When selecting content delivery channels, a digital-first publisher can’t ignore the mobile app. Today’s digital-savvy readers expect a market leading publication to have a mobile app. Moreover, advertisers expect to be able reach the most loyal subscribers via the publisher’s app.

This said, as mentioned in an earlier post, the ROI on a mobile app should be carefully evaluated. The key challenges with apps are discoverability and the higher expenses related to building and maintaining the app. While apps are generally superior reading experiences for subscribers, app discoverability is difficult due to the sheer size, fragmentation, and limited search functionality of app stores. As a result, launching a new publication app today requires significant marketing expense to grow an audience. Similarly, building and maintaining an app can be quite expensive, and native apps by definition are not cross-platform solutions, so you’ll need to build separate apps for each operating system that you want to support (iOS, Android, Windows 8, etc.).

Assuming that you are committed to building an app, here are some suggestions on how to keep costs down: 

Third-Party Provider

First, consider working with a third-party mobile platform provider that is willing to build and host a mobile app for you on a revenue share basis. These platform vendors typically have template solutions that you can leverage to get to market quickly for little cost. Their offerings normally include the key features that you’ll want already built in (e.g., push notifications, sharing functionality, and rich-media advertising). Additionally, these providers will ensure that your apps continually work even on the latest operating system releases, leveraging their scale to quickly update their platform and app environment. The main downside of these solution providers is that their templates may limit your creativity. Additionally, supporting a different CMS can create editorial challenges.

The ‘Native Wrapper’

Another approach to building an app in a cost-effective way would be to consider rebuilding your website in HTML5 and then placing it in a “native wrapper” rather than building a pure native app. Some consider this approach the equivalent of “having your cake and eating it too.” Three key benefits of HTML5 are that it is operating system agnostic (e.g., code works for Android and iOS), it offers offline reading capabilities, and, depending upon how it is architected, you can make updates without app releases. HTML5 code in a native wrapper allows you to access native features such as push notifications, in-app purchasing, and native sharing capabilities. You could also consider building this “app” using a responsive/native HTML5 design which could reduce future development costs. That said, I would caution that this approach is not necessarily the panacea some purport it to be in that it’s challenging to build an HTML5 mobile site and there are a lot of nuances that will require an experienced programmer (which are hard to come by). If it’s done wrong, users will see a degradation of app experience in terms of speed and functionality.
Pick One OS

The third cost-effective approach would be to build a native app for only one operating system (e.g., iOS) using your CMS and internal platforms. The value of this approach will depend upon both the concentration of your user base (i.e. is the majority of your readers using one platform over another) and your access to skilled developers, either in-house or contracted).

In the next article, I’ll address some best-in-class approaches to driving app revenue as well as provide some stats on ALM’s app performance.