CNN.com GM explains iPad strategy, why ‘the money will come’ & what’s next for mobile
CNN’s new iPad app, which launched on Tuesday, looks nothing like the network's website, and that is by design, according to Kenneth "KC" Estenson.
Estenson, the company’s senior vice president and general manager of CNN.com, told me during a phone interview that the designers on the project pushed the app "to the edges of what conventional wisdom would argue."
The result is an app that looks and feels like it is designed for a tablet. And in these early days of iPad apps, that is no easy task.
Estenson said the team had a lot of confidence in the design, but that confidence followed a lot of internal debate. "With a multi-touch interface, there is no rulebook yet," he said. "The iPad is so new. The initial question was, 'What do I want to touch?' "
The answer: photos.
The section fronts of the CNN app are dominated by photos, aligned in a grid format, with a headline at the bottom of each.
"It turns out you want to touch imagery more than words. That was the fundamental design conceit behind it. Lead with high quality imagery," he said.
Swiping up or down across the grid reveals additional stories, not to mention the occasional double-height Lexus advertisement.
And, as you would expect from a broadcast app, many of the stories include video. The app also features an hourly updated CNN radio report, and a live video feed of selected content.
Within individual articles, the app integrates with Facebook and Twitter and allows readers to read and post comments directly. The social media strategy is highlighted by a featured reader comment presented in a "deck quote" format next to each story.
Estenson said they would like to embed more social media features into future versions of the app, including the ability to "clip" portions of an article for posting to Twitter or Facebook.
One of the reasons CNN is somewhat late to launch an iPad app is that they wanted to survey the landscape before developing for the new device. According to Estenson, CNN.com was redesigned to be tablet-friendly for the iPad launch, removing some of the pressure to get the app built quickly.
"I wanted us to have some time to play with the device to see what others did and to draw inspiration from a wide variety of apps," he said.
That inspiration was not limited to news competitors but included exemplars from gaming and social media categories, among others.
There was also some internal debate about the app's business model. CNN's iPhone app had been a paid download, a strategy the network had some success with. "Before the iPad app went out we were near two million apps downloaded globally," Estenson said.
But, with Tuesday’s launch, apps for both the iPhone and iPad are now free. "We wanted to take away any barrier, and any reason not get the CNN brand in your hands," he said.
As a global company, ubiquity through broad distribution is the goal, though future initiatives could still include paid apps. But at this point, he said, "We love our product and wanted it in the hands of as many people as possible."
And while the app does already carry advertising, Estenson believes that building readership is the first step. "The business will follow [the audience]," he said. "The money will come."
In that respect, Estenson thinks broadcasters have an advantage over their print counterparts. He noted that since consumers do not directly pay for CNN on their TV screens, the company has "less pressure to protect a subscription business."
While CNN's mobile efforts have been focused recently on Apple's iOS platform, Estenson said they are also working on an Android app, and "likely" will develop for RIM's Blackberry as well.
Estenson indicated that Tuesday’s launch was a global effort for the network, with the app being made available in "nearly every" country that sells iPads. The team intends to support its Android app in the same fashion, and that "takes a little bit longer than just getting something out for the U.S."
Expect to see the Android app available sometime in the first half of 2011, he said.
In terms of future apps, the company is still developing its strategy. "You can imagine apps tailored for politics, world news, iReport," among other topics," Estenson said.
Acknowledging that no app is ever perfect, Estenson shared a few of the features they wanted to add in the near future.
"I would like us to have more access to our shows and talent," he said, noting that their marquee personalities were mixed into the full stream of content in the current app.
Likewise, said Estenson, CNN has a "really rich and deep" video archive they would like to feature in the app. But first, the team needs to develop a search functionality that would make that library of content accessible.
"We have to work on that," he said.
In the last year, CNN has hired a mobile team of around 10 staffers. So, while 2010 was about building capacity, Estenson believes that 2011 should see a "steady stream" of mobile products brought to market.
"We have a lot of tricks up our sleeve," he said.