The definitive answer of web or apps as the future of mobile content? It depends.

With a vast array of content types and devices to consume them, publishers still can’t easily decide between using the web or native apps for their wares. Three high profile content providers debated the topic at the paidContent Live 2013 event in New York City on Wednesday and it’s clear that digital content will have a home in both native apps and online for at least a few years yet.

Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review, has tried both and hated “every single moment of native apps.” His publication lost money, had to let go of resources and got nothing in return, he said, and decided to close down the native apps in October of last year.

“Traditional publishers figured the internet taught readers they could pay nothing. Native apps would expected to be like digital replicas but be better and would create monetization,” said Pontin, but that hasn’t happened for all publishers. “We’re moving to HTML5,” he noted, even though Pontin cautioned that the LocalStorage feature of HTML5 is the only agreed-upon function of the specification.

Some content types work better on native apps, however, or are supplemented only with HTML. Ryan Spoon, SVP, Product Development at ESPN, says that the back of every ESPN business card reads: “Serve fans anytime anywhere.” That means going to where the users are and having content both in native apps and on the web.

“It depends on content: what you want to build, how you want to monetize it. The web experience is being built truly mobile first; that’s a shift. We think mobile and apply global. For rich experiences, however, I think it has to be native.” Spoon said. He also pointed out that apps are more powerful for re-engagement thanks to in-app notifications.

Nick Alt, VP of Mobile at Vimeo agreed: “Push notification and in app messaging shows far higher engagement than email marketing for our service.” With content, that’s really what it’s all about: engagement. If you can boost engagement and then monetize it, you’ve got a potent business model.

For Vimeo the goal is to “build a better user experience and obtain a more engaged customer, particularly on mobile devices.” Alt said that tablet adoption is moving at an aggressive clip, faster than smartphone usage of Vimeo ever was. Spoon agreed on the engagement point, saying “Our goal is to lift engagement: both usage and users. The rest will follow. And the best usage depends on the product. Native, for example can help with ads and transactions.”

All three speakers agree that ultimately, content providers have to choose the best vehicle for their content and that either — or a combination of both — is a smart strategy, at least until HTML5 standards are agreed upon by all. Pontin summed it up like this: “A good compromise is an HTML5 app wrapped in native code for now. It helps you keep a common code base and in the end, open standards usually win.”

Check out the rest of our paidContent Live 2013 coverage here, and a video embed of the session follows below:

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A transcription of the video follows on the next page