No one is suggesting that iPhone applications are going to save legacy media. But the conversation so often turns to profitability on mobile platforms, that it may be a surprise there are so few truly local products from Philadelphia media.
NBC10 and 6ABC have free apps developed with the help of their national parents. Shopiks offers Philly coupons, and there’s the popular Philadelphia Concert Hub.
“The rest are tour guides, canned content, RSS readers of Philly feeds or some sort of national content that is supposed to relate to our area,” says Keith McGinnis, who recently left a role heading up IT for Review Publishing, whose flagship brand is Philadelphia Weekly.
In December, PW likely made the region’s strongest big media play into mobile by launching a McGinnis-led Philly Happy Hour Guide application for the iPhone and iPod touch. The application offers users the chance to search and find the best happy hour deals at specific locations, specific bars, specific neighborhoods or wherever is nearest. There are options for calling a cab, getting directions and tracking just what’s your favorite.
Last month, the app became free to use, after a paid trial version, and so now, McGinnis says, PW has an excellent opportunity to test the waters of localized mobile profitability, ahead of anyone else in Philadelphia (No particular provision is being made for the few hundred who paid $1 for the app, McGinnis says, “I figure you saved $1 on your first drink special.”)
McGinnis is now joining the staff of Northern Liberties Web development firm o3world, but the Happy Hour Guide is still close enough to his heart that he took the time to chat with Technically Philly about how the app plans on making money, how it got made and what it means for PW’s always active competition with crosstown rival CityPaper.
[Full Disclosure: This author has written for both Philadelphia Weekly and CityPaper.]
You dropped the 99 cent price tag. How is this thing going to make money?
The two revenue streams are, one, featured placement, offering sponsors branding as the highlighted bar in our listing. As a featured listing, you also rise to the top position for any iPhone that is closest to your establishment. So users look for what has the best drink specials around, and they see the featured listing first. Two, sponsorship, like co-branding on the app and sponsorship tied to the Web site. We have some future plans around Apple push notification for the next version. I’d like to stay away from ads in the app, mostly because they aren’t very good creatives. Mobile ads kinda suck, like banner ads on websites
PW’s Happy Hour Guide wasn’t always free.
When it first launched, the iPhone application cost 99 cents, but it wasn’t the choice of Review Publishing.
“It was another example of Apple’s ever shifting sand,” said Review’s former IT chief Keith McGinnis.
The first choice to charge, McGinnis says,came only because when Review submitted the Philly Weekly product to Apple, only paid applications could sell premium content, like PW’s plan for using the in-app purchasing mechanism to sell products like a “craft beer guide.”
Since then Apple has opened the door for free apps to do the same, so with that barrier removed, Review took the free path.
From idea to implementation, what was the time line like for the project?
That’s everyone’s big question: how long did it take? Take as a given that you have a CMS for the data that can organize and spit out some form of XML. Then, from commitment with a developer to first prototype was about four weeks. About another four to five in refinement, finishing and testing. So nine weeks from the start until our first submission to Apple. Add about one week’s worth of time of forty hours or so in front of that to RFP and find developers, etc. Now, once at Apple, like everyone says, it was a painful wait.
It took a full eight weeks to get approved. We submitted in late September and finally went live Nov. 3 in the store. We were rejected twice for bugs.
What were the bugs?
The first rejection was for user experience. If the lookup [for a bar] failed, the user didn’t get a warning — easy fix. The second one was a bug that did not exist under OS 3.01 when we submitted, but two weeks later when Apple actually tested, OS 3.1 was out and we had a bug. No way to avoid that one. It was another simple fix, and we were approved in a few days after that.
I’m happy to say we did this very cost effectively. The project start to finish, including the developer, CMS tweaking and gateway server cost under $10,000. Data entry and maintenance are another story. It’s not a lot, I’m just not sure [as it fits under other tasks of the organization]. The way I designed the app’s function, the content is independent of the application on the phone, so it’s always pulling the latest data. Rachel Piot [Advertising Sales Coordinator for PW] is handling the data, and she has been wonderful.
Diversions from existing print business always seem to be points of contention, even in progressive alt-weekly newsrooms. Was this Happy Hour Guide any exception?
As with any product, it gets more attention and respect once it’s generating good money. We’re well on our way to doing just that. At that point, I think we’ll have everyone’s attention.
An interesting point for concepts like News Inkubator is that this is a sales driven effort. Our sales team is fully integrated with helping design functionality that will deliver value for their advertiser.
They also help keep this data to ensure it’s correct for their clients. I’ve been working on Web projects for a long time, so I can say that this is rarely the case.
Many times the tech side shows what it can do, rather than build to suit the revenue streams needs. I think we did a good job of balancing what was possible and ad product opportunities with Phillyweekly.com and our sister sites. This is just the beginning of maximizing what’s possible when you have truly unified multimedia publishing.
This mobile app is another step in a long building process at Review of which you’ve been a part, yes?
More than two years of planning and building the redesign and this app has finally come to actuality… That feels good.
Speaking of which, perhaps the largest step of that process was last spring’s redesign of PW’s site. Has that proved fruitful?
Yes. But, mind you, we just launched our third site on Clickability [in December], so to us, the project is just completing. It went Phillyweekly.com in March, ACWeekly.com in September, and [third sister paper] SouthPhillyReview.com in December.
As for PhillyWeekly.com, which has been running longest, yes. We saw time on site go from under one minute to over 2.5 minutes. We saw bounce rate drop on the home page by over 35 percent.
So, what’s your take on the sizable traffic difference between PW and competitor CityPaper?
My take is that it sucks. I really can’t comment on that though.
…Thankfully, many [problems] are being corrected in 2010. I truly feel PW’s product — its content — is constantly growing and improving. We plan to do much, much better. The most exciting things coming in 2010, I can’t talk about. That’s kind of cool.
What I have done, through things like the CMS project and iPhone platform is work hard to prove to our internal partners and clients and audience… that we can make much better marketing and advertising tools, ones that people like using. Ones that really engage and that are just plain more fun and cooler
Do you guys see something like an iPhone app as a direct move to take an upperhand on CP in an alt-weekly mainstay like listings?
You know what. CP isn’t my worry. It’s CP and the 20 or so other sources of legit A&E and nightlife content that are everywhere in Philly. I think that products like Food Guide or Happy Hour Guide, do create a good listings product that people can use. Extending that onto mobile makes a ton of sense.
Why did you leave Review?
To build more digital solutions for more brands and businesses. And for my career, I worked very hard to get to director of tech. To do it for an advertising and marketing firm that gets digital and [does so] via 100 percent web and mobile technology,I jumped at the chance.
What can we expect in the future from the Review and mobile?
There are plans to update [PW’s Happy Hour Guide] project in the spring, in addition to rolling out a similar product for bars down the shore from [PW sister publication the Atlantic City Weekly]. There will be plenty more. Keep posted.
Every Friday, Technically Philly brings you an interview with a leader or innovator in Philadelphia’s technology community. See others here.