Ball State students create advertising and news apps for small newspapers

Editor’s note: This research was presented during the Huck Boyd Symposium at the 2010 National Newspaper Association Convention in Omaha, NE.

People are increasingly using their mobile phones to text, Tweet, post to Facebook, surf the Web, take pictures and consume news. For many, a mobile phone has become a lifeline to social interaction, entertainment and information.

Because of this many news organizations are expanding their online efforts to develop mobile sites and applications that allow users to access content in formats customized for mobile devices. And as the number of touchscreen smartphones like the Apple iPhone, Blackberry Storm and Palm Pre increases, advertising and news content developers continue to look for ways to take advantage of these always-on, always-in-touch platforms.

Large news organizations have the resources to explore how mobile devices can be used to deliver interactive ad and news content. Gannett newspapers and the New York Times are innovators in the evolving mobile news space. But smaller papers often struggle with the staffing, time and money to test new digital platforms.

To help address this need, a team of 20 students and six professors at Ball State University partnered with The Muncie (IN) Star Press, a 30,000-circulation daily, to create and test a multimedia mobile advertising and news app for smartphones. The Web-based mobile app provided local advertisers with several options, including “splash page” ads that presented local business ads full-screen, billboard-style loading screens, banner ads that linked to additional interactive content, editorial content links to ad pages and sponsorships of site sections.

Since 2006, an interdisciplinary team of students and professors from advertising, journalism graphics, computer science and telecommunications at Ball State have explored interactive media design. A special course called iMedia was started, giving the students and faculty the flexibility to work with various digital media platforms, ranging from interactive TV to design and content development of mobile advertising and news applications. During fall 2009, students designed a graphically enhanced, interactive advertising and news application to use as the test app for a study with mobile devices, which was used by The Star Press to transmit daily advertising and news content.

Students creating the advertising model for the app met with Tom Rothrock, digital advertising and marketing manager at The Star Press, to learn how the newspaper was using mobile. Rothrock explained that the daily offered text messaging for local advertisers to send links to consumers that included coupons and other incentives. Use of this service was low. Few mobile banner ads were being used.

Rothrock also helped students identify local online newspaper advertisers willing to participate in the study and provided the copy and graphic elements needed to create ads for the mobile app.

For the study, students created four banner ads for local advertisers. The ads were placed within the editorial links on each of the main sections of the app. When clicked, the ads linked to advertisers’ websites. The ads rotated with every new page visit.

Before starting the five-week study during October and November 2009, local smartphone users who were also readers of the newspaper were recruited and given instructions regarding how to access the daily content. They were then asked to visit The Star Press mobile site daily and engage with advertising and news content. For five weeks Star Press editors delivered content to users’ phones. Once a week, students placed new ads from the local businesses participating in the test. Users were asked to respond once weekly to online surveys about their experiences with the app, as well as opinions of the advertising and multimedia content they encountered. Seventeen newspaper readers completed the weekly surveys.

Survey questions addressed subjects’ opinions regarding the usability, design and multimedia content. Regardless of the device, users rated their overall satisfaction with the app as seven or higher on a 10-point scale, with 10 of 17 users rating it a nine.

Advertisements on the app were well received. More than half of users said they noticed several kinds of ads displayed in the app. More importantly, users were able to recall seeing ads in the app and to recall which companies were featured. No user felt the ads interfered with their news consumption and none reported the ads were distracting.

Both the iPhone and Storm users found the application easy to use. Most users said they felt stories were informative and more than half said they felt The Star Press mobile application was “moderately valuable” or “very valuable” to their daily news consumption. Likewise, three-fourths of respondents reported they would like to continue to use the application after the study was completed. Users consistently commented that the design of the application was “engaging” and “attractive.”

For the iMedia team, results showed that a graphically enhanced advertising, news, and information application has value in the marketplace, especially for smaller market publishers. This point is supported by the launch of advertising and news apps by many larger newspapers and chains. Based on user feedback, the iMedia faculty note that just as design enhancements in other types of publications, such as newspapers, magazines and websites, attract and engage users, so do ones for a mobile device. This has implications for how advertising and news content is presented on mobile devices, but it also offers advertising and graphic design professionals with new opportunities to showcase their work.

Members of Ball State’s iMedia faculty team included Michael Hanley, Jennifer George-Palilonis, Suzy Smith, Kirsten Smith, Vinayak Tanksale and Chris Flook.

Michael Hanley is an associate professor, advertising, Jennifer George-Palilonis is an assistant professor, journalism graphics and George and Frances Ball are distinguished professors of multimedia at Ball State University.

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