The pros and cons of Apple’s Newsstand, is it worth it?

Apple introduced Newsstand in iOS5 as a single location for users to gather all their magazine and newspaper app subscriptions. From the users perspective its a type of folder where all their news/magazine periodicals (that support Newsstand) are located. There is also a link to the Newsstand section of the App store where a user can discover new publications.

If you are publishing a news app you have the option to add it to Newsstand, before you do you should consider the advantages and disadvantages of Newsstand.

What is the difference between a Newsstand App and a Regular App?

Subscriptions
Newsstand App: The app needs to have at least one iTunes auto-renewable subscription to qualify.
Regular App: The app can choose from any of the iTunes subscription types including auto-renewable subscriptions. You can also choose not to offer iTunes subscriptions at all. You are however not allowed to provide an external purchase link within your app.

Icon
Newsstand App: The current issue cover is displayed on the App Store and as the app icon in Newsstand. A description of the current issue is displayed on the App Store.
Regular App: The app icon is like every other app icon on the App store. The app icon and the description on the App Store does not change based on the current issue.

Screenshots
Newsstand App: App screenshots can be updated without submitting a new app.
Regular App: App store screenshots cannot be updated without first submitting a new binary with screenshots for Apples approval. This restriction was introduced in January 2013 to combat fake screenshots being uploaded after apps had been approved by Apple.

App store category
Newsstand App: Newsstand Apps are automatically part of the Newsstand category (secondary category) on the App store. They can also choose to be listed in one other category (primary category).
Regular App: The app can choose to be part of any two categories (primary and secondary categories).

Newsstand
Newsstand App: An app that enables Newsstand cannot disable it in the future.
Regular App: It is possible at anytime to update the app and add it to Newsstand.

Background Downloads
Newsstand Apps: Newsstand apps can once a day receive a Newsstand push message, where a full issue is automatically downloaded to the users device. This will work even if your app is suspended or terminated.
Regular App: As of iOS7 apps outside of Newsstand have two similar options available to them.

– Background fetch
The app can regularly check to see if there is new content available and fetch small amounts of content automatically in the background so that the content in the app is up-to-date when the user opens the app. This won’t work for large issues.

– Using push notifications to initiate a download
It is possible to send a background push message to the app to trigger the app to download content in the background.

Both of these methods will however not work if the user has force-quit (terminated) the app.

App location
Newsstand App: Your publication/app is located within the Newsstand App. There is a App Store link within Newsstand that links to the Newsstand section of the App Store from which users can discover new publications. You cannot delete the Newsstand app and you must use the home button to exit it unlike all other folders that contain multiple apps.
Regular App: The user decides where the app is located. They can choose to either place it on the homescreen, within a folder or as one of the four fixed icons on the bottom of the home screen.

Free Subscriptions
Newsstand App: Free subscriptions are only available in Newstand apps. Its a way of adding free content to Newsstand.
Regular App: The free subscription In-App purchase product is not available outside of Newsstand. The app can however easily offer free content without offering the free subscription product.

Free trials
Both Newsstand apps and regular Apps can offer free trials with the auto-renewable subscription product type. After the trial period is over the user will be automatically charged unless they have turned auto-renewal off.

Our experience at Verdens Gang

Newsstand was first released in October 2011. The VG+ publication supported Newsstand from the start and our initial experience was very positive. We had an increase in subscribers that we mainly attribute to inclusion in Newsstand. This surge in subscribers I think can be attributed both to Apples promotion of Newsstand and our app on Newsstand. Since then however the reasons for remaining a part of Newsstand has diminished.

Here are some of the issues we have with Newsstand

    1. Newsstand Icon and screen real-estate
      Apple updated the Newsstand icon in iOS7 (released September 2013). The original icon displayed small thumbnails of the publications available within Newsstand, the latest Newsstand icon displays colorful generic publication covers on the icon. (News, Art, Travel, Sports). The original icon was bad enough but at least it gave you an indication of the publications that lay behind the icon. This is similar to the app folder concept. The latest Newsstand app icon blends in with other Apps and you have to open the Newsstand app before seeing the publications on the shelf.

Newsstand
HomeScreen
Newsstand

I think John Grubber said it best back in 2012 “Newsstand is a place where apps go to be forgotten.” This was even before Apple updated the Newsstand icon.

If you consider screen real-estate, you want your app and your logo to be visible in the prime location, on the front screen and visible each time the user starts their phone. If you choose to to be hidden behind the Newsstand icon your logo and front cover is hidden.

An App out of sight is an app out of mind.

Its not possible for a user to move their favorite publication out of Newsstand and into a more prominent accessible location. This places Newsstand apps at a considerable disadvantage to non Newsstand apps. In the daily competition for those intermittent 5 minutes of time our users have to check their phone, apps outside of Newsstand are at a competitive advantage. The user habits we hoped our users would establish with using Newsstand haven’t materialized. It hasn’t become part of their routine to open the Newsstand app and then our app. The majority of traffic to our Newsstand app is through content promotion on our free and very popular website vg.no, through the smart app banner on our corresponding premium website pluss.vg.no or from push messages to the app.

Subscribers who use the app instead of the website tend to spend more time in the app per session and consume more articles than users of the website. So getting our subscribers to use the app and establish these habits is something we have been working hard at.

  1. Newsstand functionality is now available outside of Newsstand
    If you look through the list of differences above between regular apps and Newsstand apps, the features that once were only available in Newsstand are starting to appear outside of Newsstand. The background download functions introduced in iOS7 are almost the same as newsstand push notifications. The major difference being the app must be running in the background (not killed) for background pushes to work outside of Newsstand. The Newsstand advantages like updatable screenshots and cover image on the icon have to be weighed up with the disadvantages of being hidden behind the Newsstand app icon.
  2. Some news apps are on Newsstand and others are not
    Some newspapers offering subscription based content are not on Newsstand, so the original idea behind Newsstand as a single place for users to collect all their newspaper/magazine periodicals isn’t true. Many subscription based news periodical apps are located outside of Newsstand. One of the reasons for this is the requirement of Newsstand apps to include at least one auto renewable iTunes subscription. Publications not wishing to offer apples subscriptions (and giving apple 30% of the profits) are not allowed on Newsstand.Free news apps including our own VG App are not on Newsstand since they don’t qualify as Newsstand apps (no auto renewable subscriptions). News aggregators like flipboard,  circa, 360News, pulse, zite, feedly, etc are all located outside of Newsstand. I believe this makes the Newsstand concept very confusing for a user.

Conclusion

Apple have a number of features that help with app discoverability and with trying to establish user habits; smart app banners, push messages and app linking (custom URL schemas) to name a few. There are also a number of features coming in iOS8 that will help with app promotion, for example app bundles, video trailers and scrolling results on the App Store, app extensions and notification center widgets. Apple have unfortunately left Newsstand untouched in iOS8.

If you are releasing a news or magazine app you should seriously consider the pros and cons of Newsstand and whether its worth supporting for your publication. The few advantages Newsstand currently offer do not compensate for the fundamental problem of hiding your publication within the Newsstand app.
I do however, believe Apple will address these issues at some point.

Here are some suggestions for improving Newsstand

  • Remove the requirement for one auto renewable iTunes subscriptions on Newsstand. This would allow apps that don’t offer iTunes subscriptions entry to Newsstand. This would help with the fragmentation issue of users having some news apps in Newsstand and some apps outside of Newsstand.
  • Users should be allowed to move their apps outside of Newsstand. Apps should also be allowed to display the issues front cover on the icon as is currently possible within Newsstand. This would give the users control of where they would like to place the apps.
  • Radical change to the Newsstand and app design concept. Allocate a space on the home screen to publications. Don’t hide publications behind an app.

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