The Publisher Debate: Apps vs. Mobile Web

One of the more interesting — if not perplexing — conversations occurring among publishers has to do with how they should approach mobile: app versus Web. So we asked several publishers and media executives the following question: In 2012, should publishers be investing their future in apps or the in-browser experience, like HTML 5? Why?

Here are their responses, which also highlight each outlet’s strategy. Have some thoughts on this? Please leave responses in the comments section.

Alisa Bowen, general manager of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network
Both. But it’s an evolution, and it’s important for us to build, test and learn every day. We think the transition from mostly native app experiences to mostly browser-based apps will seem like an overnight revolution in hindsight, but as we’re living it, it’s more tedious. Some things work beautifully in HTML5, but others are clunky, inelegant and buggy. But perhaps the most underrated strength of native apps has little to do with the technology: They’re infinitely more discoverable. Stores still rule for marketing and distribution and publishers will follow the audience to revenue. So for now, native and hybrid apps are a critical priority for publishers serious about remaining relevant.

Jim Bankoff, CEO, Vox Media
The most important thing a publisher needs to ask is not which tech platform is best, but what experience they want to create for their audiences and their advertisers. Strategy and tactics seem to be more conflated and confused in the app/no app debate than in nearly any other issue facing publishing today. Our strategy at Vox Media centers on seamless experiences across devices. Our audiences expect consistency in a way that optimizes the form and function of each screen. We also must avoid friction for consumers who interact with our brands via social, search and other third parties. Our strategy has led us to embrace adaptive and responsive design patterns in our product roadmap. All publishers should have clarity of strategic vision well before making the app/no app decision.

Michael Silberman, general manager of digital media, New York Magazine
For New York Media in 2012, our first priority is improving the mobile Web experience. We already see a significant volume of traffic from mobile devices — about 20 percent of visits for our sites overall, and even higher for certain content like restaurant listings. So serving those users well, with responsive templates for smartphone and tablet, is one of our key goals for the year. We also plan to release responsive advertising capabilities, offering the latest IAB mobile ad sizes and formats. Ultimately, creating a great experience for users and enabling ad creative across devices will help the industry close the gap between mobile usage and mobile ad revenue. But our focus on mobile Web doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned apps. We’ll still build apps when we believe we can deliver a truly differentiated experience with an app as compared to mobile Web and when that app will generate sufficient revenue (paid downloads, subscriptions or ad revenue) to justify the effort.

Declan Moore, president of publishing, National Geographic
Both. At National Geographic, we’re happy with the scale we are achieving with our native app interactive edition for the magazine, using Adobe DPS to integrate with existing print workflows and provide added texture to our storytelling narrative, including the addition of popular video elements. We are also pleasantly surprised at the number of readers opting in to share their information. Since National Geographic as a nonprofit and media company that extends well beyond the pages of the flagship magazine — on the Web, on TV and experientially — we want to keep a watchful eye on HTML 5 developments and plan to experiment with a smartphone solution there in the near future.

Charlie Speight, chief product officer, Federated Media Publishing
The majority of publisher development should focus on the in-browser experience because social amplification is so critical. (Think sharing from Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) More specifically, publishers looking to leverage conversational marketing programs need their investment to support experiences that are easily linkable through the browser because it is not easy to “deep link” into an app. Publishers should expect new audiences to come to them through social channels without an app pre-installed. Only publishers who have very unique experiences that can take advantage of device-specific functionality and vast resources should consider primary app development. Keep in mind that the Web experience can be “wrapped” in an app, but not vice versa. And, of course, the Web experience (if built using open standards) is likely to be ready for distribution on new platforms in the future. iOS might command a large share of mobile and tablet now, but it’s not a dominant or unassailable position. With Android strong plus Kindle, Nook, even Windows Phone, managing multiple platforms for apps is not a viable or financially advantageous position for most publishers.

Mary Beth Christie, online product management director, Financial Times
[Our HTML5-based Web app is] easily adaptable across a wide range of devices. It allows us to maintain a direct relationship with our customers so they can access FT content anytime, anywhere, with one login and subscription payment. Users also appreciate a range of other features not found in native apps, including automatic enhancements. As the development of mobile technology accelerates and this landscape becomes increasingly crowded, HTML5 has allowed us to present our journalism in an eye-catching and intuitive way.

Todd Sawicki, chief revenue officer, Cheezburger Network
HTML5 is the only cross-platform way to deliver your content across mobile platform and device — perhaps more important with the insane 3,000-plus device/OS combinations. However, apps are what users have shown a much greater affinity for. So if you actually want users to visit and engage with your property on mobile, then you need to publish apps. Unfortunately, neither apps nor HTML5 monetizes worth a lick except if you can get users to pay for an app. So if you want to make money, then neither is a great play right now.

Scott Havens, svp of digital and finance operations, Atlantic Media
Since Atlantic Media’s business model is largely driven by our high-end journalism and our audience consumption is split between those formats, it’s likely we will accelerate investment in optimal user experiences for both native apps (mainly iOS) and for mobile/tablet browsers in 2012. It’s also probable that we’ll experiment with a hybrid of the two models; coding in HTML5 and then bundling up that code in a native app wrapper (not unlike Facebook and LinkedIn). Predicting what “app format” is going to emerge victorious in these battles appears to be more self-serving than useful, so we’re spending more of our time contemplating where our diverse business and product set is headed, identifying new monetization strategies, understanding our audience consumption patterns and referral sources, and sticking to our budget discipline. The answers to those questions (and others) will help us determine the right mobile/tablet path for Atlantic Media.

Pam Horan, president, Online Publishers Association
All publishers, including Online Publisher Association members, view mobile as one of the most important opportunities for the growth of their business. While some publications, like the Financial Times, have decided to put efforts behind HTML5 — and are very successful in doing so — brands with strong connections with their consumers can find a lot of success with apps. For instance, Wired recently announced it has 165,000 paying tablet subscribers with 65,000 being purely digital, through its app. Those who are predicting the demise of apps ignore the number of successful case studies that prove apps can work. As always, publishers must understand the needs of their audience, including where their traffic is coming from, and deliver a mobile experience that best suits their customers.