Interview: Secrets of successful apps and how to measure ROI

Sandy Martin is the Director of Digital Experiences at Schurz Communications, a medium sized, family owned media company with newspapers, television, and radio stations across the United States. Her role is to ensure that each local media property offers timely, useful, and well designed digital experiences across all device types – desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

Could you tell us more about ‘Huddle up Virginia Tech’ and ‘Access Aberdeen’, your most successful apps, and how you came up with those ideas?

Huddle Up Virginia Tech was built by our local television station, WDBJ7, in Roanoke, VA to cover the news of Virginia Tech college sports. We have been following the Comscore data regarding the top 10 types of apps that people use, and we already had a news and a weather app, so we wanted to tackle an app for sports which was also included in the top 10.

WDBJ7 had exclusive content from the games which included video, articles, and photos which could be packaged into a really positive experience for a fan inside of a ShoutEm app. We also thought the inclusion of a twitter list would be of interest to the fans. ShoutEm provided these features and more for us, so we went to work on the experience. While we were building it, we decided to include the social wall that ShoutEm built to give the Hokie fans a place to check in, share photos, and express themselves as fans, and we weren’t sure what to expect, but the fans took to it immediately. They seem eager to share with one another.

It’s a feel good product, and we are delighted to have over 150,000 page views per month from such a fervent fan base. We believe this will allow us to sell advertising to merchants in Virginia who like to target Virginia Tech sports fans.

Access Aberdeen App

Access Aberdeen was built by our local newspaper in Aberdeen, SD, American News. As we examined the top 10 categories of apps as published by Comscore, the local market decided to go after the local information app category with this product. The newspaper was already publishing a local directory by the same name in print each year, and this printed directory provided the base for content and the relationships with local merchants who would advertise in it.

We couldn’t have built this app the way we did without the support we got from ShoutEm. We identified small tweaks to the directory which we thought would help us generate revenue from the app, and ShoutEm modified the platform to incorporate our ideas. In particular ShoutEm created a way for us to have featured listings at the top of a list of places along with a star to indicate their specialness. In our first year, we have been able to generate $50,000 in revenue off of this one product.

What are you secrets for a successful app?

I think great apps are the ones that people really want to use. In the case of Huddle Up Virginia Tech, the app supports a strong fandom, and the depth of content makes the app useful to the fans. With Access Aberdeen, we mobilized an already popular printed product which made the content even more accessible. The Access Aberdeen app has on average 12 sessions per user per month.

What didn’t work? Share your advice and save us all some troubles.

These apps are home runs, but my experience from working on other apps has taught me the struggles with seasonal content. We launched an app for a fair which takes place once per year, and we really struggled to get traffic. The concept as an app was good, but the seasonality of the event meant that it was only useful for about a week. Our retention rate on that app was 1%, the lowest of all of the apps we’ve ever published. Apps which support seasonal events must have frequently updated content. Fresh photos, new relevant articles, and Twitter feeds, are examples of content which can keep an app fresh all year long.

How do you measure ROI on apps? What are the best way of monetizing in your opinion?

We measure ROI with money. Do we earn at least twice what we invested into the app? This is a baseline expectation for all of our projects.

Huddle Up Virginia Tech App

How do you see a future role of mobile apps in publishing?

I think tablet usage is about to explode, and I’m feverishly working to create unique and useful experiences for our tablet readers. We know that our clients are willing to pay more for ads on tablets than they are for ads on phones, and we seek to grow that part of our business substantially in 2014.

It is more important to have a good story or a good app-building platform?

We haven’t had much of a story behind our apps. The local market for apps operates differently than apps at the national level. National apps need a good story to get good press to get coverage so that people will be intrigued and download the product. At Schurz, we are the press, so we just need a useful product. We have no problems telling people it’s there. With that said, though, our television stations seem to have a larger megaphone than our newspapers. When a weatherman holds up a smartphone and asks people in their living rooms to download a weather app, people do it.

You are one of our early adopters of ShoutEm. What was the first app you’ve built with us?

Sunny Radio 101.5. We wanted to feature our radio live stream and showcase a lot of other fun entertainment content. ShoutEm had the best balance of features and the most flexible design options out of any of the DIY app vendors we reviewed in the market.

What was the break point that made you decide to work with ShoutEm?

Design. ShoutEm’s apps have always looked better than any of the others.