Are you ready for some football? The Seattle Times thought it was, sending its new University of Washington Huskies football iPhone app to Apple for approval weeks before the team’s 2010 training camp was to open. Unfortunately, Apple staffers might just be Oregon fans, as the review team rejected the app twice before eventually approving it.
Those rejections, and the lack of details surrounding the reasons and remedies, highlight the difficulties media companies are facing when dealing with the “new” gatekeepers of the digital age.
I talked by e-mail with Heidi de Laubenfels, the paper’s deputy managing editor for strategy and product development about the app, Apple’s approval process, and how the Times managed to make it into the iTunes store in time for UW’s opening kickoff. We also discussed how the Husky football app fits into the Times’ mobile strategy.
Damon Kiesow: Can you describe the features of your University of Washington Huskies football app?
Heidi de Laubenfels: The app was built to give Husky fans all the information they crave in a beautifully designed, iPhone-shaped mobile package. Features include:
- Up-to-the-minute Husky news, scores and stats
- Articles, blog posts and tweets from [the Times' Huskies reporter] Bob Condotta
- In-depth player news and biographies
- News, scores and schedules from around the Pac-10
- Access to exclusive contests and special events
- Husky barks and other spirited sounds that play when shaking the phone
What is the audience strategy for the app? How does it fit into your overall Web and mobile approach?
de Laubenfels: We’re targeting die-hard University of Washington football fans, who already are a large and loyal audience in print and on seattletimes.com. Our objective was to make it easy for them to stay on top of all the latest news about their favorite team wherever and whenever they want it. Some of the content is available in our other forums, but here it is packaged for an optimum mobile experience. And app users have special access to contests to win game tickets and other prizes.
You hit some bumps in the road getting the app approved by Apple. Can you describe the issues?
de Laubenfels: It’s quite a new experience to cede control over distribution to an organization that we can’t even talk to. As anyone who has produced an iPhone app knows, once the code is finished, you go through a detailed process of submission to the Apple store online. And then you wait.
In our case, it took five full working days for an Apple reviewer to even look at our app. That much we expected. But when the reviewer rejected our app, we were surprised and bewildered. One issue had to do with Apple’s disclaimer requirements for promotional sweepstakes or contests in apps.
The other — more troubling — issue concerned “features, namely team logos and terminology in the application name and keywords, that infringe on rights owned by NCAA.” We had used team logos and the word “husky” in contexts identical to ones we commonly use in print and online, and we felt we were fully within our rights to use them as we had in the app. The challenge was to persuade a nameless, faceless Apple reviewer of that without even the benefit of a conversation.
How did you proceed after the initial rejection?
de Laubenfels: The best response we could think of was to resubmit the app with updated contest language and a lawyer’s letter underscoring our right to use the trademarked material in news coverage. We also reached out to the UW Athletics Department, with which we had been in contact about the app, and asked for – and obtained — the director’s support. We did that the same day of the rejection.
And then we waited another full five working days to be reviewed again. By this time we were two weeks past the date on which we had hoped to launch the app, and football camp was well under way. We were starting to worry that our app wouldn’t be publicly available before the first game was played.
To our relief, a note from the reviewer indicated that we had sufficiently addressed Apple’s concerns about the trademarked content. But we were stunned to find that we were rejected again because our efforts to address the contest concerns — the part we thought should be the easiest to deal with — were insufficient. This was especially frustrating because Apple’s e-mail notifications were cryptic and lacked specific instructions about what we needed to do to appease the reviewers.
Thankfully, the process moved much more quickly the third time. We went into review the same day we resubmitted — a Friday — and the app was approved the following Monday [August 23].
Did the app itself require any modifications?
de Laubenfels: Ultimately, we changed nothing about the logo use or terminology that had raised a flag with the first reviewer. But we did introduce language throughout the app to make clear that Apple is in no way affiliated with our in-app contest. At this point, that language lives in the contest rules, on the contest pages, in a pop-up on the contest entry form and in the description language in the app store. Perhaps it’s overkill, but we didn’t want to risk letting this issue continue to be a barrier to approval.
There seems to be a fair amount of confusion in dealing with app approvals. Any sense of whether some clarity might be forthcoming?
de Laubenfels: Since our app was approved, Apple has made its App Store Review Guidelines public. This gives us all a better view into the issues that Apple’s reviewers are paying attention to (and it’s quite a long list).
Still, all this does is make even more clear that Apple is going to make judgments to which we will have to respond on Apple’s time line. One example: The guidelines state that “use of protected 3rd party material (trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, otherwise proprietary content) requires a documented rights check which must be provided upon request.” I doubt that knowing this in advance would have changed our situation.
I think that making humans available to discuss concerns would be an enormous improvement. Our experience was that even an e-mail exchange was impossible. Communication was entirely one-directional — from Apple to us, except when we had a chance to include communication with our app submission — and often vague. The new guidelines should help us all anticipate and clarify problems, but they don’t improve communication.
Any suggestions for other papers working to navigate this process?
de Laubenfels: Pore over the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement thoroughly, and be certain you’re adhering to the specific criteria outlined in it. Be sure to read carefully Apple’s guidelines for file preparation and submission, including the recently released notes on the review process. Connect with developers who have experience and credibility with Apple, and rely on their counsel around best practices.
If you’re doing anything in the app that pushes the envelope, give yourself plenty of time between the moment you submit and the date on which you want the app to be available in the store. That can be a long, frustrating process over which you have virtually no control. Be prepared to “hurry up and wait.”
Back to the app itself, what makes Husky football a good choice for a stand-alone app and what factors went into that decision?
de Laubenfels: As noted above, our UW football coverage is revered among fans and already commands a large and loyal audience. It’s also an area in which we have minimal competition, particularly in the mobile space. It was an obvious place to start with paid apps.
Our thinking is that we can build out a mobile portfolio of paid sports content and ultimately develop a solid revenue stream that is supplemented by some carefully crafted advertising. We’ll learn much from the market response that will inform where we can go with other niche content — coverage we offer that people really can’t get anywhere else.
What is the revenue strategy?
de Laubenfels: This is a paid app. We’re asking a $2.99 one-time download fee and also sold a sponsorship to Pierre Auto Centers. Our plan is to build out a portfolio of compelling niche apps — starting with sports coverage — that generate both consumer and ad revenue.
What are your marketing and promotion plans?
de Laubenfels: We’re making sure there’s virtually no way that Husky fans will miss information about the app. On the day the app launched, we published an announcement from our executive editor on the Sports cover in print, and also on seattletimes.com. We told our users about the app in blog posts and on Facebook and Twitter.
We’re running ads in print and online, including on gohuskies.com, in the UW student newspaper and in the official game programs distributed at Husky Stadium. We have radio spots running on the top sports stations in town. We did some PR outreach, including distributing 50 promotional codes to influential people in the college football realm. We’re targeting Husky fans with Facebook advertising, and we’ll distribute specially designed Husky football iPhone cases in kiosks at two home games, along with information about the app.
What has the audience response been so far?
de Laubenfels: It’s been terrific. Within the first week, we had 10 reviews in the app store with an average rating of five stars, the best possible rating. Apple included our app in its “new and noteworthy” sports section. At the initial sales peak, our app was No. 2 among all paid sports apps and No. 68 among all paid apps. [Before the season began we were] already 30 percent of the way toward our projected sales.
Our published announcements about the app drew lots of positive comments, as well as disappointed notes from some Android users. We know that Android is an important, growing platform. And others are, as well. For this initial foray, we had to pick one, though, and we went with the one that represents by far the majority of our mobile users.
Was the development done in house or through a vendor?
de Laubenfels: We partnered with Dallas-based Bottle Rocket to develop the app. They did a great job. [Bottle Rocket also worked with NPR on its iPhone and iPad apps, among other projects.]
What would you like to hear about from other newsrooms working on mobile projects?
de Laubenfels: What are you learning about what consumers are willing to pay for? What features did you think would be important but turned out not to be? Conversely, what did you think wouldn’t matter to people, but did?
How important is it to consumers that you offer an app with a distinctive look and feel, versus something simple and templated? What business models (e.g. revenue-sharing versus work-for-hire) are working best?
Would you be willing to talk about trading — or buying from each other — some code? What development and sales partners do you recommend? What partners do you even KNOW about? The landscape is changing so fast.
Anything I forgot to ask?
de Laubenfels: Probably. I think we’ll have lots to talk to each other about in the coming months and years with regard to revenue successes, technology-development strategies and approaches to managing a whole portfolios of mobile offerings.
We believe there’s ad revenue to be had in mobile, but what does it take to capture that? Will news and information forums continue to command ad dollars? How do we compete with geo-location services and pure-plays like Urbanspoon? It’s all fascinating.