on social media, Vimeo, and YouTube. 
  • Consideration of aggregation sites – Being featured on news app aggregation sites like Google News can be a great way to increase brand awareness and reputability. However, it is not a decision that should be rushed into because it can draw audiences away from the news app itself. Aggregation sites have become key battlegrounds in the anti-trust battles raging in the digital news landscape.
News Aggregator
An Example of a Mobile News Aggregator

Anti-Trust Battles

The shift to mobile news is not happening in a vacuum. From France to Australia, governmental watch-dogs are locked in anti-trust battles with “The Big Three” (Facebook, Google, Apple) as their control over digital media spreads. Currently, “The Big Three” need news to thrive and news sites need “The Big Three” to survive. As the power balance continues to shift, this asymmetric interdependence may come to a halt to the detriment of traditional news websites whose readers are opting to consume their content on larger platforms.

The future is yet to be written, yet it is vital that news app publishers follow these developments carefully and prepare their strategies accordingly. While these “battles” are only just heating-up, publishers can pre-empt a potential loss of traffic by focusing their marketing strategies on users directly reading and engaging with their app.

This provides all the more reason to regain control through the use of an engaging, well-designed and well-marketed news app. The sooner that news apps begin performance-based user-acquisition campaigns, the better their chances of success.

Marcus Waters is based in Applift's HQ in Berlin and leads the Business Development team for Europe, India and MENA.