January 22, 2014

CNN announced last week that mobile page views accounted for 40 percent of its overall traffic, the result of equally emphasizing its mobile website and mobile apps even as some in the industry remain stuck in an either-or debate.

ESPN’s traffic crossed the 50 percent mobile threshold late last year and BuzzFeed’s traffic is also majority mobile, but CNN’s 40 percent is impressive for a general news organization — one known to take particular advantage of softer content. “We’ve been saying 2014 is going to be the year that we go over 50 percent for mobile usage,” said Meredith Artley, CNN Digital’s managing editor.

I wondered if CNN was shifting resources away from apps and toward the mobile web, especially in light of reports like the latest from Flurry Analytics that indicate news apps struggle to compete with social media apps for mobile users’ attention. (Flurry found use of social/messaging apps grew 203 percent in 2013, compared with just 31 percent in the news/magazines category.)

But Artley told me via phone she doesn’t get caught up in the ever-shifting rhetoric surrounding mobile apps:

One month, they’re dead, they’re hard, they’re expensive, you have to get approval, they’re closed off. … Then the next month you hear they take advantage of the mobile platform in a way the mobile web can’t. It feels like a roller coaster that really I think is a red herring, mobile web versus apps.

It’s impossible to argue that the best answer to the web vs. app debate is “both,” and Artley acknowledged many news organizations don’t have the global resources — as CNN does — to devote to every platform imaginable. (The Financial Times is a notable global brand that did make a choice to go web-only.)

CNN’s mobile website, shown here on a Nokia Lumia 520 Windows Phone, conveniently — or annoyingly — points readers to the mobile app.

Still, I was surprised to hear that CNN is as bullish on mobile apps as it is on the mobile web — but maybe I shouldn’t have been, considering a visit to CNN’s mobile site yields a prompt to download the CNN app.

At the same time, CNN app downloads across platforms have been flat in the last three years, with 13 million downloads in 2011, 12 million in 2012 and another 12 million in 2013, perhaps reflecting users’ increasing reluctance to bury themselves in apps on their devices.

Of course, I wouldn’t expect CNN to discontinue its apps altogether in favor of the mobile web even if it felt apps were going out of style. News outlets needed native apps in the early days of the iPhone and iPad, so those existing user bases would be tough to abandon, and the CNN app does currently present the news more cleanly and visually than CNN’s mobile site does. (And apps tap in to a device’s notification system, no small consideration if your bread and butter is breaking news.)

On the other hand, it’s hard not to be persuaded by one of the common arguments we hear and that Artley brought up: apps are too walled-off to remain relevant in an increasingly connected media landscape. Add the fact that CNN has two of the 10 most-followed brands on Twitter and the largest Facebook audience of any news organization, and why should CNN push readers to an app that doesn’t offer an experience significantly better than its mobile website does? And given the relentless dominance of social apps, why not make sure your website reflects your best foot forward on mobile? Is 2014 the right time to be directing readers away from the web and toward an app?

Then again, the social/messaging platforms that are growing fastest and perhaps at the expense of news/magazine apps — WeChat, SnapChat, Instagram, etc. — hardly offer much to news organizations. So it’s not as simple as saying, “Social is huge, so the best strategy is to be as shareable as possible on social.” Some of the hottest new social apps aren’t built for the type of sharing that would draw heavy traffic to CNN’s mobile site anyway.

Worth noting

  • Artley said mobile traffic remains pretty consistent throughout all seven days of the week, but desktop drops by half on weekends, reflecting industrywide trends. She also, interestingly, said desktop was becoming a “niche platform” with massive numbers mainly between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. (Desktop still accounts for a majority of CNN’s traffic, so that’s a pretty big niche.)
  • CNN’s video traffic was dominated one day last week by that weird devil baby promotion, posted late Wednesday night to Facebook and shared over 1,500 times. The lessons: You never know what will rule a day (it’s often not hard news), and being active on social media as people are falling asleep with their mobile devices is a smart idea.
  • While the news giant saw 40 percent mobile traffic overall in 2013, two months — August and November — tallied 44 percent mobile traffic.

Related training: Mobile Metrics: Truth and Myths | Monetizing Mobile Products: Ads, Apps and More | The Essentials of Mobile Journalism: Webinar Series

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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