How we built a subscription-only business news app, The Ken!

Posted by Prakash Donga · 18 Jan, 2021 · 8 Min read
How we built a subscription-only business news app, The Ken!

While the past year has been a hell of a ride for most of us, we are grateful for having had the chance to work with one of India’s most amazing startups in the subscription-based news industry, The Ken.

About The Ken

Towards the end of 2016, a trio came together from varying backgrounds to start KenRise Media in Bangalore. Two of them are journalists and one, a serial entrepreneur, with rich experience in founding SaaS startups.

They operate on one goal -

Deliver fresh and original business insight through well-narrated stories to professionals, entrepreneurs, investors and leaders every morning.

​Key Metrics

  • ~175,000 subscribers
  • ~30,000 paying subscribers
  • 99% of the paying subscribers are on plans of at least one year. Many are on a couple of plans.
  • An increasing number of paying subscribers are opting for three-year plans.
  • The average tenure has been greater than 12 months for three straight quarters now.
  • Average order value is around 110% of the price of the annual subscription.
  • During the pandemic, they had more subscribers in the first seven months of 2020 than they did in the first two years.
  • July 2020 recorded the highest number of new orders and the highest number of renewals in their history.

The Business Model

Subscription-based news websites don’t rely on advertising revenues. Instead, these, depend on quality journalism to drive user acquisition and growth.

Covid-19 put a lot of publishing businesses in hot water. But, subscription-based news & media businesses saw a whopping 300% rise in their business.

This is because subscriptions based websites are fundamentally more flexible. You tweak your offerings based on scenarios and users’ needs & bingo!

Another report mentions that the pandemic actually drove subscription growth for about 22.5% of companies. With The Ken, too, it was a similar scenario.

Why did The Ken decide to let off the earlier version of their app and decided to build a new one from scratch?

Within six months of its launch, The Ken had rolled out an initial version of their mobile app based on demand, just as an experiment. The app was built on an entirely different set of assumptions and here’s how it looked.

the ken older version of the app

The idea was to deliver a similar experience to subscribers and offer some extra features including smart queue and progress indicator.

However, in March 2020, The Ken decided to let go off the app and rebuild one from scratch. They found their earlier assumptions (regarding a subscription based news website having an app) were wrong. An app is an absolute necessity to survive.

The older version of the home screen involved a stack of stories. These were ordered latest first.

As a subscriber, you could filter stories according to sector. You could read, comment and save.

The app offered personalisation in the sense that it remembered the stories you read.

You could pick up where you left off. But that was it!

This is where they felt there could be improvements.

The app, unlike in the case of ad-driven news app, is not for business but for subscribers.

The Ken team also realised the problems faced by subscription-based websites are different from traditional news websites. Only an app would have an answer to these issues.

Why is it indispensable for a subscription based website to have a mobile app?

In contrast to a traditional news website requiring an app for increased user acquisition, engagement & ad monetization, a subscription-based business website needs an app for the following reasons -

Device Acquisition

The app literally drives this for subscription-based businesses. Focusing on a consistent experience across the app, tablet & web including operating systems allows these companies to grow this metric.

Experience Channel

Traditional news websites build apps to send push notifications, thus, wanting users to spend more time within the app. That’s not the case with subscription-based sites. They need the app to behave like an experienced channel. They want the users to stick because of the experience. The app has to function as the most central point of activity.

Retention Tool

Normal news apps act as monetization channels. With subscription apps, the key is retention. The app has to be the user retention channel. Or else, it has failed its purpose. The app has to be deeply personal for users to be able to read, and pull up stories based on their preferences.

Enter SoluteLabs

SoluteLabs was roped in May 2020 to rebuild The Ken’s iPhone, iPad, and Android applications. The fixed-cost engagement lasted till September 2020, with, the SoluteLabs team successfully helping The Ken’s team with the required Knowledge Transfer too. The backend-APIs (RESTful) were provided by them.

Discussed below are the features we worked on and how we decided to use React Native to develop their cross-platform mobile apps.

The team behind the ken's cross-platform mobile app

The Features We Worked On

1. The Dark Mode -

Android and iOS, now, support dark mode. It’s a must-have feature these days if you want users to have an enjoyable reading experience at night. We used the in-built RN dark mode theme to create this feature for The Ken’s applications. Watch the video below. (Source: The Ken Blog)

2. A new improved home screen with curated recommendations -

Personalisation is the key to driving user retention when it comes to subscription-based apps. The new home screen is carefully personalised and stories are handpicked depending on a subscriber’s interest.

It is now possible for subscribers to find a particular day’s long-form story and the day’s newsletters right at the top. This is seamlessly integrated with the home screen.

the ken

3. Improving Accessibility -

By allowing users to change the font size, the app was made more readable via Web View.

the ken

4. Performance Monitoring -

We integrated Firebase Performance Monitoring to get detailed reports about the app’s performance. This includes understanding app startup time, screen loading time, etc. This helps the team know performance issues better and how to fix them.

5. Sign in and Login -

The new app version has sign in options using Apple and social login for Google & Facebook.

the ken login screen

6. Newsletters -

Weekly newsletters feature was implemented for paying subscribers. There are 3 such types — BFO (Beyond First Order) focuses on India and South-East Asia. While the Nutgraf focuses on India, the Straitup focuses solely on South East Asia.

the ken newsletters

7. Multiple Subscriptions -

One can subscribe to multiple editions (Indian and South East Asian). The sessions/stories for these are managed separately. Subscribers can seamlessly switch between editions too.

the ken subscription

8. Gifting stories and subscriptions -

Users can gift subscriptions as per their choice. Besides subscriptions, users can also gift paid stories. This happens by generating a unique link from the back-end. One can gift up to 5 stories a month.

the ken gifting stories

9. Multiple Session Recognition -

During our initial meetings, we recognized the fact that there is no dearth of piracy. Despite having paywalls, people can access content freely. A simple solution for this is to have session limits. For this app, more than one mobile session isn’t allowed.

We have also ensured that the experience is seamless in case when someone clicks a story via summary email, social media etc.

10. Narratives -

These are curated collections of related stories, connected by brand, sector or topic.

the ken narratives

11. Push Notifications -

Firebase Cloud Messaging (a cross-platform, cloud based solution for messaging & notification) was implemented to send push notifications. This also involved user tagging at edition levels. With proper user segmentation, the sent notifications are more targeted and personalised.

12. Offline Capability —

We used Watermelon (RN Wrapper) alongside SQLite to ensure the stories and images are cached and downloaded.

13. Deep Linking -

Deep links are key to user engagement. These are used to direct users to specific links within the app.

14. Search & Filters -

Subscribers and non-subscribers can search for stories along with filters like relevancy etc.

the ken search and filters page
Tools and technologies used along side React Native

Why React Native for Cross-Platform Mobile App Development?

Manan, the product manager, at The Ken has very rightly put,

There’s one big difference between an app for a subscription journalism product and say, for food delivery or ride sharing. And that is the fact that subscribers want to access their app anywhere and everywhere. Mobile. Tablet. Website. Kindle.

It was this reason that largely led us to throw things out and start over.

But when it comes to rebuilding apps from scratch, especially, for startups — it can drill a huge hole into their pockets (from the context of budgets). And, this is precisely why apps are not given as much importance as they should be given. The biggest reason is developing for different platforms takes time, money and resources.

Hence, we recommended cross-platform to The Ken to ensure the subscribers get a consistent experience across platforms but without the company spending a fortune on development costs.

  • Flutter was relatively new at the time, so we ended up choosing React Native. There is no need to maintain two different sets of teams and incur huge expenses when things can be tackled the cross-platform way.
  • Developing apps using React Native allows them to ship more features faster and in an efficient way.

Wrap Up

The Ken team was exceptionally happy with the results produced. Most importantly, we were thrilled to work on a subscription based business news app development allowing us to deepen our expertise across sectors.

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