No to paywall: Montreal newspaper La Presse bets on tablet advertising with free app strategy

August 26, 2013

While most newspapers are still thinking about what role tablets and apps should play in their future, La Presse has placed its bets and recently launched iPad app, La Presse+, as its flagship product. In radical opposition to the general paywall trend started by The New York Times, the daily is not looking for its app readers to pay – ever. Guy Crevier, La Presse president and publisher, has pledged that La Presse+ will remain free “forever”.

We are not talking about a light, toned-down version of a premium print product. Not only does La Presse+ include the full content of the newspaper but it also features plenty of exclusive content in text, image, and video format.

La Presse is the dominating quality newspaper in the 2 million + Montreal metropolitan area. With a daily circulation of 200,000, it is also considered as the leading national newspaper in the mostly French-speaking canadian province of Quebec. (Le Journal de Montreal, a tabloid owned by the cable and TV Quebecor group, has a higher circulation but doesn’t carry the same national influence.)

Because Quebec typically lags in technology adoption compared to the rest of Canada and the United States, and because fierce competition has kept them on their toes, most of the province’s French-speaking newspapers have not, until now, seen their business shrink as dramatically as most of their major metropolitan peers in North America. While La Presse was late to embrace the Internet revolution, it did so successfully. is the most trafficked news site in Quebec – ahead of public broadcaster Radio-Canada, Yahoo! Canada News and Huffington Post Quebec, among others.

La Presse was also fast to take a step in the mobile space, with its La Presse Mobile iPhone app. Gesca, the corporation which owns La Presse and several smaller daily newspapers in Quebec, had also invested in an online advertising network and in various e-commerce web sites.

Still, none of these initiatives seemed to guarantee the long-time future of the brand. As a seasoned media executive, with a previous experience running the No. 1 private TV network in Quebec, Guy Crevier saw the writing on the wall. The volume of news and opinion content is growing on the web at an explosive rate, and most people – especially young people – are now fully expecting news to be free. As neither web nor mobile advertising were going to command the same premium CPMs as the print daily, long term projections for newspapers didn’t look good.

iPad as the key to the future

The iPad was to be a game changer. Crevier and his team believed that tablets could allow a radical transformation of the product and even change its business model for the better. The key insight was to bet on a free product.

“The move towards free news content is irreversible”, Guy Crevier told TabTimes in an interview soon after the La Presse+ launch. “People aged 25 to 40 no longer pay for their news and will never do. Sure, a few large brands like The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and The New York Times will succeed in selling digital subscriptions. But for almost all other newspapers, erecting a paywall means saying goodbye to young and new readers. Without these readers, over the long term, their business is not sustainable.”

(Guy Crevier, President and Publisher of La Presse)

Gesca management drafted an ambitious plan: to reinvent the newspaper as a tablet daily, with a product which would be compelling for both readers and advertisers – so compelling that La Presse could establish a clear leadership in tablet readership and could charge advertising rates high enough to support it whole business.

La Presse then spent almost three years on the project. It recruited over 100 new people – mostly developers. It renegotiated agreements with all unions to prepare for the digital age. It changed the newspaper logo for a square – a perfect shape to be featured on app store and tablet home screens.

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La Presse says that, overall, it has invested CA$40 million (almost the same amount in US$) to relaunch La Presse as a groundbreaking iPad app last April. (An Android tablet app is also in the works.)

Most of the development was handled in house. “We contacted other major newspapers and looked for existing solutions”, said Guy Crevier. “None of these papers was ready to share our vision and no existing solution matched it. So, we built from scratch.” The development team created or modified more than 20 software products to build an innovative navigation interface and proprietary interactive advertising formats.

Fresh views delivered daily

On the iPad, La Presse+ is delivered through Newsstand as a daily package, with a file ranging from 40MBs to 120MBs, every morning at 5:30 AM – including Sunday, while the print product had ceased its Sunday edition several years ago. While the app use templates to allow for a standardized navigation, every single article and page seems to be manually designed. The app is in landscape orientation only. All swipes are horizontal. Vertical scroll is only for text, and never for the full page: only for a text column within the page. Many pictures are used full screen, with text superimposed on it.


(image at left: Most in-page ads are on the left side of the screen, with the article text to be scrolled vertically on the right side.)

In addition to the print newspaper sections, La Presse+ includes an exclusive women-oriented section, called Pause. The app also features video clips – both news clips from reporters and discussions shot in a dedicated video studio.

Ads come in many formats, both full screen and in-page. The in-page ads are usually vertical and displayed on the left of the screen. The typical interaction is a horizontal swipe or a sliding bar within the ad. What you won’t find in the app are any standard web or mobile ad formats. Most app ads offer a first level of interaction within the app, before linking to a web site.

The La Presse + launch gathered glowing reviews. The app was recently declared a finalist in the News category – next to CNN’s Zite and Reuters’ The Wider image – at The Tabby Awards, the first competition for the best tablet apps worldwide.

Free version launches with a great start

The launch was supported by a large, multimedia advertising campaign. By regularly promoting the app’s exclusive content, the print newspaper indirectly encourages print subscribers to cancel their paying subscription and become free subscribers of the iPad app.

Gesca thinks that this is not necessarily a bad thing. It would gladly do away with the cost of printing and delivering a print product as long as digital ad revenues could support the newsroom, the development team, plus sales, marketing and management costs. The bet is a high-stake one. But Gesca can afford the risk: it’s a small subsidiary of Power Corp., one of Canada’s largest financial conglomerates.

So far, La Presse+ seems to be very successful in terms of adoption. It now claims to have been installed on 250,000 devices – with almost half of these installs having been achieved in its first four days. As of August 18, exactly four months after launch, it was still the No. 1 free app in both the News and Newsstand categories of the Canadian App Store, ahead of all English language Canadian and US apps – this in a country where the vast majority of people are English speakers.

(For more articles, see TabTimes Marketing, Media & Commerce)

According to Localytics analytics tool, the app was used on over 130,000 iPads in the last week of July. Using an independent research firm’s survey held in June, La Presse says that, on weekly average, app sessions on a single device are shared by 1.5 people It thus claims an average weekly readership of almost 200,000 readers.

“Our goal is for La Presse+ to become a mass media”, said Guy Crevier. “By the end of 2013, we want to have over 400,000 weekly users.” This number would include a good chunk of previous print readers – 600,000 of them are also iPad owners – but also new readers. The survey shows that tablet readers have a distinct profile. 78% of La Presse adult tablet readers are younger than 55, versus 62% of print readers. The difference is more pronounced in terms of family income: 51% of tablet readers earn $100,000 or more vs. 23% or print readers.

This audience profile should help because, with no revenue coming from readers, the most important battle to win is on the advertising front. Every issue of La Presse+ includes many ads from local and national advertisers – including car manufacturers, who have always been a mainstay of the print edition. TabTimes doesn’t know if these ads have been sold at or close to their rate card, or if they have been directly or indirectly discounted as part of launch offers or combo buys with the print edition.

(image at right: Automotive advertisers experiment with interactive full-page ads.)

As a daily reader of this app, I would say that the full screen ads still draw my attention for at least one second each. The impact of the in-page ads, though, is debatable: as a regular user, my eyes quickly focus on the article content, usually located in the center or on the right of the screen, and these ads don’t seem more noticeable than large and well positioned web banners on a web page. Whether this placement is good enough to commend top CPMs remains to be seen.

Having already spent $2 million on user surveys alone, La Presse will certainly monitor the effectiveness of its ad formats. If it convinces advertisers that La Presse+ does reach a large, high-income and reasonably young audience, and that its ad formats actually help lift their brands and deliver sales, it may have found a bold and unique strategy to leverage the power ot tablets. Newspaper executives from all over the world could do worse than closely monitor the progress of this initiative.

(Tablets in Media and Marketing will be a key panel at the upcoming TabletBiz conference & expo in New York on November 13.)


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