Oft-quoted Moore's Law states that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years, and this has largely served as a guiding principle to how fast electronic technology advances. This insight was first published in a 1965 paper, and more recently the timeframe has been revised and reduced to 18 months in response to computer chip technology, which has shown itself to advance even faster.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the mobile phone industry. Consumers will queue for days—both in person and digitally—in order to get their hands on the latest offering from the likes of Samsung or Apple, just to be able to take advantage of the slight improvements that new tech has served over the course of a year.
The willingness of Kiwis to adopt new technology means that major publishers have to ensure that their online and mobile interfaces continue to offer a suitable user experience for readers. Failure to do so can lead to frustration that could drive readers to get their news fix on other sites. And given the importance of staying in touch with its readership's consumption methods, Fairfax recently launched the third version of its Stuff app.
"The last time we did a revamp was anywhere between 18 months and two years ago, and we figured that in 2015, you need a mobile app that really stands out for the future," says product manager Mitchell Mak.
Fairfax worked on the new app over a period of seven months, and group digital and visual editor Mark Stevens says that over 2,000 users opted in to contribute feedback that would shape the team's decisions in developing the new app.
"The most significant part is that we involved our audience in the process," says Stevens. "There was a significant level of beta testing involved in this. With more than half our audience now on mobile across web and native apps, it was time to put them first."
And Mak adds that the feedback from users wasn't always positive.
"One example of this was that we thought it would make a lot more sense to take away the side swipe to navigate between articles, and to use scrolling instead. And we thought this was a great idea, but our users told us that this was actually pretty shit. So we listened to them. We tried to change their minds a couple of times, but they were quite adamant that they wanted the return to left and right swiping. So while we thought we had something really cool from an innovation perspective, the audience actually told us otherwise."
Stevens says that the new app is still quite similar to the previous version at its crux, but there have been a few important changes.
"It is a far more visual experience for the reader. It wouldn’t be unfair to describe our last app as a list of stories, but we now have a default option of large cards. It’s very visual."
Readers have the option of reverting to the older stacked style, but Stevens points out that most readers now feel more comfortable browsing rich media on their mobile phones.
Previously, when mobile data was very expensive, readers were hesitant to access high-definition photographs or videos on their phones; but, with the competition between telcos driving down the cost of data, online users are now happy to watch video footage online.
"I’ll go to the gym and see people sitting on a stationary bike watching Netflix on their phones," says Stevens. "Beyond your news consumption, you’re socialising with your friends on the phone, and you’re checking up what time movie screenings are on. It’s endless. And if that’s the space our readers are playing in, then we need to ensure that we’re there at the most sophisticated level that we can possibly be."
And Mak points out that evidence of changing consumption habits also appeared in the feedback about the new app: "The whole feedback loop has gone from ‘hey, stop consuming my data’ to ‘hey, why isn’t your app optimised for iPhone 6, where my screen is actually wider.’"
And a recent Nielsen study showed that this anecdotal account of increased consumption is also backed by data.
"The shift in spend is certainly in line with device measurement and analytics," said Nielsen's research director Tony Boyte in his analysis of the report. "The total number of unique browsers accessing digital content from within New Zealand grew by 41 percent in the year to June 2015. This figure is 34 percent when looking at the average daily unique browsers metric. This is not from a replacement or substitution of desktops and laptops; it’s driven by the addition of smartphones to the consumers’ media consumption repertoire. Session counts from desktops and laptops was stable during this period (down by 1 percent) while sessions from mobile phones increased by 106 percent and tablets by 53 percent. Total audiences to digital content however remained relatively stable, with only a three percent shift in the total number of New Zealanders online over the 12 months to June 2015.
Mak explains that the new app does this by making it easier for users to access to rich media content.
"The other thing that we’ve done is to bring all the assets to the forefront," Mak says. "With the revamp we now have a feature that displays all available media assets in carousel, so that you can easily navigate to see more assets."
Should users deem the content accessed noteworthy, they can instantly share stories to social media.
"There are other indirect benefits to this as well," says Stevens. "The app allows the audience to share their own stories with us, whether these are text, videos or pictures."
Stevens says that that user-generated video content is being used more regularly in stories, because it gives journalists instant access to footage captured on location on the ground, often well before any news cameras arrive on the scene. The importance of these digital connections with the local community were also referenced by Fairfax's editor in chief for the central region Bernadette Courtney, who previously told StopPress that Neighbourly was also generating news tips and leads for journalists.
The app also helps to keep this connection with readers closer by using push notifications to inform subscribers of news stories that have broken. This allows Stuff to incentivise visitors to access the app on numerous occasions on a daily basis.
And the power of a push notification shouldn't be underestimated. In a book inspired by his Twitter addition, writer Soren Gordhamer suggested that push notifications can trigger a similar reaction in the brain to gambling:
"By providing constant access to email, tweets, and Facebook updates, smartphones keep users distracted, exploiting the same psychological vulnerability as slot machines: predictable input and random payouts. They feed a sense that any pull of the lever, or Facebook refresh, could result in an information jackpot."
So, by getting its notifications onto the homescreens of mobile phones, the Stuff app appeals to the uncontrollable curiosity of the human mind—and this is something that all the major social media players take advantage of.
So how effective has Stuff app been thus far at driving traffic to Stuff content?
According the iTunes website, the Stuff app has been downloaded between 100,000 and 500,000 times, but this vague number only accounts for Apple and does not give an indication of the number of downloads tallied on Android devices.
StopPress has approached Nielsen on numerous occasions asking for data on app-generated mobile traffic, but the researcher has not divulged this information.
When asked about this, Mak responded: "The main reason we hold quite closely to our numbers at the moment is because there’s no industry-wide tracking capability. To give you an idea the IOS and native Android applications actually make up roughly 50 percent of our total mobile traffic. We’ve got 50 percent on mobile applications and 50 percent on mobile web, and combined that results in 50 percent of our digital traffic in a given day."
Another reason for the importance of apps is that it cuts out the social media middleman—Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat—and it gives the publishers direct access to the reader. And this is especially important at a time when Facebook is looking to increase its role in the publishing process through initiatives like Instant Articles.
While speaking to StopPress recently, Hive News founder Bernard Hickey raised concerns over Facebook's publishing play, saying that it took power away from the content creator.
"It transfers market power to Facebook," Hickey said. "And I can see why the publishers are doing it. They need to follow their readers. And it makes sense to make it as fast as possible, but you’re essentially handing your IP over to a network that controls the relationship between the advertiser and the publisher. And as we saw with the programmatic networks that transfers market power to the network. There are also some slight worrying things about Facebook and the use of its algorithm to achieve its means. There are examples in Turkey, where they’ve dialled back on politically controversial news items.
"The algorithm is the new frontpage editor. In the olden days, you’d have the editor of a newspaper or a news bulletin who would second-guess what the audience wanted. And sometimes that was important, because that person had good judgement and good experience and understood who the audience was and could sometimes get ahead of audience by determining what they should read. And sometimes that meant that readers were surprised and challenged. The advent of algorithmic newsfeeds creates filter bubbles that essentially destroy serendipity or the ability for a human to set the news agenda."
In this context, an app serves to secure the independence of the news provider and also allows the news editors to choose which news items they want to push readers toward. And, in doing so, it ensures that important news stories—regardless of how controversial they might be—still reach the eyes of readers.