22 Comments

Summary:

The enthusiasm iPad users had for magazine apps seems to be waning, according to some recent numbers that show sales of many apps slipping. Hopefully some publishers are starting to realize that simply having an iPad app doesn’t qualify as a digital content strategy.

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When the iPad first arrived on the scene, many newspaper and magazine publishers seemed to see it as a digital savior that would restore their fortunes and allow them to withstand the whole “information wants to be free” aspect of the Internet. After an initial flurry of interest, however, the enthusiasm of readers seems to be waning, according to some recent numbers which show that sales of many magazine apps have been slipping. Hopefully some publishers are starting to realize that simply having an iPad app doesn’t qualify as a digital content strategy.

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson makes exactly this point in a blog post Thursday, in which he argues that the economics around mobile platforms such as the iPhone and the iPad — and other tablets, presumably — will likely come to look a lot like the economics of the web itself, in which closing off access to content via paywalls and walled gardens has not proven to be a very successful long-term approach (with a few notable exceptions such as The Economist and the Wall Street Journal). As Wilson puts it:

I don’t understand why anyone would ever think that adding a presentation layer on top of web based content would make it something people would want to purchase when they are not willing to purchase the same content directly on the web.

Simply wrapping your content in a shiny package designed by Adobe  isn’t going to convince vast numbers of people to pay you every month for it, especially when it costs as much as or more than the print version. Having audio and video clips and other interactive doo-dads is nice, but it simply isn’t worth the premium some publishers are charging. As we (and others) have pointed out before, many iPad apps look an awful lot like the early days of CD-ROM editions — and they offer about as much in terms of real interactivity or sharing. Says Wilson:

Restricting access to content doesn’t work. Someone else’s content will get filtered and curated instead of yours. Scarcity is not a viable business model on the Internet.

Apps are good for many things; they are great for games, and for function-specific services such as Yelp or Instagram or Skype, and for social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Is your newspaper or magazine as addictive and rewarding as a game? Is it as necessary or useful as a task-specific app like Yelp or Google Maps? If not, then why would you think people would want to pay you a monthly fee for the privilege of having your content? One of the best media apps, as Damon Kiesow notes at Poynter, is the one from NPR — in part because it doesn’t force you to stay in the app. Counter-intuitive, but smart.

That’s not to say some people won’t subscribe to publications like Vanity Fair or Wired on their iPads — clearly many people will, just as many still subscribe to the print versions of those magazines. But is that a major growth or revenue-generating strategy? Not really (a point Darrell makes in his post on the recent magazine app numbers). At most, it’s just another sandbag stacked up against the digital flood of content that the web represents. I like a number of media apps — including the ones I mentioned in a recent post looking at the good, the bad and the ugly — but too many simply repurpose the same content, while removing the ability to link or share it.

Better to focus, as Wilson suggests, on helping your readers by filtering and curating and making sense of things for them (and giving them tools to do that themselves), and building a relationship with them based on that, rather than nickel-and-dime-ing them for every little thing and forcing them to stay inside your walled garden. Then maybe when you offer ways they can contribute monetarily, they will actually take you up on it.

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Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Giuseppe Bognanni

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  1. Richard Tibbetts Thursday, December 30, 2010

    Your point about the electronically delivered version costing as much as the print version and being no better is spot on. I said this in 2008: Information Wants To Be Half Price http://innocuous.org/articles/2008/01/12/information-wants-to-be-half-price/

    1. Thanks for the comment, Richard — you were right then, and you are still right now :-)

  2. Honestly, it is all in the content. With the advent of applications like Flipboard, there is no need for a full on app for a media outlet… I spend 90% of my time on an iPad in flipboard… Im on it right now actually.

    I used to have the WSJ app, but now it’s just easier to browse the WSJ through the Flipboard interface, in the same way i now browse facebook and twitter…

    I will pay for content, but not the overhead of presentation… Leave that to the abstract app makers of the world, like the developers of Flipboard

  3. I consider my subscription to the print version of the Economist an excellent value. I have subscribed for many years and will continue to do so. The new iPhone app is just another delivery vehicle that makes the content more convenient to read – on the go and even at home.

    1. That’s great — and I mentioned in the post that there are undoubtedly many readers who feel similarly. The big question is: how many?

  4. Apps need to provide some value other than information. There plenty of places to get free news and information. I want the apps to keep track of thing or use them as a source of entertainment.

  5. As a former online news guy, I view the iPad app craze as an attempt by the newspaper companies to try to turn back time.

    Many in the business still believe in the “original sin” of not charging for content online when the Internet first launched. (Conveniently ignoring the reality that many newspapers, including ours, tried and failed to charge for online content.)

    I’ve spent time with apps from all of the leading newspaper companies. They remind me a bit of TimesFax, a digest of the New York Times that was delivered by fax to remote locations. The only one that was engaging was USA Today — and that was because of their great implementation of the crossword.

    The apps give publishers the illusion of control. They can push a package of identical content to people, just like they do in print. The only people these apps will appeal to are those few who liked the PDF versions of newspapers that the industry kept pushing.

    They would all do better to skip the proprietary apps and work with someone like Flipboard, who understands that the keys to success will be personalized, social and free.

    1. Great points, Rocky — completely agree. Thanks for the comment.

  6. If all contents are free who will be footing the costs of these publishers.

    Is the writer of this article writing for free?

  7. Martin De Saulles Friday, December 31, 2010

    I see a parallel between mobile apps and Encarta in the 1990s. Encarta offered a low-cost and visually more appealing alternative to expensive, space-consuming printed encyclopaedias. However, Encarta was a closed system. Wikipedia offered an open, interactive system. The result: Microsoft shut down Encarta in 2009 and Wikipedia is one of the top 5 most visited sites.

  8. Gerald Buckley Friday, December 31, 2010

    The only publisher’s iPad app that’s compelling IMHO is Marvel’s. The idea that I could go back and enjoy a premiere issue+ of a story line/character I’d normally not get to enjoy IS a neat model and content I’m happily paying for.

  9. Wow…this is great…right after the article, and specifically the last paragraph that concludes that pay walls are a bad long term strategy, this text appears:

    “Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d):”

    i.e., if you liked our article about how people won’t pay for Web content, perhaps you’d be interested in paying for some of our Web content

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ken — I’m not saying that subscription content never works or can’t be part of a publishing strategy. My point (and Fred’s too, I think) is that it can’t be *all* of your strategy, particularly if it’s in app format.

  10. I don’t see what’s the big deal. Customers have repeatedly demanded subscriptions to iPad magazine apps, and the publishers haven’t obliged – because Apple won’t let them. So some customers of lost interest. In a free market, you have to give customers what they want, or they will walk. As far as I see it, the iPad type walled garden approach can work, but publishers have to be responsive to customers’ wishes. Also publishers have come out with quite a bit of original content – not just recycled web content – made exclusively available behind their pay walls, to make their services seem worthwhile.

    Publishers could also expand out into arrays of paid service beyond this starting point. E.g. publishers could create pools of well developed data shared among themselves, which they could make available only to paying customers. E.g. while Google provides free restaurant data and review in the browser, the NY Times, Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and others could go several steps further, by pooling their resources, and providing slick interactive mapping, video, audio, and immersive 3D visual data of restaurants which are substantially better, and significantly more engaging.

    Therefore the current set back with iPad magazine apps are not a big deal. It just means that publishers need to be more responsive to their customers, and they need to create original or richer content than are available for free, in order to charge people money. Also I notice I don’t see publications advertising their iPad apps like they used to. This probably also contributes significantly to declining sales, since many people do not know or forgot about them.

    P. Douglas

    1. Scratch what I said about publishers not advertising their iPad apps.

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