The Balance of Power: How Scrapping an App Helped This Publication Redefine Its Digital Strategy

Scott Gates, APR

What do you do when your beautiful, award-winning publication app — one seen as forward-thinking by your peers — fails to draw any users? At Carolina Country magazine, we discarded it and started over. 

The decision didn’t come easy. It was painful to walk away from a project we had devoted so much of our time and attention to for nearly two years. But the experience served as a reminder that in an age of rapid digital change, platforms are secondary. Content comes first, and sound strategy is invaluable. 

We have an interesting publication — a monthly, general interest/lifestyle magazine distributed to more than 700,000 members of not-for-profit electric cooperatives across North Carolina. Electric co-ops are utilities that were traditionally established to serve the rural communities that larger, investor-owned power companies had left behind by the 1930s and 1940s. 

Electric co-ops now use innovative technology to provide service to 42 million people in 47 states, most of whom receive a magazine like Carolina Country in their mailbox every month. As communicators, our primary goal is to connect readers to their electric cooperatives in a genuine, meaningful way. 

BALANCEOFPOWERCOMMPROBIZLaunching a magazine app 

The app project began in 2014, before I became editor of the magazine. We’ve had an online presence at carolinacountry.com since 1996, and social media is a natural fit for us. But launching an interactive app was a first for our type of co-op publication. We wanted to lead by example by using a cutting-edge platform, while also becoming more accessible for those readers — particularly younger readers — who prefer a digital format over print. We built the tablet-based app using Adobe’s Digital Publishing Solution (DPS, which has since become the Adobe Experience Manager), joining the ranks of other DPS-built publisher apps such as those for the national magazines The New YorkerGQ and Esquire. 

We published our first app-based issue in January 2015, and the technology brought our content to life. Our photos had never been so clear, our graphics so interactive. But few readers used the app. Of our 700,000 subscribers, only 320 were registered app users by November 2016. Of those, just 23 had downloaded that month’s issue. A mere 0.002 percent of our readership was engaged with the app. 

Learning from our mistakes 

Discontinuing the app was not our first thought. We had put a lot of our time and resources into developing it and had to carefully assess what might be wrong. 

One thought was marketing. Perhaps readers just didn’t know about the app? Individual electric co-ops had taken the lead in promoting it, so we provided them with customizable marketing materials. We also started an online advertising campaign that targeted tablet users in co-op territories. Banner ads promoting the free app would display on tablets through browsers and Facebook, with links to Apple’s App Store or Google Play, depending on the device. For users who recognized our brand, the app was just a couple of clicks away. 

The ad campaign ran for three months, during which time downloads of the app increased by about 80 per month. But those users still weren’t downloading each issue. We realized that our app was just one more in a sea of icons on their tablet devices. Downloading individual issues of the magazine required a co-op member ID — a potential barrier that we removed toward the end of the campaign, but to little effect. 

Could the problem have been the design of the app itself? Probably not. There’s always room for improvement, of course, but the 2016 Folio Ozzie award the app received supported our hunch that its design was spot-on. 

So we turned to data. A reader survey conducted in the fall of 2016 showed that 30 percent of our readers had heard of the app. Of those, 19 percent still preferred the print version and 9 percent didn’t own a tablet device. Although the vast majority of survey respondents (96 percent) preferred the print version of our magazine, 15 percent reported visiting our website. 

Defining our goals 

While analyzing the app and its low adoption rate, we also assessed our overall digital strategy. Drawing on the survey data, we sought to identify our overall goals, objectives and strategies. We determined that our goals were to expand the reach of Carolina Country content and the co-op communications contained within it, and to connect readers with their local electric co-ops. And we saw that the app was accomplishing neither of those objectives. 

We discussed our goals with a few outside consultants and began seeing two recurring themes in their recommendations: One was that publication apps in general were not getting the traction that publishers had hoped for. Moreover, email remains the most universal and effective way to reach people digitally. We paired those conclusions with two truths about our magazine — we were relying on our publication app to expand our digital reach, and we did not maintain a reader email list. 

Internally we referred to our vision for a digital platform as “Carolina Country Connections,” a package of resources — including carolinacountry.com, social media and email marketing — that together would engage readers and spur action with their local electric cooperatives. We decided to double-down on what we already had: a respectable website and social media presence. 

To enhance our site we added a geolocation feature that knows a user’s co-op territory based on their IP address. With this information we could co-brand carolinacountry.com with local electric cooperatives, displaying content unique to their regions and linking directly to their own websites. 

And by sending out emails twice a month, we could also drive more traffic to our site and increase click-throughs to local co-op pages. 

Making them happen 

We’re now in the implementation phase of these plans. We have replaced the app with a leaner version to ease those few users through the transition, and in the coming months we’ll phase it out altogether. We’ve begun collecting email addresses on our website, with an option for co-ops to add their own lists to our mix. And we’ve started posting content online through a more continuous publishing model, where articles go live on the website regardless of when the print publication hits mailboxes. 

Through these efforts, as well as smaller tweaks such as using search-engine optimization and cross-referencing articles on the website, our total page views increased by 47 percent from 2016 to 2017. Our email list remains small at around 1,750, but it shows an improved trend compared to our 23 devoted app users. 

We still have a long way to go in building our digital reach, and I’m sure we will adjust our strategy as we go. But we are much better positioned today than we were a year ago to do new and exciting things with a digital platform. 

It took scrapping the app to put our goals into focus. Digital platforms rise and fall in popularity, but our goals of expanding our publication’s reach and connecting readers with their local electric co-ops will remain the same.

 

About the AuthorScott Gates, APR, has worked for electric cooperatives for more than 10 years. He joined Carolina Country as senior editor in 2016. Contact him at scott.gates@carolinacountry.com. Learn more about the magazine at carolinacountry.com

 

This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of PRSA’s Strategies and Tactics. http://bit.ly/2GNI1ev

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