The DP launched its newest product, a mobile app for Apple and Android phones, at the end of September. A version optimized for the iPad will follow before the end of October. More than 1,700 people have downloaded the app in its first two months.
The decision to move into the mobile space was an easy one for the DP -- almost every student now sports a smartphone and checks it many times throughout the day -- but finding the right mix of features for the DP App posed a challenge.
The simply-named "DP App" pulls together content from across all the DP's publications: the flagship daily newspaper, 34th Street Magazine, the popular campus life blog Under The Button, The Buzz sports blog, and The Red and the Blue politics blog. Editorial content on the app updates in real-time, so when new content is posted to a blog or a new news story hits the DP website, it shows up in the app at the same time. A key feature of the app is its "offers" section, where local businesses advertise short-lived discounts and specials which change throughout the day. Taking advantage of the mobile medium, these "DP Deals" are location-sensitive, showing users the deals closest to their current location.
DP General Manager Eric Jacobs recently talked about the DP's decision to launch a mobile app and some of the strategies behind a major new platform for the organization.
"We actually had an earlier iPhone app back in 2010. It was a very simple news reader, created for just a few bucks, but we never promoted it much and it never gained a large number of users," Jacobs said. "In late 2010 and throughout spring and summer 2011, our strategy instead focused on developing a major revamp of our main website, theDP.com. One of the key technology changes brought in when the site debuted last fall was that it was mobile-optimized -- meaning that it detected when readers were using phone or tablet, and automatically presented them with a simplified layout designed for easy reading on the small screens of those devices."
"For just presenting DP editorial content, the website did a good job, and everything that our first-generation mobile app did -- but better," Jacobs said. "Everyone at the DP agreed we didn't need a mobile app, and we wouldn't do a new mobile app, until we could bring more functionality to users, and until we figured out a better way to generate money from a new platform."
At the same time, it was apparent that smartphones, and particularly iPhones, were becoming ubiquitous on campus. "It's probably the single-fastest technology change I've seen," Jacobs said. "As recently as early 2010, Blackberries were predominant among Penn students who had smartphones, and many students still had basic cell phones. Yet by fall 2011, it seemed more than 80% of students had an iPhone."
And media consumption is different on a phone versus a laptop computer, especially for on-the-go students. They now use their phones more often than their laptop computers, but in shorter blocks of time. "People who commute to work might sit and read through a bunch of newspaper articles on their phones, but students are typically using their phones for just a few minutes at a time," Jacobs said. "They might read an article or two, but they aren't going to browse a newspaper."
Meanwhile, the DP's advertising staff found that local businesses were increasingly looking for new ways to reach students on their smartphones. After years of changing online and social media trends -- Facebook, Groupon, Twitter, LevelUp, etc. -- it became apparent that there was a window of opportunity for the DP to try to connect businesses with students in the mobile world. Equally apparent: the window would close in a competitive marketplace if the paper didn't act fairly quickly.
After researching a number of mobile app systems last summer, Jacobs proposed to the DP Board a product from a small California company, iCampusTimes. "There are lots of mobile app developers in the market these days, with systems that range from a few hundred dollars to many thousands," Jacobs said. "In iCampusTimes, we identified a product focused on serving college newspapers -- about 30 have signed on to-date -- with a unique way of smoothly featuring content from all our different brands, and a business model we thought could work for us, our advertisers and our readers."
The "DP Deals" aren't intrusive ads, interrupting people trying to read a story. Instead, they are a form of interactive content which, the DP staff hopes, users will regularly check because of the values they offer.
"The key to these offers -- and something we've struggled with a bit out of the gate -- is to get advertisers to offer truly useful deals," says Jacobs. "Offers of 10% off a meal or a free soda might not bring people flocking in the door, but $5 off a meal or buy-one-get-one-free deals probably will." One of the keys to the iCampusTimes system is that businesses can post their own "real time" offers that show up on every user's phone within a few seconds.
"If a hair salon is empty in the middle of the afternoon, the owner can post a half-off special for the next three customers to come in. If a hoagie shop is quiet after the lunch rush, the manager can post a 2-for-1 deal for the two hours before business picks up around dinnertime. If a pizza place is closing in an hour and has a lot of unsold pizzas, the manager can post an offer for 25-cent slices to sell off merchandise which would otherwise go in the trash at closing time. It's a very different model than traditional static coupon advertising, and it's taking us time to educate our customers to think differently about how they can promote themselves without feeling they need to 'give away the store'," Jacobs said. "But if we get the right kind of deals being posted, this can be a real winner for our readers, for our customers, and therefore for the DP."
A major struggle for newspapers, from large metro dailies to small community papers like college newspapers, in recent years has been how to retain readers as media consumption habits and media evolve -- while simultaneously finding ways to move advertising revenues to the newer media.
"There's no way to replicate the impact of a full-page newspaper ad on a computer screen -- and it's worse on a tiny phone screen," Jacobs says. "You can -- and we do -- sell advertising spaces on all those screens, but we can't charge as much for a strip ad across the bottom of a cell phone screen as we can for a quarter page ad in a newspaper." So the challenge, he says, is finding new ways of getting readers' eyeballs on information from customers who want to reach them. The "DP Deals" on the mobile app is one such way of presenting advertiser information as content users will seek.
"In the 'old world' of printed newspapers, we always knew that ads were content that readers valued," Jacobs said. "Most readers wouldn't tell you they read the paper for the ads, but when you asked people what they got from reading a newspaper, information from ads about what was going on in their community -- upcoming events, specials, discounts, new businesses, etc. -- was always right up there with news and sports and opinion and entertainment as content readers valued. Well, it's no different today, but we have to find new ways of delivering that useful advertising information in a manner that works on a small screen, and in the way people want to use their mobile devices."
The DP App made its debut on the first day of freshmen move-in at the end of August.
A multi-pronged promotional campaign began at the same time. In the first phase, the paper simply promoted awareness of the new app. (See "The DP At Your Fingertips" at right, one of the ads promoting the launch of the new app.)
The second phase focused on getting students to download the app. The DP offered a free ad to any student group which got at least 20 student members to download the app and register their download. More than 700 students downloaded the app during that three week promotion.
The third phase of the promotional effort launched in late October, focusing on the ever-changing "DP Deals" available on the app. "We want to to get students into the habit of checking the app regularly and, hopefully, discovering good deals they find useful," Jacobs said. "If they do, they'll share their finds with their friends -- via social media sharing tools built right into the app -- and usage of the app will grow organically over time."
The launch of the iPad version in late October completes the initial rollout of the app. But, Jacobs notes, "we can't sit back and think we're done. We're chasing a moving target in mobile: Apple just released iOS 6, which required some tweaks to the app's mapping feature; the iPhone 5 is taller, so there's some re-design needed to take advantage of that; with Apple just announcing a smaller iPad, we'll have to see if we need to re-engineer anything for that; if more people buy Android tablets, we'll need to create a tablet version for that platform; etc."
There are also numerous ideas on the wishlist to enhance and add functionality to the app. "We're working closely with the developers at iCampusTimes to add features we think will help our readers and our advertisers, and make people more likely to use our app on a regular basis," Jacobs said.