Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Why (most) tablet magazines are (currently) failures

Jon Lund is wrong.

I read Jon Lund's article on GigaOm entitled Why tablet magazines are a failure with some interest since I work in that space. Jon has concluded that an "app-based tablet approach to magazines leads straight to oblivion, at least for individual magazine titles."

I couldn't disagree more.

I am the CEO of TypeEngine, a Newsstand publishing platform that is designed for large agencies as well as indie publishers. I also run a full service mobile app consulting agency. I obviously have a vested interest in proving that tablet magazine apps are not doomed.

Jon obviously sees the problem but fails to see the solution. He makes four points about why he thinks magazine apps are doomed. He says:

1) “The average smartphone user opens only eight apps a day” and consequently “there’s not much room for magazine apps”.
2) Magazine apps are "invisible in the stream of information" since one must read the articles in that app, as opposed to something like Flipboard or Zite.
3) Magazine apps are "antiquated monoliths" of terrible grossness.
4) Lastly, Jon says that "magazine apps don't sell", citing some statistics from the Alliance for Audited Media.

Let's consider these points one at a time.

1) "Eight Apps a Day"
The argument here is that people only use eight apps a day, so odds are a magazine app won't be one of them. So the app developers of the world should just go home, right? There is no room in the public consciousness for other apps, right? Nonsense.

The same study from Flurry that Jon quotes goes on to show that 63% of the apps people are using are new apps that they weren't using a year ago. It also shows that the number of apps people use each day is growing.

So don't let the defeatist thinking fool you. People are using more native apps more frequently and for longer periods of time than ever before. If it's done right, there's no reason why your magazine app couldn't be one of them.

2) "Invisible in the Stream of Information"
Jon argues that when a magazine is bundled into an app it vanishes. Google can't index it, people can't discover it, and when readers share an article with their friends, the link only takes their friend to the app store.

Not only are parts of that argument completely wrong, it also totally misses of the point of creating high quality unique content.

There is so much to say on this topic. First of all, the essence of this argument admits that reading a Newsstand magazine app is immersive; it's not the same experience as drinking from the firehose information glut of Facebook, Flipboard, and Zite. That's a good thing. This content stands apart. It's considered, it's special.

Second, who's suggesting that magazine publishers should have no web representation of their native magazine content? I didn't suggest that? Did you? That would be a terrible idea. While it is true that many Newsstand magazine apps have little or no web presence, suggesting that the apps themselves are failures because of that is shortsighted. The only way to run a Newsstand magazine is to have web versions of each article precisely for indexing, discoverability, and social landing. That way, when a reader shares an article to Facebook or Twitter or, their friend is taken to the web version of that article when they click the link. Now, what the friend of the reader actually sees when he views that page is a different story. At TypeEngine, when a publisher creates an article for the magazine app, a web version is also created. However the web version is, by default, truncated and has a link to "Go Download The App" to read the rest of the article. This accomplishes several things, and nullifies all of Jon's arguments here: 1) it gives Google something to index for discoverability on the web at large and 2) it gives the friend of a reader something to actually read instead of simply a link to the app store.

As for Flipboard and Zite not being able to look in and "grab" the content of the articles, that's kinda the point. Zite and Flipboard function to enhance their own brand by doing this, and publishers don’t necessarily benefit from that. By publishing bespoke content that is not available elsewhere creates a sense of exclusivity in the reader - that this content is not available elsewhere. All this serves to build the publisher’s brand and reputation.

3) "Antiquated Monoliths"

Bingo, Jon. You got this one right.

Most Newsstand apps are antiquated and most are monolithic. But just because many Newsstand apps are terrible doesn't mean that making Newsstand apps is a terrible idea. It just means they should stop sucking. How can we stop the suck?

Let's look into the comments of the GigaOm article for some suggestions, shall we?

"The content has to adapt to the platform and user rather than pushing a one size fits all experience on the consumer. I love print magazines that are well-done, but it is rare I find the same experience in digital form." -Madlyb
So right. PDFs, InDesign folios, Photoshop files and the like all suffer from the same problems when publishers try to use them for Newsstand apps: extreme bloat, non-adaptive content and content that is tightly lashed to the layout and design. It's now common knowledge that these are poor choices for the architectural foundations of a Newsstand magazine app. So why do so many publishers start there? Three reasons: time, money and familiarity. I'll treat the first two here and the third in a later post.

Because of time and personnel constraints, publishers are under enormous pressure to recycle the production artifacts used to create print publications, so it's natural that these have been the foundation of so many Newsstand magazines. But just because something is easier doesn't mean you should do it. Publishers should take the time to dignify their content by preparing it properly for digital distribution.

Karen McGrane's wonderful book "Content Strategy for Mobile" should be mentioned here.


In addition to subscriptions, magazines make money by charging for advertising. The amount of money that a magazine can charge advertisers depends in large part on their circulation —the more people that see an ad, the more they can charge an advertiser for it. That's called the "rate base." Therefore, it is enormously important for magazines to show (and prove) high circulation numbers. There are 3rd party audit bureaus like the Alliance for Audited Media that charge publishers through the nose for doing circulation audits, and advertisers want to see these audits. Think of it as Carfax for magazine circulation. Doing circulation auditing for print is a long-solved problem, but as you can imagine, they have scrambled in recent years to bolt on circulation auditing for mobile.

Large magazine publishers live and die by this circulation report. But the auditing bureaus have a choke hold on the industry with their standards for what is required to report circulation of digital editions. These circulation figures, such as the one Jon references in his article, generally only include digital replica versions in the main circulation figures and rate base comparisons. I'm going to restate that: The core circulation figures and rate base comparison reports by the audit bureaus only include the circulation of Newsstand magazine apps so long as the Newsstand app is a REPLICA of the print version. They will acknowledge "Non-Replica" app circulation, but those are consistently relegated to second class citizens in the report. The audit bureaus have incentivized the publishers to produce apps that look the same as print versions.

The audit bureaus have incentivized producing apps that suck.

This drive to create print replica digital editions naturally causes many magazine publishers to start with print-first assets like PDFs, InDesign folios and Photoshop files to create their digital publication. This results in rather-be-stabbed-in-the-face download times and digital magazines that ignore phone-sized form factors and landscape device orientation.

Tim Shea hits the nail on the head regarding the net effect of this suck fest in the comments section of Jon's article:
"They offer a horrible user experience. Just downloading GQ takes an hour off the very worst airport wifi connection. And takes no advantage of the platform or real-estate. You can almost smell the cologne advertisements by how obvious they are trying to keep aligned to the print edition."

4) "Magazine Apps Don't Sell"

As Tim Shea states above, many magazine apps offer a horrible experience for the user. And people don't normally buy products that offer horrible experiences.

However, not all magazine apps suck, and not all of them are suffering from a lack of sales. Just ask Glenn Fleishman of The Magazine, Jim Dalrymple of The Loop Magazine, or Thomas Deneuville of I CARE IF YOU LISTEN Magazine (who just won the ASCAP Foundation Deems Taylor Award for Media). All have created user-friendly, content-centric apps that have healthy subscription bases, relative to production costs.

Most magazine apps are stinking up Newsstand in a huge way right now, that’s for sure. So I offer this advice to publishers:
  • Get with the times. Stop using monolithic, non-adaptive, outdated artifacts as starting points for your digital magazines.
  • Stop thinking that folios with animated monkeys (or watches or clouds or cars) are the basis for a good digital magazine; those are video games at best.
  • Stop kowtowing to the audit bureaus' definitions of what constitutes circulation. Be willing to stand up and do something new and fresh.
  • Consider your users and give them a nice experience. Remember that digital is not paper, so stop treating it like paper.
  • And lastly, keep your chin up—mobile devices are not going anywhere. They are the future of your magazines and your wonderful content. Just please, for the love of God, stop making Newsstand apps that suck. Your content is worth so much better.
I'd also like to address the fact that Jon's article is entitled "Why TABLET magazines are failures" (caps mine). I always cringe when I hear Newsstand magazine apps referred to as "tablet" magazines since that obviously ignores phones. Producing a tablet-only Newsstand magazine app is a huge mistake. Since we launched TypeEngine in July, we've shipped almost 30 Newsstand magazine apps and over 53% of the readers are using an iPhone or iPod touch.

So perhaps if people didn't think of Newsstand magazine apps as "tablet apps" they'd have 53% more subscribers.

I'm on Twitter as @JamieMSmyth if you want to flame me.

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