The UCLA App Lab Experiment
January 31, 2014

UCLA students have generated about $35,000 in total revenue from a host of new apps they have created to help users do everything from track their favorite sports teams to learn tips for safe sex.

Their total number of apps currently available on iTunes? 117.

UCLA Student Media, the umbrella university department for all student media on UCLA’s campus, accomplished this feat by investing $150,000 in a platform to produce the apps and creating an internship program that has employed as many as 100 students per quarter to work on development, marketing or advertising.

The move toward making apps and selling mobile advertising — the latter has brought in most of the money — are examples of how the department is brainstorming new ways of producing revenue for news products.

“News is not our business; it’s our mission,” said Arvli Ward, director of UCLA Student Media. “What that says is we will monetize our core content, but that doesn’t mean we can only make money around news.”

So far, the income generated from the apps totals about 2 to 3 percent of UCLA Student Media’s annual revenue, most of which still draws largely from print advertising in The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper. Ward said he expects this number to rise as the app lab hones its strategy; in 2014, the department is budgeted to pull in $28,000, but Ward expects to exceed that number, reaching $40,000 by the end of the year.

The internship program began in 2008, but Ward said the students involved were concerned with different business strategies then and didn’t “start [their] attack on mobile until 2011,” producing their first app in 2012.

Nick Greitzer, who started making apps as a student several years ago and then stayed on UCLA Student Media’s advisory board once he graduated, said the number of interns has dropped since then, stabilizing at around 40 students; this quarter, the program will have 43 students at the introductory level.

The interns generally go through a two- to three- week training process, but the timeline sometimes changes from quarter to quarter. Depending on what they’re interested in, the students learn how to build apps, develop marketing methods or find and appeal to their target audience, according to Greitzer.

Greitzer said the app with the largest audience is Bruin Football, which includes a player roster, a user-generated image gallery and a fan forum where users can communicate with each other. He also recommends The Bruin ArtWalk, a digital tour of the more than 100 pieces of art that dot UCLA’s campus.

“For some people, it’s maybe too different,” he said of the app lab. “When I was on the editorial side, we had a debate that went on for months about whether to cut that one inch off the side of the newspaper. It was a big deal at the time, and even changes like that take a lot of debate. People are afraid to do something when they’re not sure if it’ll work.”

Most of the income generated by the apps stems from student-sold advertising. UCLA Student Media is experimenting with new strategies here as well. For instance, the program has recently released apps called Bruin Guides, which repurpose some of the material used in older apps and have come to be known as “cheat sheets for college life” on topics ranging from graduation to speakers on campus. These apps include sponsored content in an attempt to create “advertising that advertisers actually want to buy,” Ward said.

The Bruin Guides are prime examples of the app lab’s iterative nature, which Ward said many consumers still don’t understand.

“We’re trying to teach an entrepreneurial approach toward making the products and then eventually the network that we need in mobile,” he said. “A lot of the more conservative forces around us think that every app we make is a permanent, immutable product that has to stand forever, instead of seeing them as a more ephemeral thing. In the end, they’re all kind of experiments.”

Other universities are starting to partner with UCLA Student Media, using its already existent platform to their advantage. Jake Sorensen, the director of student media at the University of Utah, said his department has worked with Ward on three different apps, one each for the football and basketball teams and another for the radio station.

Sorensen said he’s been satisfied with the appearance and functionality of the apps but knows they can be expanded. He said he would love to incorporate a Twitter feed into the football and basketball apps, aggregating writers who are tweeting about the same topic into one place within the app. That way, the average fan could both read different commentaries and ask questions of the writers.

“That way, the user becomes part of the conversation,” he said. “We traditionally see it as that the user consumes or reads the conversation once it’s done, but having the technological ability to engage the user is much more powerful.”

Sorensen said his one qualm with UCLA Student Media is that the department is not set up to provide customer service to those who are using their apps. He said he’s been uncertain who to ask if he has questions, but added that UCLA Student Media is working on a troubleshooting guide.

Ward confirmed that his department is in the process of developing a troubleshooting guide but stressed that this is a low-priority project. He said he was reluctant to partner with more universities as he understands the expectation of customer service and knows UCLA Student Media is not set up to provide that kind of support.

“I get queries all the time about making mobile apps for people, but we don’t really have the bandwidth — we’re not set up like a store,” he said. “Right now the only kind of partner I can really tolerate well are the development-minded partners.”

The goal is to add more ideas to the conversation, in an attempt to figure out how to produce more revenue in such an evolving media landscape, Ward said. He expects the process of generating revenue through mobile will be challenging — but it would be harder if he wasn’t trying to figure it out at all.

“We’re still not fully sure about how to unlock the mobile lock,” he said. “What are the ad formats? Can we experiment and invent the ad formats of tomorrow? How do we make these apps more indispensable to the everyday life of students? We’re still looking for all the answers to these questions, but if you’re not there iterating toward the answers, you’re basically going nowhere.”