BuzzFeed launched its news app on Android today. (Image courtesy BuzzFeed)
BuzzFeed News launched its app on Android today. (Image courtesy BuzzFeed)

Earlier this year, BuzzFeed launched its much-anticipated news app after a tinkering and testing period that stretched for about half a year.

A lot was riding on the debut. In the months leading up to the launch, BuzzFeed built a team with a handful of journalists devoted to selecting and creating the journalism that populates the app. Staffers began honing their editorial approach to the app in public, writing a series of blog posts describing their philosophies about push notifications, product development and linking. And developers sunk hours into tweaking the app based on feedback from a Facebook group for beta testers.

So how'd it do? In the three months since its release, the BuzzFeed News app has been downloaded more than 350,000 times. Although most of the app's users are concentrated in the U.S., about 20 percent of the traffic comes from international readers, a number that could be a reflection of the app's focus on world news. It's difficult to evaluate how the download number stacks up against BuzzFeed's competitors (The New York Times, for example, hasn't disclosed the size of NYT Now's user base), but it amounts to three times more users than BuzzFeed's team anticipated on launch day.

BuzzFeed's team pegs the relative success of the app's iOS launch to a few tactics that they intend to repeat for today's launch on Android devices, said Noah Chestnut, the app's product lead. Although many users found the app through Apple's store, the team boosted downloads by creating news quizzes with prominent links to download the app. Cross-promotion on BuzzFeed's main app was another effective download driver, as were teasers on mobile article pages and links elsewhere on BuzzFeed's website.

"Our best sources of growth — outside of the app store itself and word of mouth — are using our own platforms," Chestnut said.

User feedback from the intervening months since the app's iOS launch has imparted some lessons that BuzzFeed has taken into account for today's launch, Chestnut said. The most popular feature on the app is "Quickly Catch Up," a splash screen at the top of the app that offers a concise summary of the day's most important news. The latest iteration of the app on Android and iOS allows readers to tap individual bullets in this section and be directed to the stories they summarize.

BuzzFeed has gleaned other insights from monitoring user behavior since the app's launch. When journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were fatally shot last month, readers flocked to BuzzFeed's app to stay on top of the news, Chestnut said. They checked in on the developing situation periodically, treating the app more like a top-of-the-hour newscast than a 24/7 cable news feed. Normally, users check the app once or twice per day and spend between four and five minutes on the app per session.

BuzzFeed built its app with sharing in mind, and users haven't disappointed on that front, Chestnut said. Many readers are sending articles from the app to each other via text message or saving the stories to read-later apps like Pocket and Instapaper.

The debut of Apple News earlier this month means that native apps like BuzzFeed News have a titanic competitor that comes preloaded on every Apple device. But Chestnut says he's not daunted by the new challenger. He says BuzzFeed can distinguish itself by judicious use of push notifications (which has resulted in a relatively high opt-in rate for the alerts), differences in editorial tone and small quirks like the use of emojis in headlines and summaries. Chestnut views the launch of Apple News as a sign of the ascendence of mobile news, which bodes well for every news outlet investing in mobile.

"This idea that news is something you should have on your phone all of a sudden opens the doors to people starting to think: What else is there?" Chestnut said. "I think that's a really cool opportunity."