Let’s say you are a media publication that publishes one story a day to your paid subscribers. You send an email to your subscribers every morning with a link to the story on your website. To read it, the subscriber clicks on the link, is taken to the website and can read the story after logging into their account. 

What if I told you that this publication that publishes one story a day, which takes a subscriber an average of 10 minutes to read, decided to build a mobile app just six months after launch? 

If you are an early subscriber of The Ken, you probably remember why. 

If you aren’t, we wrote wrote The Ken The Ken’s Android and iOS apps are here Read more  about it and how we designed it. Broadly, our thinking was the following: 

1. The mobile app was a way for us to replicate the reading experience of a subscriber from the web to an app. Like we wrote,

But once they were on board, Beard Design switched mode rapidly and tried to figure out why a subscriber would install and use our apps.

“The challenge really was to make the app useful – before making it a delight to use. The content was already easy to access with the daily email and the reading experience was already great on the web”, recalls Abhisek

So, we agreed that the core reading experience, whether on our site or on our apps, would essentially be the same.

2. We also added some peripheral experiences like highlights, a feed on the homepage etc.

Because we thought that subscribers would use them. 

But three years later, in March 2020, we took an unusual call. We decided to dump our app and rebuild one from scratch. 

Why did we do that? Because two things became really clear to us. 

  1. For a subscription publication to succeed, an app isn’t just desirable. It is necessary
  2. All our earlier assumptions for why we needed to have an app were wrong

Why should a news publication have an app?

All news websites have apps. Hell, even news channels do.

Most news publications have apps on the Apple store and the Play Store

So why do news websites have apps? 

The easy answer is that apps are more engaging. You can surface “content” real-time, create a feed and show an infinite feed of content. 

Why is this important?

Turns out, most often, it’s ads.

Banner ads, native ads, in-content ads. As people start to figure out ad-blockers and privacy on web browsers, news websites started looking for online ad space that is owned and operated by them. With the amount of time people spend on their phones, mobile apps are a significant ad-monetisation platform for news websites.

There are other reasons which go something like this

  1. For traditional news publications, the app drives user acquisition. That’s why they focus on app rankings, reviews and ratings. 
  2. For traditional news publications, the app is an engagement channel, to send push notifications and to make users spend more time on it. 
  3. Finally, for traditional news publications, the app is a monetisation channel to show ads. 

For a subscription-based publication, the reasons are somewhat different. 

In fact, subscription-based publications need an app because it solves problems that only subscription-based publications face. 

The paywall kills the experience. The app saves it.

A paywall only works if there’s no easy way to bypass it. That’s why subscription publications have to worry about piracy and abuse of content.

A natural consequence of subscription businesses trying to control piracy and abuse is the institution of simultaneous session limits. You may have come across this somewhere

Netflix's error screen when too many users are watching simultaneously

We have simultaneous session limits, too. But this creates a unique problem.

What tech journalist Walt Mossberg is talking about here is a problem that most common subscription publications around the world struggle with.

Most apps where subscribers discover content—Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, WhatsApp, and others—have their own in-app browsers in-app browsers In-app Browser Web browsers packaged as part of another app, triggered by the app to open web pages external to it with their own individual session stores. Subscription publications limit the number of simultaneous sessions. Naturally, subscribers end up getting logged out, prompting them to log back in frequently.

Publications go to great lengths to solve this problem. We’ve our own approach, too.

Notice what happens when you tap on the story link in any of our summary emails.

Seamless, isn’t it? And here’s what happens when you tap on a link from social media.

Acquiring products, not users

Readers don’t read just on websites anymore. Most of the consumption is split across new formats of storytelling—podcasts, audio narrations, newsletters and more. And with that, there’s also been a rise in platforms where each of these new formats are hosted. 

For articles and newsletters, the dominant players are Substack or Medium. For podcasts, there are at least five platforms people go to frequently. For audio narrations, there’s Audm.

And they’re all great. When you look at each one in isolation.

What’s missing, though, is a space where it all comes together for subscribers to find, consume, and connect the dots.

At The Ken, longform articles—stories—are our core product. Since last year, when we introduced The Nutgraf, we now have three subscriber newsletters that have quickly become subscriber favourites. And we’re launching a podcast soon. 

But for subscribers of The Ken, the app is where it all comes together. Subscribers find the day’s longform story and the day’s newsletters right at the top, seamlessly weaved into the home screen. No reason to go through various apps and websites.

The app's home screen shuffles through newsletters and stories to give subscribers exactly what they're looking for. When they're looking for it

The app is the most frictionless medium for subscribers to read our journalism, bypassing what is otherwise a series of broken experiences. In fact, if a subscriber has the app, they read 57% more stories compared to those without.

The seamlessness is why subscribers come to the app, though. However, as we learnt, they stay for different reasons.

Come for the content. Stay for the experience

As I said, when we introduced our first app, it was an experiment. It aimed to do two things: 1. It let subscribers bypass all the friction of subscription journalism, and 2. It ensured they have a minimal, clean reading experience.

The home screen was a stack of stories ordered latest first. Subscribers could filter stories by the sector they were interested in reading about. Functionally, subscribers could read, comment, and save stories.

In terms of personalisations, the app remembered the stories that subscribers read, allowing them to pick up where they left off, and to filter out stories that they have already read. But that’s about it.

And that’s where we were wrong.

Because if someone has paid for your subscription, unlike in the case of ad-funded media, the app is no longer for the business; it is for subscribers. For subscribers of journalism, and by extension for any subscription-content product, the app becomes a deeply personal feature of their subscription.

Subscribers who have the app are 1.6X more likely to continue their subscription beyond their first year.

This was evident to us as we were building our new app.

In fact, the new app is what it is in part because of our subscribers. Seeing early subscriber interest in shaping the new app, we’re running an exclusive closed beta program for Android and iOS where a limited number of subscribers get access to early versions of the app.

Because we’re building an app that is ultimately for them, subscribers love sharing their feedback with us.

Subscribers who became part of the beta program shared detailed feedback based on how they use the app

And thanks to this subscriber-focus, The Ken’s new app comes with a large number of personalisation options

And the home screen is filled with curated recommendations for each subscriber

It did take us quite some time to get here. But, as a result, we’re more flexible and agile for the future.

The final reason

There’s one big difference between an app for a subscription journalism product and say, for food delivery or ride sharing. And that is the fact that subscribers want to access their app anywhere and everywhere. Mobile. Tablet. Website. Kindle.

It was this reason that largely led us to throw things out and start over.

For subscription publications, apps have largely been second-class citizens. Most new products are introduced on the website first and come to the app later, in a few weeks. We had the same problem at The Ken so far.

One key reason why this happens is because the apps are platform-dependent and developers need to write an app for each platform—Android, iOS, Mac, WearOS, CarPlay etc. Businesses often choose to bypass this effort by ignoring platforms that have a low share of users. Commonly, mass market apps have an Android:iOS split that looks like this:

For mass market apps, OS share is heavily tilted towards Android, making the iOS app a nice to have

This is true for most e-commerce companies in India. Interestingly, that’s not the case at The Ken.

At The Ken, we have a large and loyal share of iOS users

So, to keep our apps in sync with all our products, and to keep subscribers happy, we need to release to both Android and iOS simultaneously.

For a subscriber who reads us on a browser, and an Android phone and an iPad, the experience is going to be identical.

That’s why the latest version of The Ken now runs entirely on the React Native React Native React Native Framework Open-source programming framework created by Facebook allowing developers to build apps for multiple device platforms from a single codebase framework.

This will allow us to roll out features faster and simultaneously on multiple platforms. All with a lean team of just three engineers.

Finally…

So, in summary:

For traditional news publications, the app drives user acquisition. That’s why they focus on app rankings, reviews and ratings.

For subscription news publications, the app drives device acquisition. That’s why we focus on the experience across the web, the tablet and the app, across operating systems.

For traditional news publications, the app is an engagement channel, to send push notifications and to make users spend more time on it.

For subscription news publications, the app is an experience channel, to create a single hub for displaying all the products that the subscriber pays for, in their pocket.

Finally, for traditional news publications, the app is a monetisation channel to show ads.

For subscription news publications, the app is a retention channel. All because it makes it easy for users to read stories, set their own personal preferences, and pull them up at will.

Above all, we manage to do this with our team of developers, all working remotely.

The Ken's engineering team

If you’re a subscriber, there’s a lot more coming. And it’s all coming first on your app. If you’re not subscribed yet, the app is only one of the many reasons to take the leap. Check our plans and subscribe.

AUTHOR

Manan Bharara

Manan is a Product Manager at The Ken. He joins us from Deloitte where he worked as a Consultant in the Strategy offering. Overall, he brings 5 years of experience building and managing software products across e-commerce, healthcare and automotive industries. He studied business at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad and is passionate about sharing his experience by speaking at conferences across the globe. Outside of work, you can talk to him about capital markets, dogs and travel.

View Full Profile