Think about the mobile apps or websites your organization uses to reach the public, and ask yourself two questions: what do they do, and who are they for?

If the answers that come back are “everything” and “everyone,” we’re about to change that.

A mobile app or website that serves all your traditional content to a general audience is a fine first step, but only a first step. In this paper, an American Press Institute Strategy Study on best practices in mobile niche apps, we will call these “brand apps”, the ones that simply package all the traditional news content and information from a publisher’s brand in one mobile edition through an app or through responsive design.

Niche apps present an opportunity to reach new target audiences, deepen the engagement and loyalty of their users, and grow new revenue.

But the data on how people use mobile technology suggests that to develop a true “mobile-first” strategy publishers have to think about how people use mobile devices, in what context, and what unique, customized experiences they can create for mobile users.

We call these specialized mobile products “niche apps” — an app (or possibly a mobile-optimized website) that deeply serves a specific content topic and may even provide specific useful mobile tools beyond conventional news content.

Niche apps present an opportunity to reach new target audiences, deepen the engagement and loyalty of their users, and grow new revenue through well-defined audiences and well-positioned products.

This paper is the first of a new form of American Press Institute research. Called Strategy Studies, they are a cousin of the familiar “case study” but different in a couple key ways. First they draw insights from multiple cases; second they focus less on the examples themselves and more on the lessons, and actionable insights for others to borrow. They also are designed to be realistic and note the potential obstacles to change.

The best practices in this report draw on examples from various publishers, including The Dallas Morning News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Detroit Free Press, Digital First Media and McClatchy Co., highlighting specific tactics and strategies that worked for them and can work for other publishers, too.

One of our goals of this paper is to show that developing niche apps isn’t just for giant news organizations flush with technology resources. In this Strategy Study we specifically sought examples of how news organizations have done this with only modest resources and low risk of failure.

And at the end we’ll give you a simple worksheet to build a strategy that’s right for you.

Niche is about being the very best at something

Research shows mobile news consumers want niche products that work exceptionally well.

A 2013 survey by the Reynolds Journalism Institute found that smartphone and tablet owners who read news on their devices are more to likely have downloaded niche news apps than the traditional brand apps of newspapers, TV or radio stations. Nearly 70 percent of smartphone owners downloaded niche news apps, while only 47 percent downloaded newspaper brand apps.


What does this look like in action?

ESPN has a brand app tied to the SportsCenter franchise, but also niche apps for watching live video, fantasy football, college basketball, college football, and more.

Yahoo has a suite of mobile apps specializing in niche topics like weather, finance and sports. The New York Times has niche apps for real estate and things to do.

The best tools do one thing and do it better than anything else.

The niche strategy is also prominent among retail companies, an industry that has in many ways been on the leading edge of mobile technology.

Target, for instance, has a brand app, but also a specialized mobile app for coupons and discounts called Cartwheel. Amazon has a brand app for general shopping, but also niche apps for barcode scanning, Christmas wish lists, student textbooks — even an app to shop by just taking pictures of real-world objects around you.

The concept of niche apps make a lot of sense when you think about the common experience of a mobile device user.

We know that smartphone owners tend to “snack” information on their devices: they pull them out dozens of times throughout the day, often for brief, focused sessions with a specific task to accomplish. Smartphones are sometimes used for gaming or music or other entertainment, but for most people most of the time they are a utility device — they help the owner get something done.

It helps to think of the smartphone as a virtual Swiss Army knife — a single device with many individual tools suited to specific tasks. In the analogy, apps are tools — instead of a blade, scissors and corkscrew there is an email app, a calendar and Angry Birds.

The best tools do one thing and do it better than anything else. The blade is a great blade, the tweezers a great tweezers.

Smartphone owners have access to thousands of apps. If yours is to stand out, it has to be the very best at something — the best at one thing, not average at a lot of things.

Unfortunately most news organizations’ basic brand apps fall into the latter category — a little bit of a lot of stuff, none of it particularly special. The basic brand app may be useful for your power users, a relatively small group of people who are very loyal, frequent readers of much of your content.

Unfortunately many users’ experience with a general brand app will be the following:

  1. Download it, thinking “I know that brand, it might be cool to have their app installed just in case,” then
  2. Rarely use it, because no specific “case” brings it to the front of their mind.

Conceiving and building niche apps is about identifying a specific target audience, assessing what information and utility needs they face, and developing a customized product that is better than any other at meeting those particular needs.

Share with your network

You also might be interested in:

  • Ways to support conversations for balancing innovation and stability in your news organization, essential considerations about this often overlooked topic, and guidance to include them in your technology decisions.

  • News leaders have told us that they want to better support reporters and editors who will be covering an election for the first time. That’s why we’re sharing portions of this media guide to covering elections and voting from The Elections Group.

  • Successfully and efficiently marketing your work can be hard, especially for local news teams with limited resources, but marketing yourself to your audience is an essential skill for news organizations to drive revenue and promote sustainability.