Apps, iPads and all the new media terms and paraphernalia are exciting and pretty baffling. Is this the way forward for print media? Jonathan Harris explains.
“The iPad is a distraction.” I heard that once at a conference. Silence, chatter and finally protestation as the heresy followed the statement. But all I could think was: “I wish I’d said that.”
What the speaker was saying is simple: be careful not to be distracted by a device that iterates the magazine experience. Don’t get me wrong, I never stop using my shiny new iPad2, and I consume more content today than before its arrival. But, that doesn’t change the fact that the focus on tablets and the content app model seems to be an artificial one driven by the objective to try change the behaviour of the audience to suit the desires of publishers. This is a well-intentioned although misguided effort to recreate the past of the traditional magazine model. Publishers have to get out of this headspace quickly if the tablet is to be effectively leveraged to deliver value to both them and their audiences.
I am certainly not saying there has not been substantial progress and today there is really no such thing as traditional media, with the proliferation of multi-channel content consumption having redefined much of publishers’ so-called traditional operations. But, I think traditional thinking still exists, and the question is how this will evolve to create the right content experiences for the user in a tablet environment?
We are at a great inflexion point in the evolution of mobile media. App download is a mass market already but in the paid content publishing model it is early days yet. There are many who argue that the user experience is fast catching up with the promise of what we always wanted digital media to deliver: rich media experiences that are easily accessed.
Publishers are certainly upgrading the whole experience and unlocking value as they deliver more valuable products and there is no doubt that the combination of mobility and instant access is bringing new opportunities. But I am not a believer and I have not seen good evidence as to why I should be a believer in how the magazine industry is currently approaching the issue.
All of the activity is coming from the wrong objective. Publishers need to work out how to make valuable content appropriately useful and valuable to users no matter what device they are on and focus less on getting onto the device quickly.
A lot of what has been launched seems to ignore what we have seen on the web over the last several years and publishers largely have to follow the behavioural patterns of the audience to answer the right questions.
Today, although we see apps that are generally siloed from the web, siloed from the social space, siloed from the search space, and siloed from linkages to other publications, this is not a move forward. Also a large portion of traffic growth is coming from social and search spaces. As publishers spew content into the ecosystem so that it can be discovered in as many ways as possible and people can discover the content creator, silos just don’t work.
Evidence of this is the proliferation of brand touch-points in the mobile space, often with much fanfare but little sustainable follow through. For all the efforts of the last year I have yet to see a tablet strategy that is truly working. For the most part, publishers talk a lot about enrichment but make no mistake, they are still delivering mostly linear, paginated and low-density formats.
I read recently that Wired’s iPad edition did extremely well during its first few months on sale. At one point, it even looked as if the magazine’s iPad sales could outpace its regular newsstand sales. Since then, though, sales of the electronic edition have plummeted as the novelty wore off for many users. The experience has been similar for some other well-known magazine brands.
So reaching new audiences is only half of the battle. How publishers enhance tablet experiences so that they make sense, deliver content and optimise the experience so that users keep coming back, is the rest of it.
Paidcontent.org also recently reported that magazine publishers are putting a lot of faith in apps, building development teams and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (in some cases, much more) to launch them. Still, publishers continue to take some heat for producing apps that are clunky, not social enough, overpriced and often, painfully slow to download. And at least one magazine entrepreneur/executive argues that his peers are deluding themselves about the likelihood that apps are going to generate profits anytime soon.
Publishers can potentially be more disruptive with the user-experience and the capability of a mobile connected device. The real challenge, if you want to talk about publisher business models, is when spaces get disruptive it becomes very hard to eat your own young. It gets hard to question core principles. The risk is that there is experimentation, but within certain bounds, like playing around with presentation, adding new levels of media richness or creating shallow app experiences.
If publishers are not creating new types of proprietary experiences they are at risk of adoption fatigue where lemming-like uptake of third party technologies further distracts valuable resources: Twitter, Facebook, Zinio and more recently Flipboard. These are great examples out there of startups that are breaking ground in the media consumption landscape. Media companies must test, learn and optimise more aggressively with the content experience. They must also be as forward-leaning as they can afford to be, both in terms of money and resources.
Just being there doesn’t mean publishers are there at all. How they are there is what matters. Publishers must not be distracted by the ability to iterate magazines into a digital space and they must not be distracted by the iPad. Rather, they must ask, what is the likely form and function of content going to be 10 years from today and what is the true potential of locatable, social, personalised and discoverable magazine experiences?
Jonathan Harris is the newly appointed head of Media24’s tablet magazine development project.
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