State of Mobile Publishing: Publishers focus on how apps support retention and higher revenue

Deep engagement with audio, puzzles and quality content drives app use and supports publishers’ retention and revenue goals, our report finds.

Pugpig State of the Mobile Publishing Market report 2024 - now live

Pugpig’s latest State of the Mobile Publishing Market Report — now available for download — shows a huge shift in publisher priorities from conversion to retention. Apps have traditionally been seen as a retention tool, and with well-known pressures such as changes in search and social, publishers are focusing on apps for the direct relationships they build with highly engaged audiences.

Drawing on industry data, exclusive analytics data from almost 400 Pugpig apps and a survey of more than 70 publishers, the report outlines the challenges publishers face and how they are leveraging mobile publishing to respond to them. 

The report also covers the successful strategies publishers are using to grow the audience for their apps and deepen engagement with them. Looking to the future of apps, publishers are using them to create premium member-only features that support retention and higher revenue.

Optimistic, despite challenges

“Rapid declines in audience and revenue, challenges through the changing digital ecosystem thanks to the rise of AI and decline of social traffic,” as one publisher put it, succinctly sums up the media economy. Although inflation has cooled, publishers are still dealing with higher costs and added to that, their subscribers are more sensitive to price, which limits their ability to increase subscription prices. Other publishers talk about pressure and volatility in the advertising market. 

Despite these headwinds, publishers remain optimistic about their ability to handle them, but less so than in our last report back in 2022. And as with that report, they’re expressing shades of pessimism about the broader industry. 

AI is adding to this period of disruption, but the perception of its impact is mixed. Publishers are concerned that AI-powered search will eat away at one of the more reliable sources of audience acquisition they have had over the past few years. 

However, AI dominates their innovation agenda to drive efficiencies and deliver new value for audiences including improved personalisation.  

A focus on acquiring and retaining subscribers

With the traffic declines and advertising volatility, publishers are focused on reader revenue. Challenges in audience development mean they have shifted their focus away from growing awareness and instead are focusing on engagement and retention, with conversion coming in a close third. 

Apps play an important role in retaining subscribers by engaging publishers’ most engaged audiences. They don’t serve large audiences, but publishers with successful apps say they serve a large proportion of their paying subscribers. This should be the benchmark for the success of an app. 

Publishers know that to retain subscribers they must build habits with them from day one, and apps play a key role in supporting loyalty and habits that support retention. App users are deeply engaged, with the average Pugpig news app user spending almost twice as much time as the average news website visitor in the UK. For top-performing Pugpig news apps, users spend 4.5x more time in the app than the average US news website visitor. 

Research from Northwestern University of 106 newspapers has found that regularity, more than page views or time spent is most highly correlated with retention. The top-performing news site in the US, Fox News, has an average of 10 sessions per user per month, while, on average, Pugpig news apps have 15, with the top-performing apps having as high as 40 sessions per user per month.   

Push notifications: The killer feature of apps

We analysed the product features responsible for users’ high engagement with apps. A minority of app users are puzzle fanatics, but these users are extremely regular. 

Audio, again, plays a minority role in terms of the users of most apps, but audio users spend a lot of time in an app. Looking at one high-performing app, we found that audio users spent 2.5x more time in the app than non-audio users. Encouraging more people to use these features will help support subscriber retention.  

One of our favourite themes at the Media Bulletin is the transition to the Push Era. It is the shift from chasing rented audiences on social platforms to engaging audiences with your direct-to-consumer products including newsletters, podcasts and apps. Publishers are finding that push notifications offer a unique opportunity to engage audiences. 

“It is the only platform that we are able to push, bring people in, without having to voluntarily follow a link. Newsletters to an extent yes, but push notifications are more effective in bringing people back,” Eric Ulken, VP of product at The Baltimore Banner said. 

In analysing data for the report and working with our customers, we have seen one publisher increase engagement with their app by 60% simply by starting to use push notifications. Our data also shows that publishers who do not use push have lower retention rates than those who do. 

Push notifications are critical to retention and have been shown to more than double the retention rate in the first 90 days after downloading an app, according to messaging provider Airship, and their research found 95% of opt-in users who don’t receive a push notification in the first 90 days will churn. 

We also found that daily publishers, like news organisations, who push more often have more open push notifications than those publishers who send notifications less frequently. 

The future of apps

With mobile being the primary platform for most countries, publishers see apps becoming more central to their strategies. Publishers, especially in the B2B sector, see data tools including real-time dashboards as a new range of high-engagement features that can drive regular app use. 

For the second report in a row, they see personalisation as a key focus for their innovation efforts. It will increase relevance, which they believe will drive engagement and retention. 

Several publishers have already added comments to their apps and are considering adding community features to support higher-revenue membership offerings. 

Hearst UK has already taken the step of using the app as a key element in their membership strategy. They have launched two apps that offer premium membership tiers. Women’s Health Collective and Men’s Health Squad members have access to members-only content including training plans that they can use at the gym on their smartphones. 

“The new apps and enhanced membership offerings will allow us to create even stronger and deeper relationships with existing and new members, whilst building more opportunities for the future with premium content that people want to pay for,” David Robinson, Chief Customer Officer at Hearst UK, said.  

These are just the highlights of the report. We also show how publishers use apps to capture first-party data and the rapidly changing regulatory landscape. Apple and Google are being forced to open up their app stores providing opportunities for publishers to retain more revenue and data from apps. Get your copy now.

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