The Wall Street Journal on Thursday said it was shutting down its standalone What’s News digest app — one of the few survivors of a period when top publishers were launching secondary mobile apps aimed at reaching different audiences and incubating innovations harder to execute behind the outlet’s primary homescreen icon. The Journal is currently in the process of revamping its main news app, and it plans to introduce features it developed for What’s News into the main app.
The What’s News app — named for the Journal’s daily front-page briefs — launched in the summer of 2015 as the paper’s first mobile-only product. The app features a swipe-heavy design with a select 10 news stories at a time (plus some opinion). It’s updated regularly throughout each weekday, puts stories in quick summary form, uses custom headlines distinct from those on WSJ.com, and allows users to follow specific news topics. Access to the app was included as part of a subscription to the Journal. The Journal said the app had been downloaded more than 110,000 times; it will cease publishing on June 30.
Prior to the app’s launch, deputy editor-in-chief Matt Murraytold my colleague Shan Wang that the What’s News app was the result of a concerted effort from the Journal’s news desk to become mobile-first.
“We were simply doing what all journalists are now doing, which is thinking about digital journalism, what our readers want, and how you experience news on your phone,” he said at the time. “Somewhere we made the connection to the news digest already in our papers, What’s News.”
Now the Journal is incorporating those lessons into its main app as part of a larger overhaul. In an interview earlier this month, before the paper announced its plans to to shut the What’s News app, mobile editor Phil Izzo said it was looking toward the What’s News app for inspiration as the Journal thought about introducing more flexible ways to indicate story hierarchy and package stories in the app.
Other news organizations, such as The New York Times, also introduced secondary news apps only to pare them back. (It’s a common strategy in businesses seeking to stoke innovation — separate and reintegrate.) In 2014, the Times launched the millennial-seeking NYT Now and a standalone Opinion app. It quickly shuttered the Opinion app before moving NYT Now to a free model, eventually eliminating it altogether last summer.
The Times of London also last year closed its secondary app aimed at international audiences after only 10 months of operation. The Washington Post still maintains two separate mobile apps (one “Classic” app, with the usual list of headlines, and one with a more swipe-friendly, forward-looking interface).
The Journal still operates a handful of other standalone apps, including the WSJ Live video app (though it hasn’t been updated since 2015) and WSJ City, an app that shares the same design as What’s News, but exclusively covers London-based business news.
But the Journal’s core focus now is its main mobile app — starting with iOS. Earlier this month, the Journal introduced rich push alerts and added the functionality to follow specific reporters in the app and receive a push notification every time they publish a story — useful for readers who want to pay close attention to a reporter covering their industry. (The paper had introduced a following feature — for topics and companies, not reporters — in the What’s News app last year. The Journal said those who used it spent 20 percent more time in the app than those who didn’t.)
In addition to redesigning the main feed to add more flexibility, the Journal would like to add increased personalization to the app, product director Jordan Sudy said.
“It’s already personalized with content that you save and the push alerts you’re receiving by following certain authors, but we want to be able to actually have some sort of feed or what have you in the app that will surface that content to you in a digestible way,” Sudy said. “Everybody sees the content that’s been chosen by the editors, but [we want to] also make the app for you — but not doing it in a binary way. Right now, it’s all the same app for everybody — the Times sort of does the same thing — or you have these aggregators where it’s the same app for everybody, but aggregated personalized content. We want to make sure we do both.”
The Journal’s personalization capabilities aren’t there to enable that quite yet, but Izzo said it is in the process of laying the groundwork by introducing better metadata through improved article tagging.
While previous redesigns were introduced as big wholesale changes (I wrote about WSJ.com’s 2015 redesign, for example) the Journal is now focusing on a more iterative process that will see lots of smaller incremental changes, Izzo said. He declined to provide a timeline for when the Journal would introduce additional features or when its current cycle would finish.
“We’re thinking of multiple iterations for as long as the phone is the primary delivery system for news, and then whatever comes next, then that’s going to be the thing that we’re thinking of,” Izzo said. “The whole point of making it an iterative process is that we don’t just focus on this intensely for a year and then we go back to doing something else. That’s going to create the same problem we had in the past. What we’re trying to do is set up a place where we can make changes. We’re never going to be a tech company. We’re never going to be Google or Facebook. But what we can do is have more control over our product and more control over what we put out.”
A little over two months ago, HuffPost changed the way it loads articles within its app, which led to significant speed improvements.
By switching from pulling articles from the mobile web to natively uploading them within the app, load times in iOS went from nine seconds to under one second, and load times in Android declined from five seconds to under one second. HuffPost said the faster load times led to an 8 percent increase in article views per visit, but it declined to provide raw numbers. Although the change improves user experience, loading articles within the app requires HuffPost to devote more resources whenever it makes changes to how it presents articles in its app.
“The fact that web-view hybrids make development processes slightly simpler for us doesn’t matter to users,” said Julia Beizer, HuffPost’s head of product. “From our point of view, it has been worth the investment in [loading articles natively in the app] to give our users the rich, fast experiences they’re expecting.”
HuffPost sped up its load times at a critical juncture for publishers. With mobile eating media, speed has become increasingly important. That’s led publishers to adopt fast-loading article features like Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP, even though users are harder to monetize on these platforms than they are on publishers’ own properties. Although HuffPost remains bullish on platforms, a fast-loading app benefits the publisher by giving it speed while keeping users engaged on its owned-and-operated property.
Prior to loading articles within its app, HuffPost used to use a hybrid app where the app had its own navigation and settings screens, but when users clicked on articles, the pages were uploaded from the mobile web. Although pulling articles from the mobile web created slow load times for users, it was easier for HuffPost to make changes to how its articles were presented in its app.
With the old setup, HuffPost only had to make changes once, and they could do so without having to go through gatekeepers. Now that articles are loading within the app, changes must be made on both iOS and Android, and submitted to the app stores for approval. The Apple App Store can take up to two weeks to approve and implement changes.
Another challenge was creating code that would allow various embeds to load natively within the app, Beizer said.
For example, let’s say a HuffPost writer embeds a tweet, Instagram photo and YouTube video into an article. For that article to load within the app while still showing all of the content, HuffPost must create its own code for Twitter, Instagram and YouTube embeds.
What makes this difficult is that there are dozens of websites and platforms that writers source from when embedding content into their articles, and developers have to adapt by creating new code whenever they spot an embed from a new source. And while social platforms give publishers access to their APIs to facilitate embeds, publishers themselves generally wall off their own APIs because they want more control over the reporting and tracking of their video players.
So if HuffPost were to embed a video from another publisher, like ABC, for example, it likely wouldn’t have access to ABC’s API to create an ABC embed code for the HuffPost app. When this happens, HuffPost’s app defaults to loading articles the old way, by pulling them from the mobile web, which results in slower load times. This occurs for about 10 percent of HuffPost articles, Beizer said.
To make the swap to natively uploading articles, six software engineers worked for about three months. For now, HuffPost articles have the same design on the mobile web and within the app. But the company is experimenting with how to tailor designs for the app, Beizer said.
HuffPost focused on the speed improvements first because “we thought the most important experience we could change was improving load times,” she said.
It’s one of the most popular chat apps in the world and the most popular in China.
Film, music, advertising — all these American media fields have recognized the value of the Chinese market. Notice you don’t see the American news industry on that list. I’m from China and use WeChat every day, but I don’t see a lot of content there that reflects what I’m learning to produce as a journalism student at the University of Southern California. So when two of my professors asked me if I wanted to launch a WeChat account for USC’s student-run news outlet Annenberg Media, I was pumped.
In case you’re not familiar, WeChat is most popular messaging app in China, with more than 768 million users logging in daily, according to numbers the company released at the end of 2016. With 889 million monthly active users, it’s also one of the most popular chat apps in the world. I would describe WeChat as a combination of Facebook, Messenger, Twitter and Venmo. You can do a lot on WeChat, and as a result, the audience there is very engaged. WeChat reports that half of its users spend at least 90 minutes a day on the app.
So should your news organization dive into WeChat, and if so, where do you start? Here are some tips based on my experience running the account for Annenberg Media.
1.First, the basics. Originally, WeChat was designed as a chat app that allows users to send texts, voice messages, pictures, video and location pins. Like I said, WeChat contains elements that are familiar to Facebook users, such as the “Moment Wall” where users post status updates and stories. WeChat is also like Venmo in that it allows users to transfer money. For many China, it’s not an app, it’s the app, facilitating many activities that Americans use multiple apps for.
If you want to have a branded page on WeChat, you register an “Official Account,” which is kind of like a Facebook page. However, since WeChat is a chat app, after all, the relationship with readers is more like running a Facebook Messenger account. When the Official Account sends out a message, your followers get pinged like they would on Messenger. And just like on other messaging apps, you can reply privately to Official Accounts. More on that in tip #4.
Just like other social networks, WeChat can be a place where rumor and bias spread. In my opinion, there needs to be more upstanding news organizations on the platform, which is one reason I wanted to start the account for Annenberg Media.
2.Get to know your potential audience. WeChat was an obvious choice for Annenberg Media. Nearly a quarter of the USC student body is from outside the United States, and Chinese students make up 44% of that international student population. To learn more about them, we created a Google Form, written in English and Chinese, that we distributed to students through USC’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association. Here are some of the questions we asked, along with the results.
As you can see, the vast majority of the survey respondents wanted to receive news on WeChat in both English and Chinese. We decided to publish in both languages, putting the Chinese version of the story first, followed by the English version. In our newsroom, I write stories in English to be read by an editor who doesn’t speak Chinese, then I translate them. Find a workflow that works for your newsroom.
3. Once you’ve learned more about your audience, figure out how to best serve them. Before I launched Annenberg Media’s WeChat account, I knew that Chinese students weren’t very informed about what was going on on campus because few of them were consuming Annenberg Media’s content or the school’s newspaper, the Daily Trojan. For example, a story about a bike shop owner getting kicked off campus was going viral among my American friends at school, but very few of my Chinese friends knew about it. And when I pitched a story for WeChat about the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, which was on campus in April, my professor asked, “Would Chinese students be interested in attending the book festival?” I responded: “It’s not about whether they are interested in the book festival. I was asked by my Chinese friends why there were so many white tents on campus [for the setup]. They do not even know there is going to be a book festival.”
That’s one way of thinking about one of the goals for our account: To just let people know what’s going on in their community when they might not otherwise be aware.
Another key aspect of Annenberg Media’s WeChat account is that it’s not just aimed at Chinese students on campus. As a student from China, I know parents there are eager to know what is going on at USC and in Los Angeles. But their children don’t always keep them up to date. Instead, parents get information from WeChat chat groups and news accounts targeting at international students studying in America. But these forums are often home to rumors and outdated news.
I knew going in that Chinese parents could make up a big part of our WeChat audience. And I was right: They were the first to follow our account and are now the largest portion of our audience. I think it’s important to provide them accurate and unfiltered information about USC — and the same goes for prospective students in China.
4. Now that you know who you want to reach and what you will provide them, launch the account! The way you set up your WeChat account affects the audience you can reach. If reaching an audience in China, or reaching Chinese citizens, is important to you, register an Official Account in WeChat’s Chinese interface if possible. (WeChat offers English and Chinese administrative interfaces.) If you don’t, WeChat users who registered their accounts in China won’t be able to access your account.
For example, here’s a search for “BBC News” on an account registered with Chinese citizenship and an account registered in the U.S. The type of registration affects which accounts you can see. The reason for this, as you might have guessed, is media censorship in China. (This also means Chinese accounts risk suspension for posting about certain topics, such as the Tiananmen Square protests or the Dalai Lama.)
Registration in the Chinese interface requires a Chinese citizen identification number, a Chinese cellphone number and a WeChat account linked to a Chinese bank account.
Once you’ve registered your account, you will choose the account category. “Media” might seem like a good choice, but you need a Chinese company license number to be approved. If you don’t have that, you can register as a personal account, which the category that Annenberg Media chose.
Designate an account manager. The account manager is the only one with the authority to add other account editors, grant permission to others logging into the account interface and to give final approval to sending stories.
Any editor wanting to access the organization’s WeChat account can log in with an email and password on desktop. This will trigger a QR code to scan in your WeChat app. That will prompt an alert for the account manager, who can then grant or deny access. (The desktop interface is in Chinese for accounts registered as such, but for non-speakers, Google Chrome translate is a workable solution.)
The account manager is also the only one able to get on the official account from his or her phone. However, on the phone interface, the manager can only reply to followers’ messages and send out finished posts, images and texts.
5. When you start posting, vary your formats. The WeChat formats are: posts, images, voice messages, text and video. Posts are the only format that allow readers to share with their friends or on their Moment Wall. Thus, posts, such as the nine you see in the series of screenshots at the top of this post, are the most frequently used. They’re time-consuming to produce, though.
Images, voice messages, text and video are formats that followers are not able to share. They are easy to compose and are great for short stories. Here are some examples of when Annenberg Media used them:
Based on Annenberg Media’s experience, I recommend not using video when a text-based summary will do. For example, when we used a 45-second clip within a story in one post, only 9 of 139 viewers watched it.
6. Respect your audience’s time. Remember that WeChat is primarily a chat app, and readers are sacrificing their chatting time to read news stories. When they are reading posts, readers cannot receive chat notifications. So make their time worth it and help them get through stories quickly.
You can use bold or color highlights to emphasize important information in the story and divide the story into sections (just like this post!). I’ve found that 14-point font is a good size for posts because it displays well on phones.
7. Be extra careful! Unlike other social platforms, you can’t immediately correct mistakes 😱 Remember when we thought for a few minutes that “La La Land” won the Oscar for Best Picture? American news outlets had to update tweets and push notifications — which is enough to give a news editor nightmares. But Chinese outlets on WeChat that shared the news immediately after the mistaken announcement couldn’t fix it for 24 hours.
That’s because official WeChat accounts are only allowed to send information to their followers once per day, in 24-hours cycles according to the Chinese time zone. Moreover, once a story is out, you can’t edit it.
This doesn’t mean that you can only send one story per day, though. You can group up to seven stories for one update. However, I recommend about three or four stories per post. Here’s what a group of stories looks like:
8. Find the best time of day to post. The WeChat administrative interface offers analytics on how your posts are performing. Since you only have one shot each day to post, I looked at Annenberg Media’s analytics to figure out the ideal time for us.
I tested 5 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. and monitored every test’s hourly result. Turns out 8 p.m. PT is the best time for us.
9. Make sure your headlines and summaries are social media-friendly. Just like on other social platforms, these elements are very important. When people share posts with their friends or to group chats, the headline and summary are only things that people will see before they tap the story. For the Moment Wall, the headline is the only thing that’s displayed.
10. You can use bots! 🤖 WeChat bots provide a menu, automatic replies and keyword searching. I’ve tested the bot system on the Annenberg Media account. Here are the basics:
In this example, I added three menu items: “Breaking News,” “NFL” and “Interview.” You can link directly to other stories or to a sub menu. I put another story in the “Interview” tab, and I made a sub menu for “Breaking News.” Each item in the sub menu links to one of our stories.
This function allows you to greet users when your editors aren’t available to communicate with them. Here’s an example of a greeting you get when you follow the Annenberg Media account:
When people send us a message, they receive this reply:
Beyond a standard automatic response, WeChat allows you to provide answers for specific keywords. Here’s what happens when someone messages us “NFL”:
Running a WeChat account requires a lot of work and thoughtful deliberation. But it has been rewarding for me to see how we impact our audience. The story about the book festival on campus, for example, got 692 views when we only had about 150 followers. It has been a pleasure to inform more and more Chinese students at USC about what is happening on campus. It fulfills the mission and purpose of this platform. I hope you can find similar satisfaction if you decide to launch on WeChat.
Facebook is shifting away from using “total installs” — an industry metric that advertisers and developers have known for a while — as a measurement for how successful its app business is. In its efforts to court more advertisers, the social media company realized that marketers are more interested in conversions and action taken within apps. So Facebook said it’s now going to be emphasizing value-based app ads products instead.
Since 2012, mobile app install ads have been available on Facebook. As the name implies, the goal is to market an app to you and get you to install it on your device. Think of it like Google AdWords, but specifically geared toward developers looking to market their work. And Facebook and Google have been vocal about touting the success of their respective platforms in an effort to curry favor with developers. In August, Google announced that its service helped drive 3 billion app installs in 2016, while Facebook had 2 billion.
As for where things currently stand, Facebook declined to comment, but a source told VentureBeat that the company is seeing an uptick in activity, with the total number of installs “doubling” in the last year, which could make the number around 4 billion.
Even if the social media company is shifting away from focusing on total installs, it’s not abandoning developers who see user acquisition as their primary goal. “If you’re a newer or emerging app business, the portfolio of products we have to drive installs is robust. Whether through targeting, creative, inventory, or measurement tools, there’s a lot of options if that’s the state you’re in,” said Christine De Martini, Facebook’s product marketing lead for customer acquisitions.
She described the current environment as akin to a Where’s Waldo? in that developers who are looking to promote their app often find it difficult to locate the right person. “How do you cut through and make sure your app is installed by the right person that will find value in the app and return?” De Martini asked, while pointing to a statistic stating that after 30 days only 6 percent of users are retained.
“In thinking about growth trends, we need to do our part to maximize the opportunity so we can [help developers] grow their business with the right customers,” she said. “It’s very common now for revenue to come from purchases, engagement within apps where you’re served ads or [do actions] post-install. Revenue is now coming from post-install models.”
According to De Martini, most developers today are measuring performance by revenue, not by install count. With billions of installs driven, it’s clear that Facebook and Google have at least achieved critical mass and both are forces of nature when it comes to app marketing. But instead of engaging in a tit-for-tat with competitors over whose metric is bigger, Facebook is electing to take the high road and believes the industry will benefit if there’s a push toward action-oriented solutions.
And Facebook has the pull to make this change — it revealed that 80 of the top 100 apps in the Google Play and App Store are using what it calls its “value-based ad products.” One of these products is app event optimization, which launched in 2016 across Facebook, Instagram, and participants in the Audience Network. Developers and advertisers can use this tool to deliver their mobile app install ads to those who are “likely to take valuable actions within their apps,” such as adding an item to their shopping cart, making a purchase, or completing a level.
Above: Example of creative value-based ads by Scopely and Jet.com on Facebook.
Image Credit: Facebook
Eric Ma, vice president of user acquisition for gaming company Scopely, said in a statement: “…We’ve continued to generate profitable growth leveraging Facebook’s optimization to valuable downstream actions such as purchases, instead of just installs. Since we adopted App Event Optimization, we have seen a 50 percent increase in our Return on Ad Spend within the first seven days post install.”
De Martini also highlighted worldwide targeting and app remarketing as two other tools available to advertisers. The former was introduced last year for app developers looking to expand into other countries and wanting to find similar audiences. Facebook says that worldwide targeting makes it easier to find lookalike users across multiple countries simultaneously, eliminating overhead and time spent researching. With app remarketing, developers want ways to re-engage those who may have installed their app but then let it fall by the wayside. This tool will reach out to app users based on any actions they may have taken or not taken, encouraging them to give the app one more shot.
“We believe focus is bringing people to value,” De Martini said. She described the industry as reaching a point of critical mass and undergoing an evolution, moving from installs to pushing conversion and action-based marketing. “It’s what developers are asking for. We see an opportunity to be a leader in the space…84 percent [of app developers] are focused on revenue.”
With Facebook’s transition away from touting aggregate install numbers on its platform, eyes will likely shift to what’s next. After all, advertisers, developers, and even investors will be wondering what metrics, numbers, and tools the company will parade out to reinforce its momentum. De Martini declined to share future plans, except to say: “I’m excited about the potential of the value focus. We’re planning to extend the approach to other direct response [products].”
The news and information we consume is becoming increasingly tailored to our interests and habits. Our Facebook feeds are algorithmically controlled, and publishers such as The New York Times — which is reportedly planning a personalized homepage — are also attempting to mold their content to readers’ preferences.
A new app, however, is trying to depersonalize the news. The app, Twain, which was created in Croatia and launched on iOS last Friday in the U.S. App Store, attempts to provide users an overview of the stories that are trending across the Internet that they might not otherwise see.
Twain has no human editors. Instead, it relies on “100 custom-designed algorithms and processes” to scan sites around the internet and judge what’s most popular at that moment, said Twain founder Miran Pavic, who is also content director for Croatian news site Telegram.
Many of the factors that the app takes into consideration — the numbers of shares, retweets, and likes — are straight from social. But this is an attempt to “distribute it in a way that’s not going to be in a bubble,” Pavic said.
The app is divided into three sections — a main timeline; individual news topics, such as North Korea’s recent failed missile launch or the new Star Wars trailer; and categories, such as politics, style, and sports.
“The idea is to get the editor out of the way,” Pavic said. The app scrapes sources ranging from Reuters and CNN to Medium and Reddit. The algorithm, Pavic said, weighs factors about how articles are being shared across the internet, then surfaces those it deems to be above average. “The idea is really to find stuff that’s extraordinary,” Pavic said, though he didn’t want to go into too much detail about how the process works.
On Sunday afternoon, the top stories on Twain were a Portuguese Medium post about why it’s so difficult to access our true emotions, a Mashable story on a Tom Hardy lookalike, and a Vice dispatch from Pyongyang.
By Monday morning, the lead stories were a Quartz story on Jeff Bezos’ language and leadership style, a piece from The Week about the U.S. immigration system, and another Mashable story on the top salary at a Chinese social network.
Pavic said the app’s administrators are aware that the algorithmically controlled nature of the app could result in the spread of misinformation, and while he said Twain will remove sites that publish demonstrably false information, he said the app is “not going to ban publishers that put a certain spin on things.”
He argued that fake news is able to thrive on platforms like Facebook because News Feed is designed to promote stories it knows you will agree with.
“Personalized algorithms make it less likely that Salon readers will bump into Breitbart content; Twain, on the other hand, makes that more likely to happen, and more desirable,” Pavic said in an email. “Discovery works best if you get exposed to stuff you never knew existed.”
The challenge for Twain — and most apps, for that matter — is to get users to download it, in a time when, according to a Pew report last year, 44 percent of Americans already get their news from Facebook and most use only a handful of apps. There’s also no dearth of news discovery apps.
For now, Twain is only available on iOS, but Pavic said there are plans to launch an Android version as well.
Twain has received some seed funding and may ultimately sell ads within the app.
“There’s a lot of work on the actual algorithms to make sure we get the right mix of news,” Pavic said. “It’s delicate. Something could be trending 15 minutes after it’s published, or something could still be trending a week after it’s published. You need to get the mix right. It’s not the optimal user experience if you get an article from a couple weeks ago. We’re trying to optimize that.”