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A Swiss publisher is trying to attract a paying audience with an app sampling stories across publications
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Feb. 26, 2015, 2:16 p.m.
LINK: www.buzzfeed.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 26, 2015

It’s what qualifies as an age-old debate in the digital media business: Web or native apps? The question isn’t really either/or — for most news outlets, the answer is “both” — but since the iPhone arrived, publishers have debated how much emphasis to put behind publishing on the open web vs. building native app experiences for iOS and Android.

Focus too much on apps and you risk being ignored by the social web. Focus too much on the web and you end up being a lonely webview inside someone’s Facebook News Feed. Focus too much on apps and you risk getting lost on the fifth homescreen of someone’s phone. Focus too much on the web and you lose out on tools like push notifications that can drive attention.

For a number of years (and to broadly generalize), it was traditional publishers that ran to apps — think of all the magazines who poured money into building iPad Newsstand apps, trying to reclaim their old paywalled gardens — and the digital natives who bet on the web and winning on social. Again, it was always more nuanced than that — HuffPo had an app or two — but your Gawkers and BuzzFeeds were broadly betting on the open web and social distribution.

But now things are more complicated. On one hand, Circa debuted a full website today, breaking further out of its app shell. Earlier this month, Flipboard did the same.

On the other hand, Gawker is now building a native app, 12 years into its existence. And BuzzFeed is going app-happy too, releasing a Tinder-for-cute-animals app, preparing a specialized news app, and more. Product VP Chris Johanesen:

We see the App Store as a platform, and it makes sense for us to be experimenting there the same way we experiment on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat etc…

I’m often asked why we believe in apps when many media companies are ditching their apps and focusing on pure-web experiences. Another building block of our DNA is to make the best experience for our readers on whatever platform they are on, whether they are finding us on the web or downloading one of our apps directly.

We’re excited about native apps because we can provide deep experiences that aren’t always possible on the web. Providing rich features like notifications, personalization, home screen widgets, offline access, and wearable features can bring huge enhancements to your experience.

There has been a lot of talk about unbundling in the tech industry. At BuzzFeed we’ve thought a lot about our apps and our audience and have spent a lot of time thinking about what makes the most sense for us…

To some people, BuzzFeed is about reading fun lists, taking quizzes and sharing and discussing them amongst their friends. To others, we are a source for vital news and groundbreaking journalism, or for ways to get more out of your life. And to some, we are a source of hilarious videos they love to binge watch.

As we thought about what the best experience for each of these things would be, it became increasingly apparent that shoehorning all the ways to experience BuzzFeed into one app doesn’t make sense. We don’t see it as “unbundling” as much as focusing. Instead of having one baseline for all types of stories and media we need to build apps that can excel at providing the best experience for each.

We’ll see how this works for BuzzFeed, but I think there are a few things underlying this broader shift:

A broader victory for app use on phones. comScore data: “The average U.S. smartphone user now spends 88 percent of his or her time when using a mobile phone within an app and just 12 percent using the web browser.” (That’s a gap that is widening over time.) Forrester data: Smartphone owners “use an average of 24 apps per month but spend more than 80 percent of their [in app] time on just five apps.” Of course, some of that time in apps is spent on the web — the links you click on Twitter, for instance — but the broad trend is clear: A small number of homescreen icons are increasingly dominating attention, and Safari and Chrome are losing out.

A recognition of the power of social platforms. (And by “social platforms,” I really just mean Facebook.) As Bloomberg’s Justin Smith put it this week: “The list is a lot longer than is publicly known of those that have Facebook delivering half to two-thirds of their traffic right now.” Facebook’s rumblings about wanting sites to publish their content straight to the platform has reawakened publishers’ desire for greater control of their own destiny than social distribution allows.

A shift in business strategy. It’s increasingly clear that banner advertising isn’t going to be big enough for most online publishers to sustain their businesses. And it’s clear that the user-data advantage that Google, Facebook, and maybe a few other giants have over publishers isn’t going away. That’s pushed differentiation and the desire to built an environment where engaged users are more easily sold to premium advertisers.

(You could actually read each of those forces as good reasons for the boom of email newsletters too; email is an open platform that most people still have to spend some time in, and the the act of subscribing to a newsletter creates the same sort of engaged, committed relationship that a good app might.)

There are also two complementary forces at work here: the move to apps, and the move to lots of apps. That’s the unbundling bit Johanesen references. Some BuzzFeed readers want cats; some want news; some want videos about how their generation has totally lived a unique and special experience that can only be understood through 90-second videos. The news people will look down on the cat stuff, and probably vice versa — so you give them separate points of entry.

That’s not always an easy bet, though. The New York Times has been quite successful with a unified paywall model, getting around 900,000 people to buy what amounts to an all-you-can-eat package. But its attempts at siphoning off chunks of Times content — NYT Now and the late NYT Opinion — have had less than stellar uptake.

Who knows if these attempts to cloister off user attention will work — the competition is very fierce, and most of the alternatives don’t have the burden of being, you know, news. (Think games, chat apps, Facebook.) And this shift still leaves out most smaller and local publishers, who don’t have the technical game to build good native experiences. But it’s a logical next salvo in the ongoing battle for mindshare.

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