I spent nine months in 2014 designing, building and iterating an Android app called Metro10 for the UK Newspaper Metro. This taught me a lot about the benefits and frustrations of native app development and marketing.
The benefits of app users are huge in terms of their engagement and propensity to return daily. Being able to target users via push notifications is a great way to create a trigger habitual consumption of your content. These work best when targeted, relevant and contextual or are quickly turned off.
However these advantages can come at a high cost in terms of acquiring new users. We ran extensive internal banner advertising campaigns on metro.co.uk with limited success. Banners are not the greatest advertising medium, especially mobile banners with a call to action. I think we were naive to think that people would want to install an app whist browsing the web.
You can get much better results from retargeting campaigns based on device and previous visit to your site. Especially if retargeting via Facebook app installs ads. However effective they are at acquiring customers without a clear ROI they were a cost we could not bear.
Metro already had multiple apps for newspaper based consumption. Being yet another app in a constellation hurts when you are the new kid on the block. Visibility from search in the Google Play store also really hurt us due Metro being a very common name. The beta nature of our approach also ruled out using our contacts for App Store promotion.
While developing I released as often as I could. Pushing a daily alpha build and using it on different devices than what I was using for development. This could be quickly rolled out to production every other day once bugs were fixed. The fact it only took hours to get these in the hands of users due to automation was a great advantage of Android.
I ended up with one mobile, one seven inch for coding and one mobile, one seven inch for testing releases. I also managed to get a good group of beta testers in our Google+ Community for feedback.
Google analytics is amazing for tracking performance and especially bugs. Crashes only get sent through to the Play store if people submit but show up in Google Analytics regardless. Due to the limits of our testing (I was the developer and tester) this feedback was invaluable. The sheer number of devices on offer also made a release and fix a necessary approach.
I put a lot of effort into tracking all of the actions that people took within the app. This was a really useful dataset in helping make some big product decisions. I would recommend this approach to all development. It wasn’t a large amount of effort to setup either.
Push notifications are very important not just to be clicked on but as a visual reminder of your app on the phone. We utilised Parse from Facebook to get this capability setup without much engineering effort. However these had to be manually sent due to engineering constraints.
The best growth hack we did was run a competition asking for feedback via a Google Doc. For some reason everyone who left us feedback also left us a positive review with really helped us avoid the cold start syndrome with reviews.
We had a small vocal minority which reached out to us from App Store reviews. Quickly fixing their issues and responding helped us turn a few reviews around and got some great product feedback. My biggest amazement is the amount of people that never upgraded to a new version even though the one they were on was buggy.
With all of our efforts we only managed to get a few hundred daily users. They were and probably still are a very loyal bunch but not enough to maintain ongoing development. Plus I left for a new challenge so that didnt help momentum.
My gut however is that the real issue with apps based around single brand content consumption is that people’s habits have changed. Users want to dip in and out of news from their social feeds and friends updates. Without large marketing budgets due to the lack of significant revenue uplift getting on users home pages is a struggle and building enough difference/providing enough content is a struggle to keep them engaged.