TAPinto, the network of 60 franchise local news sites in New Jersey and New York State, has launched a mobile app to give users a platform that’s free of Facebook’s filters and is the preferred choice of younger readers.
While many local newspapers and TV broadcasters offer apps, few independent news “pure-plays” like TAPinto have done so.
With its app, TAPinto can use “push” notifications for easy, two-way communication with its 5 million unique visitors.
“Notifications are an unfettered way to connect with our audience,” said Mike Shapiro, founder and CEO of the eight-year-old network. “Email is good but can go into spam or is quickly on the bottom of an inbox. Facebook only delivers to a small percentage of the people who like your Facebook page. An app notification goes to the user directly, so he/she is more likely to see it and engage with it.”
There are some questions about push notifications. I went to Corey Gault, Communications Director of Urban Airship, a major provider of notification services, for answers:
Media are among the lowest-performing vertical apps, based on notification open rates, according to Urban Airship research. What could local news sites, in particular, do to improve their open rates?
Media’s comparatively low push notification engagement rates are not a true reflection of the value users get from them. Whether it’s a breaking news alert, a sports score, or the day’s weather forecast, a notification can provide users everything they need to know at a particular moment. For users, this offers a streamlined, in-the-moment experience. For a media company, this can keep their app and its value top-of-mind, and in essence offer a steady stream of brand impressions.
The average media app sends 20 notifications per week on Android and 18 per week on iOS, which is nearly five times higher than the all vertical average. Prior studies have found media apps have some of the best long-term retention rates, and over the past year average notification opt-in rates for media apps have improved from 41% to 43%.
Can push notifications on apps, properly utilized, help local news sites significantly grow their unfiltered audiences in their quest for more connected users?
Absolutely. We’ve proven over and over that app users that receive notifications are four times more engaged and retained at more than double the rate of opt-out users. In addition, interactive notifications with buttons like ‘share; and ‘follow’ can make it super simple for users to share the notification on their social networks and drive more interest in the app, or flag a story to easily consume it later at their convenience. Buttons can also be customized or use emojis like thumbs-up/thumbs-down, enabling a local news site to conduct quick polls on different topics and make messaging more experiential.
Notifications can also be engineered to include photos, videos and audio, but Shapiro said TAPinto won’t be offering those features immediately.
He also said notifications can be sponsored, giving TAPinto new revenue opportunities, adding:“We recommended to our franchisees not to sell sponsorships of the notifications until each site has a significant number of downloads.”
Shapiro said TAPinto had “just under 1,000 downloads in less than a week since the app was launched” on Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android system.
“The app will be used by only a percentage of our readers,” Shapiro said. “The great majority of our readers will still get TAPinto through our site directly, through enews, and through social media.” But app readers, because of their two-way notification feature, are much more connected than readers sent to a website by Facebook or other social and search distribution platforms.
Among independent local news sites, mobile apps are not widely offered. Matt DeRienzo, interim director of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, which has about 140 members in 36 states and the District of Columbia, told me: “Most local independent online news publishers are choosing not to launch their own custom mobile apps because of the expense and time involved in development and maintenance vs. the return on investment. They’re focusing on making sure their sites are responsive to mobile devices, or they’re using apps that are built into their CMS or available off the shelf instead of requiring tens of thousands of dollars of custom work.”
One popular independent local news site, Charlotte Agenda, did go the full Apple-Android app route. It launched its app with high hopes early last summer. I asked founder and CEO Ted Williams about the experience:
What does the app do for The Charlotte Agenda that the Web can’t do?
Not much. My strategy was to develop a habit and loyalty, but that was fairly naive and dumb.
How many signups do you have?
The app generates about 5,000 visitors per month, so it’s tiny compared to visits to CharlotteAgenda.com’s 600,000+ visitors per month.
Do you use notifications?
How important is the app to the future of The Agenda?
I asked Shapiro how he saw TAPinto having a better experience with its app:
“The TAPinto app enables readers to receive TAPinto on another platform, a platform that is preferred by younger readers as well as by readers who only use apps and do not use mobile websites,” he said. “Just in the one week we’ve had the app, we’ve seen a lot of positive feedback from readers and I expect the TAPinto app to grow in popularity in the months and years ahead as more and more younger readers download the TAPinto app.”
Tom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.