Sometimes the hook of a story just falls into your lap.

The day before we meant to publish an article entitled ‘What would it take to make apps viable for publishers’ – the very title of the article you’re currently reading – Bloomberg’s global head of digital for Bloomberg Media argued that “apps are the new magazines“.

Success stories are few and far between when it comes to magazine apps. Very occasionally, publishers like The Economist manage to nail the formula and produce an app that adds real value, but the reality is that most apps never really get off the ground. Big-name brands like Vogue and Top Gear have paltry circulations in the mere thousands of their digital magazines.

Even the smash hits of the publishing app world aren’t immune from stinging failure. Just last week NBC news announced that they were shutting their Breaking News app. Scale was not the issue here: 9.5 million dedicated followers is more than most app creators can dream of reaching.

Nick Ascheim, NBC News SVP of Digital admitted that there were difficulties with the financial side:

“Unfortunately, despite its consumer appeal, Breaking News has not been able to generate enough revenue to sustain itself…Experiments eventually need to sustain themselves and in this case, despite every effort, we just weren’t able to get there.”

Throw into the mix the fact that people are downloading a grand total of 0 new apps a month, and most of the time they spend on apps unsurprisingly goes to Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram. Why does Bloomberg think it can succeed where the corpses of failure are lying so fresh along the road?

One could argue that it’s not looking good so far. The 2.5 million unique visitors a month to the app has plateaued, which Bloomberg argue is due to a lack of investment. They plan to triple this number by adding personalised streams ‘of three to five relevant stories depending on what time of day it is — morning, afternoon or evening — and where they’re accessing the app’.

Does this sound familiar?

Its history repeating itself, but this time it’s with a notoriously expensive mistake.

Their goal to bring the publisher – reader relationship into an environment they can control is an admirable one, but apps are not the way to do that. Bloomberg should take a good look around at why this has failed for so many other publishers.

David Hicks, an app designer who regularly speaks out about the future of digital magazines was positive about the development. “Bloomberg (who have had a killer app since day one) are keeping the faith in apps. I’m hoping this inspires publishers,” he said.

The arguments surrounding the death of magazines are well-doccumented across the industry. Paul Blake recently published an article about the lessons he’d learned from his digital-first magazine ‘App publisher’, which he has now scrapped. One line particularly strikes a chord: 

‘The concept of a magazine’ may just not work digitally’. 

‘As someone who has bought magazines most of my life and who has spent a fair amount of my professional life creating them, this one pains me to write. However, I’m just no longer sure bundling together sets of thematic content into a wrapper called a magazine works digitally. I suspect the world for readers is becoming too fluid and open for that. I do think there is a place for great branded content and also for the role magazine editors have played in commissioning and curating that content – however, we may need to disrupt our core businesses to find the best way of doing that. That takes a lot of bravery and carries not inconsiderable risk. It may, however, be the only option that publishers have available to them.’

Scott Havens argued that apps are replicating the relationship audiences used to have with a print product: “I know if I have brand affinity [for a publisher], it’s because I get what I need and I find it a useful part of my daily media diet — that’s the underlying philosophy for the app”. As Digiday’s Sahil Patel astutely points out, the Bloomberg Media app emulates Facebook in certain aspects of the UI, suggesting that Facebook has usurped the time that audiences would spend with magazine content.

Our editor-at-large Peter Houston, a long-time veteran of the print magazine industry, argues that when people talk about apps being the new magazine, they’re actually talking about revenue models rather than experience:

“Apps or webs or print are just to communicate that state of mind; what it really means is “we think apps are the best shot we’ve got at making money from audiences that used to buy print magazines”

Whether or not that’s true, what we are seeing is a change in format, a move away from skeumorphism and towards products that emulate a ‘magazine-like’ state of mind. Bloomberg, which has an audience in mind aready, can build an app that does that more easily than most – but to say that “apps are the new magazines” is overly simplistic.

So what would it take to make apps viable for publishers? Apart from a great deal of luck, here are some questions that should really be asked before looking at them as a viable solution:

  • What is the purpose of the app? If this isn’t set out clearly, it risks becoming a moneypit with no clear aims
  • How will the app be marketed? One of the biggest failures is the assumption that users will simply find it. They need to be reminded constantly that you have an app.
  • How does it integtate into current workflow? Apps risk becoming a financial black hole, using up valuable resources if not approached carefully. 
  • How is it going to become a habit? Pushing content to an app just once a month is a sure-fire way to make it fail. People have to be using it daily to establish a pattern. Otherwise, that app is the first thing to go when storage is full.
Is Bloomberg’s decision to invest heavily in apps a good one?
Yes – they could be another app success story
No – publishing apps are over