The future of iPad/digital magazines – the six big questions
We have reached an interesting point in the development of iPad magazines. Companies that had initially been hugely enthusiastic about the format, like Conde Nast, are having second thoughts and slowing down their adoption of the platform. Other publishers remain very cynical.
We are also starting to see indie publishers begin to create dedicated content for the iPad, including, I should add, my own company Sutro Digital which unveiled its first iPad magazine Technode a couple of weeks ago
It is clear that many media companies see the iPad as central to their future digital strategies. Yet there are still many key questions about the development of iPad publishing that remain unanswered. As the MD of a small indie publishing company I wrestle with these issues all the time. Here then six core issues that I think will determine whether the iPad magazine becomes more than just a showcase for some whizzy new technology.
1 Do people want content curated in this way?
A few years ago I was adamant that consumer magazines were a redundant concept that had been superseded by the immediacy and engagement opportunities afforded by the web. Now I am not so sure. Content curation seems to be making a real comeback whether it be Flipboard on the iPad or paper.li and its many rivals. Personally I like the concept of having a magazine of content created by someone who is very knowledgeable about an specific subject. I am not sure however if existing concepts of magazine translate into the digital arena.
Publishers need to play on the strengths of the new formats. Longer reads, interactive graphics and intelligent use of video to complement features are all things that arguably work better in the context of a digital magazine than they do on the web. Maybe what will also work is if publishers offered magazines with themed issues. Obviously long-tail content that doesn’t date quickly is important too.
2 How can publishers get reach?
Up until now the major problem facing publishers has been getting their iPad magazines to as many people as possible. Early figures, from the likes of Wired, looked hugely promising, now however it is clear that those first iPad magazines were bought by early adopters looking for content to showcase the screen and operating systems of their smart new gadget. Away from the tech world figures for consumer/women’s titles have been generally very poor.
Inevitably as sales of the iPad grows – forecasts are that 45 million will be sold this year – there will be more readers of the iPad magazines. However publishers do need to look beyond the iPad for growth. Sales of Android based tablets are likely to overtake Apple tablets sometime within the next 24 months. So producing content that works on a number of platforms – all tablets, smartphones and even standard Windows PCs – is a must for publishers. So far sales of PDF style magazines have been unimpressive this however might change as consumers get more used to the concept of digital magazines.
One obvious way of increasing the reach of iPad/digital magazines is to dispense with the cover charge and make them available for free. This is not a model that I expect mainstream publishers to readily embrace, however the indie sector has however by and large offered their magazines for free and looked for other ways to fund their iPad projects. Publishers obviously lose out on sales revenue, but offering iPad magazine content for free does have some very significant advantages over charging for it. Firstly the number of downloads should in theory be higher than paid for ones, especially as the new titles establish themselves. Secondly it means that the magazine content can be offered in a variety of options. So Technode, for example, is available on other tablets PCs as a PDF via HP’s Magcloud service, or as an online read or download via document site Scribd. It has given the title a reach it might otherwise not have had if limited to the iPad.
3 What type of magazines are going to be most succesful on the iPad?
So far the focus on iPad magazines had largely been on high profile consumer titles with technology and male interest magazines (which I guess reflect the demographic of iPad buyers) leading the way. It’ll be fascinating to see how successful fashion titles are on the iPad especially given their huge following online. I do think that the iPad and digital editions in general present a real interesting opportunity for business to business publishers. they can save money on print and postage costs while taking advantage of the iPad’s superb graphics reproduction.
4 How can publishers monetise the content?
The big question for the mainstream media is ‘will they still be able to charge for their magazine content?’ In the long run I think the jury is out on this. What I think we might see is a re-run of the cover mount/CD-ROM tactic of the 90s with companies offering additional features/downloads and freebies to entice readers into parting with their cash. Future Publishing is already doing this in a very effective way. Personally I think there is an opportunity for publishers to charge for iPad magazines, though maybe not at the level that they currently charge. It was interesting too how quickly Project, Richard Branson/Seven Squared’s iPad showcase went from a paid for title to a freebie.
Away from cover prices the other obvious route to monetisation is via Apple’s own advertising system iAds, but this is a nascent platform and may only provide a small part of an advertising solution. Companies can fill the magazine with print style ads – like the mainstream media companies do. However I personally think that cramming an iPad mag with ads is a real turn off for the reader. Besides, even if they wanted to most small companies do not have the sales teams to achieve this this. There are many great third party sales agencies for the web in the UK, but very few of these are geared up for selling this type of inventory.
Which brings me to what could well turn out to be the ideal solution for small and niche publishers – sponsorship. If a brand takes over a title it could be hugely effective for that company as well as delivering an ideal solution for the publishers. Sponsorship could be delivered in a number of ways – from subtle branding on each page through to advertorials, competitions or video content. This would fit in well with the excellent engagement figures magazines of iPad mags – Technode has an average engagement time of over 30 minutes per reader. From a consumer perspective a brand enabling a publisher to offer high quality magazine content for free is a powerful message, especially when the branding is subtle and engaging. The sponsorship could work across different platforms too and be effective in PDF versions as iPad ones. A really great example of how this works is The Economist’s Intelligent Life iPad magazine which has been sponsored each time by Credit Suisse. Virgin’s Project magazine has also inked deals with companies like American Express.
5 Is the iPad the future for branded content?
I think iPad magazines and digital editions really are the future for branded content. With print and postage cost spirally ever upwards digital editions are ideal for displaying branded content. They are also good news for customer publishing agencies in that it enables them to maintain the concept of the magazine that has served them so well for the last couple of decades.
6 Will technology make the concept of an iPad mag delivered via the app store redundant?
This is a very tricky question. We are already seeing both mainstream and indie publishers using HTML5 technology to create editorially-driven apps that are accessible via browsers and don’t need to be downloaded via an app store. I think we will see a lot more of this type of experimentation in the coming months with publishers creating online magazines that are dynamically updated, possibly on a daily basis. It is likely to once again ignite the debate over what is a magazine and what is actually a website.
At the same time Apple’s recent creation of the Newsstand store for digital magazines will strengthen its relationship with publishers as well as increasing sales of magazines as consumers can find them more easily. However ongoing friction between publishers and Apple around data and subscriptions could force some media companies hands. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out