Beyond Print Toolkit: Mobile apps

Optimizing your presence on the most ubiquitous device

By Shannan Bowen

June 27, 2024

beast01 / Shutterstock

It seems that nearly everyone has a smartphone now and that more and more hours are spent each day checking notifications and scrolling through apps on these handheld devices. In fact, the Pew Research Center reports that 97% of Americans own a cellphone of some kind, and nine-in-ten own a smartphone — up from just 35% in Pew’s 2011 survey. It makes perfect sense to focus on mobile devices in any print-to-digital transformation plan. The question is, how?

Besides ensuring that their websites are optimized for mobile browsers with mobile-friendly design, publishers are strategizing for mobile engagement using native apps that help them grab the attention of smartphone users through push notifications and develop loyal audiences through a controlled experience. Though mobile apps don’t typically account for a significant portion of publishers’ overall article views and visits, they are known to be the platform used by their most highly engaged users. The value proposition makes sense. For news consumers, mobile apps provide content at their fingertips in an experience managed by brands they trust. For publishers, they can take advantage of smartphone capabilities like push notifications to vie for the attention of users who are already engaged with their brand.

The essentials

Whether you’re launching a new app or improving an existing one, the data on smartphone usage and growth are evidence enough for prioritizing a focus on mobile apps in your audience strategy. According to MobiLoud, a custom app builder that studies the industry, people generally prefer apps to mobile web browsers because of their speed in loading pages, cleaner user experience and more features and functions that are specifically designed for smartphone users. For publishers, apps offer a self-contained environment where all links drive people to additional content within the app instead of elsewhere on the web. 

“When you control everything a user is able to see when using your app, it’s much easier to ensure all content is up to your own standards. It’s also much easier to keep the user’s attention, without that attention deviating to new tabs and other websites,” the MobiLoud article states. Other benefits include a constant brand presence in the form of the app icon on smartphones and the ability to push notifications that grab the attention of users on their own devices.

Here are some of the specific components of apps that should be part considered for any publisher’s mobile app strategy:

Content strategy: As mentioned, mobile apps provide publishers with control over the experience with their content. Publishers can create a different navigation and layouts than their mobile websites, distinguishing the app experience and value from other destinations. For example, The Baltimore Banner’s app is centered around the latest stories using a dynamic news feed that’s fully curated by the editorial team, according to a case study by Pugpig, the company that designed the app.

Push alerts: The Associated Press conducted deep research into its push notifications and documented their findings with the support of a Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship. One of the top findings was that though push notifications are responsible for only a small fraction of a news app’s referrals, they “serve as a re-engagement tool that increases the lifetime value of users and the average revenue per user.” 

Advertising: Publishers can create plenty of opportunities in article views or on the homescreen of an app to offer ad placements. Sponsored content and programmatic advertisements also can be integrated seamlessly.

Subscriptions: Is your app free to download, or is there a cost? Some publishers make their apps only available to subscribers. Even if the app itself is free to use, publishers should be sure to fully understand Apple’s rules for promoting subscriptions in-app and through external web links. Prior to 2024, Apple rules prevented publishers from linking to their own websites to promote subscriptions; any subscription promotion through a mobile app had to be processed through the in-app purchasing system. Now, publishers can link out to web subscription links, but they still have to pay Apple commission for any subscription revenue generated through a link from an app.


Personalization: From push alerts to content, personalization can be an impactful strategy for mobile apps. In fact, the Star Tribune found that “segmentation and personalization are the most efficient use of push notifications and result in higher click rates.” McClatchy news organizations, on the other hand, allow users to choose personalized features, such as topics and bookmarked content in their app views.

Key indicators

The metrics to monitor for mobile apps are quite different from the ones publishers typically measure for success of mobile webs. In an article for Editor & Publisher, Guy Tasaka offered a comparison of aggregates of publishers’ data across mobile web, desktop web, and native app mobile app. Metrics he studied included monthly sessions per user, average time per session, and monthly ad views per user. Across each metric category, mobile web far surpassed other platforms in engagement. Average time spent per session on mobile apps was 4 minutes and 35 seconds, compared to 1 minute and 36 seconds on mobile web.

“Native mobile apps attract a very different consumer, and perhaps that’s a reflection of the past decades’ focus on ‘pageviews at any price’ audience strategy, where publishers focused on search engine optimization and social posting to grow their web traffic,” Tasaka wrote.

To optimize mobile apps, Tasaka recommends publishers understand the specific needs of their core group of loyal users. Perhaps they want top stories, or maybe they prefer to watch more videos in the app than they do via mobile web. Some publishers have also found the native app to be a popular entry point for digital replicas, or e-editions of the newspaper. Studying patterns in content consumed will help publishers differentiate their content from other experiences. 

Beyond content views, metrics publishers should monitor include:

  • Returning visitors: Increasing returning visitors indicates a mobile app is successful in attracting loyal users.
  • Engaged time: Measuring how long someone is engaged when they come to your app helps you understand whether it’s likely they are visiting and reading content, or just visiting and leaving promptly., an analytics company, recommends studying the engaged time for different types of content, which can help publishers understand which content performs best in mobile apps.
  • Retention rate: Getting people to download your app is only part of the challenge; keeping them engaged requires delivering quality experiences and content, plus alerting them through push notifications and other churn mitigation tactics. Studying retention rate will help you understand how many of your users are at risk of becoming unengaged.
  • Push alert open rates: The AP cautions that open rates won’t tell you the entire story about the usefulness of a push notification. Sometimes, especially with breaking news stories, people get all they need from an alert without needing to click to read the story. Still, the news alert may reinforce the value of a publisher’s brand and drive more engagement later.


Mobile apps offer controlled environments that make it ideal for studying different parts of a publisher’s strategy. Here are a few approaches:

A/B content tests: Publishers can use an A/B testing vendor to study metrics like views per session and engaged time. With a tool like Optimizely to manage your test, a publisher could prioritize the latest news in the app to one group of users and content ranked by most views to another group of users to see which order of content drives the most views and engagement.

Alert type analysis: As the AP found, push notifications aren’t likely to drive a significant amount of referrals, but rather “serve as a re-engagement tool that keeps users coming back, which can increase the average revenue per user over time in ad-based models.” The research contains recommendations for different types of push alerts, as well as testing advice. One test approach is to use Google Trends to compare news alerts to the most popular search terms in Google over a period of time and in a specific location. Such an analysis can help publishers evaluate their decisions about which alerts they should send and whether they are effective in sending alerts about topics that their audience likely would be interested in reading.

A/B testing alerts: The Star Tribune A/B tested images, copy length and copy style as part of its push alert strategy. Ultimately, it found that push notifications that were segmented and personalized resulted in higher click rates.


Building and maintaining a native app can be costly, but there are now a range of organizations that offer services and products that make it easy for publishers that don’t even have development resources to get started with news apps. A few mobile app services used by local news publishers include Pugpig, Twipe, Pagesuite, and more. 

Choosing a vendor or development path for an app is only the beginning. Apps need to be submitted to Apple and Google app stores to be listed for downloading. Publishers should also have a plan for ongoing maintenance and upgrades for apps, especially when platforms require them. Onboarding users is also important to ensure people understand how to use your app when they first download it. Here are some additional resources to get you started or advance specific areas of your native app strategy:

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