How USA Today leverages iOS 11 to boost mobile engagement

By on Oct 31, 2017 in Mobile Design | 0 comments

The latest version of Apple’s iOS mobile operating system includes innovations that could change consumer reading habits.

Among the new features is iOS 11’s drag-and-drop capability, which makes it easier for users to move text, images and files from one app to another. USA Today last month added drag-and-drop to its mobile app, and plans to roll out the capability among the apps of its local newspapers. The publisher is also testing augmented reality for future versions of its iOS app. These moves come as the publisher continues to test ways to up its mobile game, including by offering a paid ad-free app and building a new digital platform that is modular and adaptive. 

“We see [drag-and-drop] as an engagement driver, and an easy way for our most loyal readers to share content that resonated with them,” Jason Jedlinski, vice president of product management at USA Today Network, told Mobile Marketer. “If drag-and-drop becomes an intuitive action for heavy iPad users, USA Today readers will be able to use that ‘second-nature’ gesture to share their favorite stories via mail, iMessage or social media — moving beyond traditional share buttons.”

Staying on the cutting edge

USA Today Network, media company Gannett’s unified brand for its newspapers and websites, provides an example of how traditional print publishers are adapting to changes in the way people get news and information with the growth of mobile media, a space that continues to evolve quickly. 

Jedlinski said USA Today determines which new features to add to its mobile app after evaluating how they will improve the consumer experience, with iOS 11 offering a number of new opportunities to investigate. 

Drag and drop was narrowed in one for the way it enables users to easily move text, images and files from one app to another by tapping and holding to pick up content and drag it.

“We prioritize product features that are most likely to grow engagement and support our strategic goal of becoming a daily destination for consumers,” he said. “Our native app team evaluated a variety of new features introduced by Apple with iOS 11 and ultimately selected drag-and-drop because we see the potential for it to significantly change user behavior on the iPad.”

That behavioral change will be more noticeable in the way iPad users interact among separate apps, not necessarily within the same app.

“It’s less about changing user behavior within the USA Today app, more about changing the way people interact between apps on the iPad, given larger screen sizes and Apple’s positioning it as a laptop alternative,” Jedlinski said.

As device makers introduce smartphones with larger screens, tablet sales have flatlined or declined. Data from IDC show tablet shipments worldwide have declined for 11 quarters in a row. Apple is still the market leader with about 30% of tablet shipments in Q2 2017, followed by Samsung with 16%.

Despite these declines, USA Today still has a strongly-engaged iPad audience. 

“Large-screen smart-phone usage is bleeding into the space where tablets once stood supreme,” Jedlinski said. “Photo galleries and games/puzzles drive a lot of engagement with our USA Today-specific iPad audience.”

Augmented storytelling

Apple’s iOS 11 also has major support for augmented reality, the technology that overlays digital images on a real background seen through a smartphone camera, with the rollout of its ARKit platform. AR has become a new test bed for retailers like Ikea, whose smartphone app lets users see how furniture looks in their homes before placing an order, and publishers like USA Today.

“We have started experimenting with augmented reality for future upgrades of USA Today’s app,” Jedlinski said. “It lets us meaningfully leverage more native functionality within smartphones, like the camera.”

AR and its sister technology, virtual reality (VR), are still in the early stages of user adoption, but marketers are excited about the possibilities of the platforms.

USA Today Network has a website dedicated to VR storytelling that can also show content in mobile platforms. Its VRTually There series offers immersive content for readers.

“Virtual reality is also gaining traction in, as it is a powerful tool to breakdown the virtual walls between consumers and brands,” Judge Graham, chief marketing officer of digital agency Ansira, said. “Younger consumers, like millennials, respond well to these new platforms, as they make marketing less about selling and more about experiencing the product and brand.”

USA Today also produced a 360-degree video of a burning house to showcase smoke detectors made by Nest, the maker of smart-home devices that Google acquired for $3.2 billion in 2014.

“We see significant opportunity in building mobile-first storytelling solutions that serve our consumers, journalists and advertising partners,” he said.

Brand marketers’ storytelling requirements

The popularity of mobile devices such as smarpthones and tablets has revolutionized the reading habits of news consumers. About 70% of U.S. adults next year will own a smartphone, or 229 million people, according to a forecast this month from media agency Zenith. U.S. mobile ad spending next year will total $156 billion, or about one-fourth of the total for all media, Zenith said.

While mobile devices are transforming media consumption, they also are giving publishers new software tools to engage audiences with their content, a wider variety of platforms for distribution and the ability to test out innovative business models.

“As we develop mobile-first tools and templates, we’re working closely not just with our newsrooms, but also our in-house branded content studio,” Jedlinski said via email. “We’re thinking about brand marketers’ storytelling requirements to ensure that we maintain cutting-edge capabilities there.”

USA Today Network, whose online audience consisted of 87.6 million unique visitors in June, this month began testing an ad-free mobile version for readers who are willing to pay $2.99 a month after a free two-week trial. The ad-free version was released after some users of its mobile app said they would be willing to pay for a version stripped of intrusive sponsorships. It is also available for the iPad. 

The company’s network of digital products share a common codebase that provides for a seamless extension of marketing campaigns and ad formats among its properties, Jedlinski said.

“We are building a new digital platform, (using Polymer, Google’s open-source JavaScript library), that’s modular and adaptive,” he said. “We’re making content and template decisions at the browser level, versus the server level. Geography is just one of the dimensions by which we measure and segment user behavior, tailoring the experience to what’s most engaging.”

Among the key challenges for web publishers is contending with the small screen size of mobile phones, especially compared with desktop screens that have gotten wider with the popularity of flat-screen LED monitors.

“Even as smartphones get larger; the limited screen size and visual real estate is a challenge,” Jedlinski said. “The shift to mobile has been a forcing function in our product design decisions, prompting us to make very deliberate, data-driven choices about what we include, and where.”

The complicated relationship with social

Marketers need to adapt their strategies to consider the limitations of mobile media, even as smartphone devices have the ability to reach people anywhere at almost any time.

In seeking to engage users, USA Today’s Jedlinski said tailored alerts and messaging have a lot of promise to drive mobile readers to its apps.

Social media applications like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter have made user-generated content easier than ever before to create and share. They also have carved out a significant chunk of audience time that used to be spent on other activities, such as watching TV and reading.

When it comes to social media, USA Today’s relationship with the growing platforms is “complicated,” Jedlinski said. As social media companies introduce new mobile ad formats, including ones that try to speed the download times for videos, publishers and marketers will have more opportunity to engage users with more compelling content.

“We try not to think of social media as competition; we’re focused on how we leverage the opportunity to bring our content to consumers wherever they are most engaged and want to consume it,” he said. “The economics of that are a challenge for all publishers.”

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