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ICM Interview: Brad Arendt on mobile app development promise and pitfalls

Editor’s note: Brad Arendt, director of student media at Boise State, is a contributor to the blog and a colleague of long standing. This is structured as an interview because Brad wants to offer a service to other members of the college media community. The interview audio is below, and a transcript below the fold.

Boise State Student Media launched version 2.0 of their mobile app Bronco Mobile (iTunes link)  this August. Student Media Director Brad Arendt shared some of the experience of building a college media mobile app from the ground up, and what he hopes to give back to the community, in this interview. The audio is about 30 minutes long. A transcript is below the fold.

If, after reading or listening, you’re interested in more details of Arendt’s future efforts, contact Brad at barendt@boisestate.edu. He will also be at the Fall National College Media Convention in Orlando Oct. 28-30 and will be available to answer questions there.

Click on the mp3 player below to listen. If you’re on an iDevice and it doesn’t work, click this link to listen to the mp3.

When did you start developing a mobile app?

We started, this is 2011, spring of 2009 when we started to try to look into mobile solutions and, you know, what that meant, and tried to deal with the iPhone phenomenon at the time.

We started with the iPhone just because they were the game changer at the time, and Android still wasn’t quite that far along, and the whole notion of apps and all that kind of stuff, so the iPhone along with the iPod Touch was one of the things we were thinking about too, seemed to be the most common piece, and you didn’t see a lot of students having android phones, you saw students with iPod Touches and iPhones.

Well, I was actually rather lucky, in that I had a student who was hired on staff at the time to really help with the hardware part with all the computers that we have as well as working with us for our web site, and so I just approached him and said, “hey, are you interested in doing this?” And he was like, “yeah, I actually was really thinking about it and I would like to have that opportunity,” so I gave him a challenge. I said, “Okay, you have a month. Take a look at this and see if it’s worthwhile to develop for the iPhone, if you think it’s something you can do,” and we kind of split up his hours and away he went.

Initially, I didn’t think we were going to be able to develop it in house, because I was concerned, just like a lot of advisers are, how do you find the students, how do you maintain it and all that kind of stuff. So I tried to find people on campus to partner with, you know the university was talking a lot about mobile stuff, and so I was trying to hook up with those individuals and see if we couldn’t branch into some kind of partnership and basically it was really tough to find not only people on campus but even off campus developers.

And, so finally, once I realized how much it would cost to develop it outside, I said, you know what, we’re going to do this and bring it in-house. Like I said, we started off with our developer, and he started in March, took that first month to see if it was feasible, if he he could learn the code and everything, and after a month he was fairly confident that he could do it. So we set a goal, and said, alright, here’s what we want. Well, we knew what we wanted our app to be like, so we said, we want this app done by back to school, before school starts.

A lot of this started with all the social media from MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, that kind of stuff and how that’s changed media, and then everything online. I really kind of said, okay, somebody’s going to have an application, what should it look like, and I had my own iPhone and I downloaded a couple of other news apps when we first started, and wasn’t really impressed.

And so I said let’s sit down with our students on staff and talk about it, and the students on staff were pushing for a newspaper application. Just feature the newspaper and here’s what it should look like. And so then we went out and said, alright, let’s take this to the student body and see what would they say. And we took it out to the student body, and they said, “yeah, not really. That’s not kind of what we would want to go through.”

So I started to take a look and do some research and I asked myself the question, “Where did newspapers come from? What’s our history? And what’s our history more important, in the sense of community, and what role did they play?” So I went back and looked at printing presses from way back when and started to listen to old time radio shows and old time tv shows and just listened to when people would mention the newspaper it was just amazing how often they would talk about a newspaper and what role the newspaper played in their daily lives. And it really came back to me that this really is about community and people would use the newspaper for so many different things besides just news.

And so then we tried to take that and apply it to today, 2010 at the time. And we said, what do students need today. Yes, we want them to want the news, we want them to be informed, but what other things would make them routinely download an application, but then routinely come back in and use the application.

So we got some student focus groups together and sat down and talked with them. And that’s when they started saying, we would like to have a map. It’d be really cool if, you have student radio? okay, well it would be nice if we could listen to the radio station in this, and it would be really cool if there were some other convenient links. Student shave kind of complained about difficulty finding things on the university web site, so how can we facilitate some of those kind of things. And then they want to have fun. They don’t want to always go there for just a map or just the news.

So we came up with the version that we currently have that is an app that has the newspaper in it and has the radio station in it, but it also has a campus map and directory. And it’s not just a map of the campus. There’s a searchable directory with different departments. We have an entertainment section that we kind of think of it as our online kind of classified, not with just the classified line adds, but with horoscopes, crossword puzzles, the entertainment part that students would read a classified page for. We built our own Sudoku puzzle in it. We have a campus security link. That’s one of the things that students often didn’t know about, that campus security will give you escorts from classes, so we highlighted that.

That was just our kind of simple philosophy. And that’s what led to our app and why we designed it the way that it was. There was some dissension with some of the students when we first launched. Some fo the students liked it, some didn’t – on staff. But the people who’ve been using the app so far, they seem to really like what we’ve done.

There’s that stumbleupon web site, and the whole notion of stumbling upon something, that’s really been our theme with this. The users come in and they might come in for the map, that’s our biggest thing, the map and the directory, but they’re checking out the newspaper, they’re listening to the radio station. Or they’ll come in and they’ll play the sudoku puzzle, or they’ll use the flash card generator, but they’ll still go read the paper, they’ll still check out the sports section.

So they’re still stumbling upon our content and we wanted it to be a regular tool, and it seems that’s what we’re getting right now, is it’s a regular tool that the students who are using it, they’re using it on a fairly regular basis, just like we would want them to use the physical copy of the paper. We want students to pick up the paper every time it comes out, not just once a month or once a semester.

We haven’t been pushing the app very heavily. We’ve started. We did that intentionally for the first year. We went with kind of a light campaign, because, honestly, we were a little bit worried about what happens if it grows crazy and something’s wrong and breaks, and all the maintenance stuff. Turns out that wasn’t a big issue, so we did get some great initial traction.

But we have noticed, since we just released an update back in August, that we are getting more consistent downloads, and we’re starting a campaign, a more aggressive campaign to be pushing our Bronco Mobile application on a regular daily and weekly basis. And we’re seeing an increase in downloads, and right now, total, after a little over a year, we have just over 1,700 downloads for our Bronco Mobile application, which considering there’s just under 20,000 students, we’re almost about 10 percent of the student body – if they’re all students. Not all of them, I’ll say, are students, but the vast majority of them are in the United States.

How many users do you have on a regular basis?

That’s been pretty good. We use a free tracking system called Flurry analytics that we have to embed special code in to track some of that stuff. And we just started that here with this newest version that launched. And what we’ve been able to see with that is that we’re getting on average about 40 to 50 what are called “sessions” per day. And a session is defined when somebody starts and then closes an application, so even if we’re at 40 or, heck, even if we’re at 30, somebody using our application 30 times a day when we have 1,700 downloads, we’ve considered that to be successful.

What are some potential pitfalls to look out for when launching a mobile app?

There’s quite a few. Probably the first thing is, keep track of your stats, because Apple with their iTunes Connects system that they use, they do a great job as far as showing you how many people have downloaded it, where it’s coming from, if you’re generating revenue, all that kind of stuff, but they only keep the data for, I think it’s 6 months. At the time, we were tracking all this stuff through iTunes Connect, and I had another student had come in, kind of tasked them with the task to get some other software or some other way that we could track this, so that we could keep the data, instead of losing it, and he kept track of the data, but it’s in a different format that worked great as far as a spreadsheet, but doesn’t work well for some of the other solutions that are out there.

So we now have software that we purchased – it was like $30 – and it downloads all of our stuff, keeps track of it and everything, and we’ve got all of our data on this, going back until February, that’s nice and neat and everything. But all my data from last August until February 2011 is kept in this separate spreadsheet, and it’s a major pain to go back in and get that in. So, if we would’ve started from the beginning and had this software, that would’ve been nice, because then I’d have everything in one spot, very convenient to use.

So that’s probably the first thing, is you definitely want to keep track of the statistics, because for the students who were really who wanted just a newspaper application, when we were able to go through and show how much people were spending time in the app, people were using the app on a regular basis, that really helped to change those students’ minds and to win them over, because they started to realize, “Okay, I want them to have a newspaper application because I’m involved with the newspaper. That’s what I do, but students are reading my stuff. They’re still coming here.” You can’t argue with the successful numbers of students regularly using the application and the feedback that you get saying “I love the map, and I use this other stuff,” or “I love the Sudoku puzzle, and I use this other stuff.”

Probably the other big pitfall that I think most newspapers or other student media organizations need to be aware of is, right now I see a lot of correlation between mobile apps and about 10 or 11 years ago with web sites. You’re getting a lot of people out there who are “we have this base fee, and we’ll waive it for you and do a revenue share if you sign up by this date.” or something. And those are very tempting offers, certainly very tempting.

Our cost to develop our application, to just get it off the ground, was around probably $3,000 – what we paid to a couple of students.

A, I look at that as a great investment, because we used money to pay a student, and two different students received incredible learning opportunities, so it was money well-spent compared to sending that off to some other private company who has professional developers and now we have an app.

But those other apps, even if you get them for free, part of the problem is, they will release your application, they might release it with your name on it, but they’re the developer, so they upload it, usually, under their account, so they’re the ones who pay for the developer license. They’ll get you the statistics and all that kind of stuff. But they have the code.

Yes, your app is branded, but now if you ever say two years down the road or a year down the road or five years down the road that you want to have that app, per Apple’s legal agreement, you can’t just transfer the app over. You can’t transfer your user over. So what you have to do is basically shut down that app that’s been downloaded by people, and then hopefully have the developer redirect them saying “this app doesn’t work anymore, go to the iTunes store and download the new version.” And then you redirect all your old users to the app that you develop on your own developers license and then they download it that way.

That’s kind of cludgy. We had a local media organization that ended up having to do that, and just as a user, it was kind of weird. It’s like “why does this media app not work anymore. I was perfectly fine with it and now it just doesn’t work.” I just got busy so I stopped using the app, and it took me four months to download again, because I wanted to see what new competition was out there. That’s the only reason why I downloaded it again.

But I think that’s a thing that, it’s real tempting to go for the free, but you need to understand this isn’t like a web site that you can start up and say “this is mycollegenewspaper.com and it’s hosted by some other company,” and then when you say we’re going to take this all in house now. We’re going to leave company ABC who was hosting our web site and providing us with a content management system, and now we can do that on our own with WordPress. Just transfer the domain. That was relatively painless and has certainly gotten a lot easier. Right now, that’s not really possible in the mobile sphere. And it definitely requires a lot more work and a lot more careful attention to detail than just redirecting some domain name.

And that’s probably my big concern when people kind of jump out. It might be the right decision, but just make it an informed decision.

Any other concerns?

Here’s one of the other concerns. You want to make advertising revenue off of it, both Apple and Google use direct deposit, basically. We’re part of the university, we’re not a 501-c(3), so I don’t have ready access to the bank information. And so that took a month and a half of digging through the right people in the university to get permission to have our advertising revenue direct deposited to the university bank account.

And we’ve got to go through a whole bunch of other rigamarole when the deposit is made to say that’s our money, put it into our department. So be aware of that. If you don’t have a bank account where that can go into, you’ve got to work with the university bank, and they’re account and the university accounting department. You should work some of those things out first, because that’s just Admob and iAds both work, and they’re probably the two biggest ones, as far as receiving payments and managing mobile advertising. I’ve had a lot of people ask about that part.

Really, the other thing, we were really worried about the maintenance and that was a concern, I guess, we had going in. Am I going to have to be responding to reports that this doesn’t work, that doesn’t work. We don’t like this or that, and that has not been an issue. We released the app in August of last year, we did one minor update to it just to fix some other issues, probably a couple of weeks later, and we didn’t touch the actual app itself until August of this year when we released a new one.

And there’s not a lot of maintenance on it. You’re maintaining your web site. There’s some other things that you need to definitely be aware of depending what you’re doing in the app, but you basically update your web site and design the app correctly and it’s not a maintenance intensive piece. You put it out there, let it go, and you’re probably going to have to come back and revisit it every year just to make sure that you’re staying up to date with any new releases, and adding features if you want them, but it’s not a problem child, sometimes like your web site goes down and what the heck.

What are your plans for Android?

For us, I do love Apple, and I guess I’m now on public recording as saying that. But I’m a business guy too. And we know students, especially now, I guess a year ago, our big thing was the iPhone and the iPod Touch. And we saw a lot of students that were using our application on teh iPod Touch. And that was one area I think a lot of people really discredited. They thought iPhone app, well, that was it. You made an iPhone app. You didn’t make an iPod Touch app, you made an iPhone app. And we had a lot of students, still have a lot of students that use our app on an iPod Touch. That was a huge market for us.

Well, in a year we have seen more students using Android. And we tried to develop for Android last fall. But honestly it was very difficult to develop for. Especially from a student perspective. And even when I talk to other professional developers, Android has not always been the easiest system to develop for, with different screen sizes, different releases, and I don’t want to get into that whole argument, but we were trying. They’ve made a lot of improvements over the past three or four months, and now we’re at the point where we’re expecting to have an Android application released, hopefully by the end of October.

What are your future plans in app development?

We’re going to continuing to develop our own apps. We want an iPad application, although we’re pulling the reins back on that because a lot of our data is showing that faculty have iPad apps, not as many students, so Android is more of a priority. But we think that’s going to change based on some information we have as far as projected sales of iPads and what we’re seeing as far as growth of iPads. We’re really watching that closely in the student sphere. So I think we’re going to need an iPad application for the newspaper and the radio station here, probably in a year. But we want to get Android developed first.

And then the other thing that we’re trying to do, is we want to give back to – as corny as this may sound – student media across the country. And we started kind of a beta program this past summer where we invited, I think we had five or six schools, that we invited to participate in this beta program, and there weren’t really any requirements. We wanted to get some people who had somebody who was really experienced in developing, and we wanted some schools who had no clue, but they were at least really interested and willing to put forth a good effort. And our intent in doing this was to get a feel, what kind of support would be involved because our big goal was that we want other student newspapers and student radio stations to have their own applications.

We think we’re on to something here. We think it’s useful, and my students quite honestly, they’re probably pushing this more than me. They believe in giving back to other campus communities. So they really like the idea of another college having our mobile app, or developing our mobile app. What we’ve done is we’ve templated our mobile application, and we would like to offer it to other colleges where they would actually have the code themselves. They would be their own developers, they would have their own developer accoutn that they would log into. They would own all the revenue, there would be no revenue-sharing. I think that’s a failed model, especially in the college media market. I’m not sure there’s enough revenue at our level, or at least our ability to generate that kind of revenue.

And so, to have, like a one time fee where right now we’re thinking $1,000 to have us take our app, template it for you, so it would be your school’s name, it’s your mobile version whatever. We give you the code. We can help you set up the account. We can help you set up the developer account, set up the advertising account, set up the tracking information stuff. And then you’ve got the code. You release it, you promote it, you sell ads into it – which you can’t sell ads into iAds, that’s one of the other things – but with AdMob you could sell ads into it.

And then you update your web site, you provide the graphics for it so that we don’t have to deal with any sort of copyright issues about different universities, we don’t have to work any contracts, because we’re developing for you, and it’s your application. So you want to use your university’s logo, you work that out with your university and we can put it in, or whatever the case is.

And then it’s that newspapers’, that student media group’s, that radio station’s. And they can have it out there for as long as they want. If they need us to update it down the road, want some new features or something as we develop them, we could work on that. And we’re figuring out how do we charge for that. Probably again a flat fee to add in some things.

Or they hire their own students and they do their own development work.

How did your test program go?

Basically, what we found, everybody else, probably much like us, is really busy. We had a support e-mail that we encouraged – I told my students, you guys have to check this religiously, every day – and they checked it religiously every day over the summer and we did not get one support e-mail. Nobody e-mailed us about anything. But when we sent out requests “are you having problems?” “Are you developing everything?” People were like, well, I don’t quite understand it. And essentially what we got is that the mobile sphere and developing these applications still is a bit overwhelming to a lot of people.

And so we think what has happened is that there’s still not enough students out there who know how to develop for it. There’s not enough newspapers that, I think they know they need to put some emphasis in there, but I’m not sure if they know how much. And that’s one of the things that we made a fundamental shift here at Boise State, where we see our IT and our development students as kind of our new graphic designers. Our graphic designers help lay out the paper, do ads, all of that kind of stuff. Our IT people are an integral part of our team, because not only do they have to maintain the computers, but our web site’s crucial. We have to have that maintained, we need to be developing for it, and the same thing with our mobile app.

We think that students now want the information that they want where they want it when they want it. And so we’ve got the content, we have a lot of that information, we just need to be able to deliver it in multiple formats. And obviously, that’s what a lot of people are trying to do with the web site and on Facebook.

But we think that needs to extend in the mobile sphere, so we’re committed to doing that internally here, and if we can help out other organizations as they are able to make some of that change. Or maybe they can’t, but we at least give them some tools to rely on, that’s where we’d like to go.

We want to do manageable growth. This is being led by students, so I can’t take 50 requests, as much as I’d like to have 50 people saying here’s $1,000. But we want to do it right. And I’m sure some people might be saying “well, how do we know your students are going to be around or something.” Well, I can name a couple of content providers, Campus Engine, way back in 1999, 2000, who we thought would maybe be around, and they went out of business.

The newspaper’s been here 75-plus years. Hopefully we’ll be able to do this. We’ve got a dedication ot this. I don’t know what the future brings, but if we can at least get you an app that’s out there and get something there, you at least have that capability, and I think it’s a better route for you because you own it. It’s yours, it’s not relying on somebody else.

If you’re interested in more details, contact Brad Arendt at barendt@boisestate.edu. He will also be at the Fall National College Media Convention in Orlando Oct. 28-30 and will be available to answer questions there.

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