Announced with much fanfare at the Apple Keynote event in March, Apple News+ marked the most significant update to Apple News since its launch in 2015. Initially available only in the US and Canada, News+ adds a paid tier to the news aggregation platform, allowing readers to access digital magazines including Time, Vogue, People, National Geographic and The Wall Street Journal for a monthly fee.
News+ comes to the UK this year, and in this post we’ll give UK publishers a tour of the US version of the app, look into how US publishers have approached it and offer guidance on how UK publishers can master the platform.
So what is News+, and why does it matter to publishers?
Apple News is a news aggregation application that comes pre-installed on all modern Apple devices. It attracts 90 million monthly active users who notch up some 5 billion article views each month. It’s a free application, monetised by publishers through display and native advertising, with some support for paywalled publications. In the US and Canada the application includes a new section called News+, presenting “Issues” of content with covers, contents pages and stories, mainly from the print version of a publication. A single monthly subscription of $9.99 opens up access to around 300 titles.
Total subscription revenue is split 50/50 between publishers and Apple, and each publisher’s share is assigned according to article dwell time. Subscriber numbers and revenues are not public, but if News+ were to attract 2 million paying subscribers, split between 500 titles, each receiving 1/500 of total dwell time would receive around £19,980.00 per title per month. Assuming the distribution of dwell time were to follow the 80/20 rule, we would expect the top 20% of publications to receive roughly £79,920.00 per month, whilst the other 80% would expect to receive around £4,995.00 per month. Apple Music has 28 million paid subscribers in the US alone, and Apple will be hoping to replicate that success with News+.
Feedback on the launch has been mixed, with some publishers positive and some sceptical, but for many publishers, Apple News+ offers a new revenue stream, from a new format that also counts towards circulation figures for print. Approaching Apple News+ the wrong way could require significant resource for weak return on investment, but approached with a clear strategy and understanding of how best to monetise this audience, News+ could present a valuable opportunity.
How do readers find News+ stories?
So, as publishers are paid revenue based on dwell time, let’s first look at how News+ stories are found.
The “homepage” of Apple News is called the Today Feed. This contains a stream of stories from all manner of publications, curated by Apple editors and the Apple News algorithm, which suggests stories based on a user’s unique interests, favoured publications and browsing history. In the US and Canada, this page begins with free Apple News stories, but a short scroll down introduces News+. News+ articles appear alongside free stories in “Topic” feeds and within suggested stories, but most prominently in a “Featured Issue” area. This leads with a magazine cover (which directs to a contents page) and four key features. This kind of placement is about as valuable as it gets for the publisher – a strong cover and selection of features in this area will notch up significant article views for a publication.
The UK version of Apple News contains a prominent tab in navigation named Spotlight; an area curated by Apple News editors each day. In the US and Canada this tab is replaced with a News+ tab, which allows readers to jump straight into the paid section. This News+ area displays the full catalogue of magazines hidden behind sub-navigation grouped in alphabetical order, by interest or by “featured” status, followed by a curated page of stories split into topic or publication.
Finding a title with sub-navigation tools can be a little fiddly. With no search function at present, a user wishing to find a title beginning with the letter G has to scroll through screen after screen of covers, with each title competing for their attention. They’ll find magazines by interest, too, but all-in-all, finding publications using sub-navigation requires plenty of intent on the user’s part, so readers are much more likely to find content through single stories within curated areas of the app. We’ll talk a little about how to use this to your advantage later in this article.
Outside the app, the Apple News editorial team collaborates to assemble email newsletters that are circulated every week. They consist of five of the week’s top stories and aren’t limited to a single set of sources or topics. Users can share stories with friends through socials and messaging apps, and email links to publications to friends.
The user who navigates to an issue or article is able to follow that title, but only by navigating to the main channel of the publication – this isn’t possible on article pages or even issue contents pages. Following a publication does a few things – it positions the latest issue in a prominent area of the News+ section, it automatically downloads issues when they come out, and it sends a signal to the Apple News algorithm that a user is interested in that publication. This increases the number of stories surfaced to the user as they make their way around the app. It goes without saying that this is a vital action, so we’ll look at methods for driving that particular behaviour later in this article.
It’s worth noting that a user who hasn’t subscribed to News+ will meet a paywall prompt whenever they attempt to view a News+ article. Articles are also flagged as paid to free users, but Apple has to be careful about users hitting a paywall too often as it risks affecting Apple News UX, reducing usage. Those who haven’t yet tried News+ will be met with an offer of a free trial, however, so as a publisher, directing followers to your publication in-app could lead to conversion, particularly at launch. Apple hasn’t released figures on the number of readers who have continued with News+ following trials, but have stated that “the road to monetization takes some time” and suggested “different trial periods” will be offered.
How are US publications approaching News+?
Publications on News+ are split into two camps – PDF publications that present issues as flat replica versions of their print titles and Apple News Format publications which allow the creation of print-meets-digital layouts optimised for screen, as well as features like animated covers and advertisements that click through.
At launch, around 50% of publications on Apple News were PDFs. Five months in, the majority of titles now appear in Apple News Format. This isn’t a surprise, as PDF publications aren’t indexable within the system, are unlikely to be featured, and offer a weak user experience compared to Apple News Format.
Apple News Format publications generally present articles in two ways: non-features and features. “Non-features” tend to be presented in basic, repeated templates, whereas “features” tend to live on bespoke designs, which maximise the capabilities of ANF in layout, behaviour and media formats, often designed around the specific material of the article. Some of the best examples of this come from high-circulation titles like National Geographic, GQ, WIRED and Time. Articles such as these are prime candidates to be featured within the app – partly as they offer a wide appeal to readers, but the strength of design plays a big role here. Bespoke features offer the most compelling experience for audiences, which Apple takes very seriously.
Apple made quite a fuss about animated covers, presenting a beautiful selection at the News+ launch, but at present magazines don’t appear to have continued producing these. The use of covers on the Today Feed and within prominent areas of the app means animated covers merit experimentation, but creation can be time-consuming. At FlatPlan we can help realise this with minimal impact to the art team.
Advertising from the print product can be included in Apple News Format. The majority of publishers that have included print ads have simply reproduced a full page ad, occasionally adding a link to the image. The right type of publication – and the right type of advertiser – could take this much further, using animation, video or unique typography, but advertisers may prefer to book digital-style formats to run across both Apple News and News+ channels.
The News+ user interface has been criticised, as some users have reportedly found it confusing. It’s often difficult for the user to understand whether they are viewing a story in News or News+ – a cover, momentarily floating at the bottom of the article, is often the only difference. If a reader has clicked a story in their article feed, the only way to navigate to the full issue is to click this cover, and if they were to swipe right they would be taken to a story from a completely different publication. This presents an issue for publications, as a heavily-trafficked article doesn’t necessarily lead to time spent with the publication as a whole – we have solutions for this, which we’ll outline later in this post. Apple News uses “Recirculation” areas to drive traffic from page to page and publication to publication. News+ doesn’t include this functionality, so most current articles in News+ create a “dead-end” for users at the end of each article. We have solutions for this, too, also outlined below.
How do publications get content into News+?
Apple News stories tend to arrive to the application through a CMS (at FlatPlan we use an RSS feed, after which we handle conversion and delivery), but the majority of News+ content stems from print publications, which are often not part of a digital workflow. Thankfully, workarounds have been devised for print-only publishers. Some magazines in the US and Canada export from InDesign, manually copy and paste their articles into a placeholder CMS, or use PDF extraction.
Extraction can be complicated in itself, but the interpretation of print elements into Apple News Format is where many conversions fall down. At FlatPlan, we can take care of integrations that deliver content from a CMS or PDF extraction that uses our unique machine learning system to ensure quick and precise conversion. Along with this we have a focus on ensuring that context within the articles to maintain the flow of the given narrative. Creating a News+ publication that retains editorial integrity and clear storytelling creates the best user experience, leading to increased dwell time, so context is key.
What opportunities does News+ offer publishers? What News+ advice do you have?
Mastering the presentation of your print content for Apple News+ is vital. It’s how you build brand recognition and loyalty. Where possible, this should mean more than adding the correct typefaces and colours to a basic template. Bespoke features will make much more visual impact, but a bespoke feel can be created from templates if flexible, well-designed templating is developed.
Columns or smaller features have to be tackled carefully. The majority of publications on Apple News present these in very basic layouts on pages of their own, often lined up side-by-side towards the end of an issue. This can create a frustrating experience for readers, which can lead to them bouncing to another publication, reducing dwell times across further pages in the publication. In many instances we recommend combining shorter pieces, using on-page navigation and strong signposting to lead readers and create a longer, better experience with that type of story.
While stories in News+ are organised into “issues” there is plenty of opportunity to be creative with current content and evergreen content from past issues. Each article in News+ gets its own unique identifier, making it possible to link to past stories or series’ – or even create buckets of content based on theme. Apple News directs readers using a “Recirculation” area but News+ doesn’t offer this functionality, so we recommend creating it as part of your channel build, signposting further reads at the end of features.
FlatPlan includes “footer” functionality that can display branded messages directly below content. We use footers to aid the user’s journey, and as an example, in News+ we’re able to display one type of footer to people arriving to an article within an issue and one type of footer for those arriving to a single article. Those arriving to a single article this way are lost to another publication when swiping right, so we can instead aim to change that behaviour to viewing more from the publication. We’ll be using areas like footers to help drive that ever-important action of hitting Follow on a publication too.
For many publications we’ll be using footers in the free version of Apple News to help drive traffic into News+. We’ll do this using contextual messaging directed at readers already engaging with content, offering a strong potential for conversion. In FlatPlan these footers can be updated as often as required, so each new issue can potentially be promoted using covers and information on features. Data from existing channels can be used to help guide editorial decisions on the stories a publication decides to publish in News+, with our team recommending types of story based on metrics like dwell time, article views, shares and reach. Combining this with data from News+ content to inform adjustments can lead to strong performances with News+ audiences.
Carefully monitoring article data and user behaviour in News+ can help drive other decisions around content. If certain types of story show traction with Apple News audiences, they can be amended after going live to include further content that will increase dwell time. Are additional images available from the shoot? Is there a video to be used? Could extra context be added? These additions can be added as part of your Apple News content plan ahead of publishing, but Apple News also allows them to be added after going live. This is particularly useful if you find specific stories are performing well.
By carefully considering content conversion, having a focus on the importance of design, using elements like footers, monitoring data and thinking strategically about how to drive audiences around your own publication it’s possible to build an environment that takes your publication further than others on News+. Where other titles may concentrate on just delivering stories into the app, there are opportunities to create a unique environment in News+ – one that offers a good return on investment.