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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How Slate, Vox, and The Washington Post are trying to turn Apple News readers into paying customers

October 11, 2017 | By Ron Miller—Independent Technology Journalist@ron_miller

There is little dispute about the popularity of the Apple iPhone. Since the it debuted in 2007, the company has sold more than a billion units. Last quarter alone Apple sold more than 41 million iPhones worldwide. Most of those phones are running Apple News, the news app that has been a standard component since Apple released iOS 9 in 2015.Ap

Simply because of the sheer number of iPhones running Apple News, it’s something that publishers need to pay attention to. After all, you don’t want to ignore a source that could give you access to hundreds of millions of potential of readers. But like so many things related to Apple (or any of the big tech platforms), understanding that potential and tapping into it are two different things.

Apple has some deals in place to monetize the content inside the Apple News app, and according to Advertising Age, could allow some publishers to use their own ad technology to sell ads in the way they prefer. Some media companies are benefiting from exposure that has led to increased subscriptions, but the platform remains a challenge to publishers as they work to understand how it works.

Measuring success

When you have a user base that large, you want to understand how to take advantage of it, and reap the benefits it could provide for your publication. Chris Schieffer, Slate’s senior mobile product manager, says it certainly gives his publication access to readers who might not see Slate articles in other sources.

“The traffic numbers are meaningful to us but we’ve been looking at this as an investment. It’s not a pure traffic play. The more folks that see us in News, the more folks we can introduce to Slate Plus (our membership product), and the more folks that may come over to our homepage or download our iOS app to check out our podcast,” Schieffer explained.

Dave Merrell, who is lead product manager at The Washington Post, believes that the key to Apple News is similar to working with any platform. It involves a tight integration of newsroom, product, engineering, design, and analytics.

“Apple News traffic and subscriptions didn’t just fall into our lap. We recognized the opportunity of a news platform built directly into iOS and made Apple News an integral part of our editorial processes immediately. We spent a lot of time studying the Apple News audience and their habits, and our editors watch Apple News analytics every day in order to ensure that audience is getting our best journalism,” Merrell said.

Driving revenue

The challenge of every publication using Apple News is turning that traffic into revenue. For publications that are using the subscription model, the goal is turning the casual reader who found you on Apple News into a paying customer. Making that leap isn’t easy, but it is the objective.

Slate plans to try and take advantage of the tools Apple has provided to draw in subscribers. “We’re excited about introducing our Apple News users to Slate Plus by implementing subscriptions next year. There’s still more to be done on the backfill revenue front but we have seen a small uptick as Apple has introduced additional backfill partners. We feel like the real opportunity though is through subscriptions with the ability to pay through your Apple ID. That’s a good experience for users and publishers,” Schieffer said.

The Washington Post has also been seeing a significant rise in subscriptions. “[We have] had a subscription offer in Apple News since the launch of iOS 10, and we have been pleasantly surprised by this audience’s propensity to subscribe. After only a year, Apple News is a thriving subscription channel for us,” Merrell said.

Making it better

While companies are trying to work with Apple to make Apple News work better for them, publishers would like to see more transparency. In particular, Vox’s engagement editor Blair Hickman would like publishers to have more control. “With Apple, as on many other platforms, there is a certain lack of control that publishers give up. We see views spike when Apple chooses to feature Vox. Over the year, we’ve built a presence on the app that has let us start to organically drive views. But it would be great, as with most platforms, to be able to drive that relationship with the audience a bit more,” Hickman said.

The Post’s Merrell would like to see more personalization. “Apple knows so much about me based on my phone usage. So, I would love to see more personalization that doesn’t require a big upfront investment from the user. I also think there is a great opportunity to incorporate Siri recommendations directly into the Apple News platform – and there is a great opportunity the other way as well, with News surfacing in more areas of the iOS and MacOS ecosystem,” he said.

Nobody can deny the potential of a captive audience that’s already addicted to the iPhone. However, media outlets and publishers are really still feeling their way to understand how to best use the platform. Schieffer sums it up when he says, “I think the value of all distribution platforms, not just Apple News, has taken a little while to shake out. It’s a big leap for publishers to start sending large portions of traffic without the immediate promise of equal revenue or more subscriptions. But I think the investment is beginning to pay off and that’s exciting.”

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