Content, function and purpose: Three lessons on mobile and tablet publishing for magazines from #PPAConf

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App Store, Financial Times, iOS, iPad, Lean Back, Patrick Smith, Steve Jobs, Tablet computer, TheMediaBriefing Experts' Blog, United Kingdom, United States of America, Dennis Publishing, The Economist, Consumer Media, Digital Media, Mobile, Newspapers

Magazine publishers: open the bubbly, put that strategy document away, re-book that holiday. The saviour's here and it's 9.7 inches wide.

Well, maybe not. But tablets and iPads were the main subject up for discussion at The PPA's publishing+ conference in London on Wednesday, with publishers looking for the quickest route to insuring themselves against further falls in print advertising and circulation revenue. Here are three important messages I tool away from the case studies and discussions:

There's a separate business model for lean-back, long-form publishing

Much like everyone else in the middle of the last decade, The Economist was wondering what the hell to do with online publishing. Group CEO Andrew Rashbass told the conference that the company's initial instinct was to build the website to be just as important to people as the magazine.

But all the research said to do otherwise: "We realised that the lean-back experience wasn't being replaced by the web, which was far more lean-forward. So we turned Economist.com into somewhere readers could interact with us and more importantly interact with each other," he says.

"When we saw the iPad we immediately saw that these were lean back devices. Steve Jobs didn't talk about the specifications of the thing, he just showed people on big billboards leaning back and using them."

And now The Economist has a digital audience of 125,000 on top of its 1.1 million global print circulation.  

the result? The Economist is currently more profitable than at any point in its 157-year history, with half-year profits up six percent to £26.2 million in its most recent results. Rashbass says the business will be more profitable in the next five years and digital circulation will be the biggest driver.

Incidentally, however, like all successful media organisations these days, The Economist doesn't just do publishing. The group's push into marketing services is quietly pushing up profits; its acquisition of "PR and creative services" firm TVC in March is a real statement of intent. As Rashbass puts it, "It's no longer enough just to sell ad slots."

Here are some slides from a Rashbass talk in November 2011 

Lean back media: the shock of the old

This is a technical challenge, not a content challenge

It's very rare someone might read a printed magazine and think "this doesn't work". But that reaction is uttered time and again by downloaders of publishing apps across the world every day.

And the evidence from Publishing+ this year confirms: the technical challenge of creating a first-class digital reading experience is vast, and a lot of people still aren't prepared for it.

Kerin O'Connor, CEO of Dennis Publishing's current affairs title The Week, spoke about how his team put functionality and utility at the centre of the brand's iPad app, not just content.

"You have to make it quick and easy to use - the stability of the app is crucial," he says. "We made it 12Mb in size which means it can be downloaded in minutes."

I just tested this claim and clocked a single issue download at under 30 seconds. The app is essentially a hybrid app built in HTML5 but with an iOS shell. Quite a different experience to all those 400Mb native iPad magazine apps.

The result is 106,000 downloads and £500,000 in revenue in the UK, with another 185,000 downloads in the US - not bad at all.

But getting good apps doesn't come cheap or easy. As O'Connor put it, the app process needs to be a group process but business can't let 50 stakeholders hold them back.

So how do publishers equip themselves to build the right apps? It's no coincidence that Dennis has set up an internal mobile and tablet publishing team to solve these problems and that the Financial Times this year bought mobile developer Assanka, which had built its pioneering platform-neutral FT app.

Apps are about function not content

Later, football magazine Four Four Two's brand director Hugh Sleight put it neatly: don't assume you can just publish the same stuff you do in the magazine on an app and hope it will work out:


So Four four Two's Statzone app doesn't include any of the interviews, treatise on tactics or what Lionel Messi tick - it's an interactive football stats compendium. For £1.49 fans can download live OPTA stats from the Premier League - how many passes, who influenced the game and so on.

The key here: this is not journalism and it doesn't matter. After the app was launched the editorial team didn't have to do anything - it's a fun add-on for football fans and - unlike general interested "news" apps - has a clearly defined use case and purpose. 

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