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Summary:

Dedicated magazine apps for tablets may look good, but I fear they’re headed straight to oblivion.

Tablet magazines montage

“We’re starting a new magazine,” the entrepreneur told me. “We have a potent niche to cover, and advertisers are dying for us to deliver interactive ads.”

Another woman I met with wanted to launch a tablet magazine about renewable energy. “It’s global and I have all the right connections to get it out there,” she said. “And I’ve found an out-of-the-box software solution to power it.”

Both projects impressed me. From an editorial point of view, they both nailed it. The entrepreneurs’ energy was great. A few years ago I would have been all in with them.

Today, though, my mind has changed. I fear the app-based tablet approach to magazines leads straight to oblivion, at least for individual magazine titles.

Not that tablets aren’t suited for reading. I discover most of the articles I read every day through my favorite iPad apps: Zite, Flipboard, Facebook and Twitter. These apps don’t produce any content themselves. They’re merely curating what’s already out there. My dedicated magazine apps, on the other hand, have been lost among the many other apps on my iPad. I never read them, even those I pay monthly subscription fees for. Here’s why.

Eight apps a day

Last year, Nielsen estimated the average mobile user has 41 apps on his or her smartphone. In April, a Flurry study showed the average smartphone user opens only eight apps a day, with the most popular being Facebook, YouTube and game apps. And according to a 2012 report from Localytics, 22 percent of all apps are only opened once.

Though these numbers are for mobile in general, not just tablets, the picture is clear: There’s not much room for magazine apps. Magazines need extremely dedicated readers to avoid being buried.

Invisible in the stream of information

To make things worse, magazine apps themselves are invisible in the large streams of information governing the web.

When a magazine is organized as an app rather than as a website, its articles can neither be indexed or searched on the web. And even if they could, clicking the link in Google at best takes readers to an app store, not to the article itself — cutting the magazine out of the greatest traffic driver in today’s world.

The pattern is the same on social media. When you can’t link directly to an article, the urge to tweet or tell your friends about it drastically shrinks. And curators like Flipboard and Zite can’t look into, link or grab content from within magazine apps.

Antiquated monoliths

When I nevertheless manage to find the time to open up an iPad magazine, I feel as if I’m holding an outdated media product in my hands. That’s ironic because these apps tend to be visually appealing, with interactive graphics, embedded videos and well-crafted navigation tools. But the gorgeous layout that works so well in print gets monolithic, almost scary, in its perfectionism on the iPad, and I find myself longing for the web. It’s messy but far more open, more accessible and more adaptable to me, my devices and needs.

Most magazine apps also fail in social. They struggle to be “liked,” to attract comments and get shared, because only readers inside the app can fully join in the conversation. The orderly, closed magazine experience runs counter to the great social networking pulse of the internet.

Magazine apps don’t sell

This year, tablets will probably outsell laptops. Apple alone sells 15 to 20 million iPads each quarter. But magazine app success stories are hard to find.

This is shown in the most recent statistics from the Alliance for Audited Media. In the table below I’ve reorganized the numbers, plotting total paid subscriptions for consumer magazines against “digital replica” paid subscriptions. On average, the 25 bestselling digital replica editions account for 12 percent of total subscriptions.

Total paid & verified circulation

Digital replica paid circulation

Digital replica as %age of total circulation

Game Informer Magazine

7,829,179

2,974,510

38%

Reader’s Digest

5,241,480

292,285

6%

Cosmopolitan

3,017,990

246,815

8%

Taste of Home

3,207,340

215,658

7%

Maxim

2,001,940

211,429

11%

National Geographic

4,125,152

180,288

4%

Poder Hispanic

379,000

137,717

36%

OK! Weekly

502,205

135,709

27%

Star Magazine

805,621

117,554

15%

Men’s Health

1,884,156

109,935

6%

Wired

851,823

102,450

12%

ESPN the Magazine

2,128,345

101,325

5%

Popular Science

1,309,176

100,470

8%

O The Oprah Magazine

2,417,589

99,412

4%

GQ

964,264

99,185

10%

Us Weekly

1,959,784

92,600

5%

Parenting

2,245,060

92,348

4%

Food Network Magazine

1,713,949

91,491

5%

Nylon

218,037

79,616

37%

The New Yorker

1,055,922

78,511

7%

Vanity Fair

1,217,439

75,293

6%

Martha Stewart Living

2,088,788

73,733

4%

WebMD Magazine

1,478,569

73,568

5%

People

3,542,185

73,181

2%

Working Mother

760,563

163,539

22%

Paid total and digital replica subscriptions on bestselling U.S. consumer magazines ending 06/30/2013. Supplementary numbers. Source: Alliance for Audited Media.

Game Informer, which is owned by video game chain GameStop, seems to stand out with nearly 3 million digital subscriptions. But that’s because GameStop includes a digital subscription with purchase of its “premium” $14.99 loyalty cards, which also offer discounts on video games.

Other magazines are seeing less success in digital. Wired, for instance, launched its tablet edition in May 2010. The total number of paid subscriptions reached 850,000 by the end of 2012 — but only 102,000 of those are coming from digital. Both numbers fade against the number of monthly unique users to Wired’s website: nearly 20 million.

Evidence of success for standalone iPad magazines is even more difficult to find. The grandest attempt to make this new publishing platform work, News Corp’s “The Daily” iPad app, closed after two years of operation. The Daily only cost $0.99 a week, but with just a little over 100,000 subscribers at last count, it couldn’t break even.

For these reasons, entrepreneurs with ideas for tablet magazines haven’t convinced me to get on board. I believe the future for producing quality content for niches is both bright and promising. But it has to be presented openly, socially, in flow — not in closed tablet apps.

Jon Lund is COO and partner at knowledge-sharing startup memit and chairman of the Danish Online News Association. Follow him on Twitter @jonlund.

  1. I agree with the article. I do not agree with the title of the article. I’m not sure I would call the whole idea a failure in monetary terms. You can look at Wired’s digital numbers and say that they only have 102,450 digital subscriptions.. You could also say that they have 102,450 subscriptions that they may not have had without the digital component. If it is generating money for them I’m not sure I would call that a failure. Your argument that this is a bad format from a social media perspective is completely valid however and I agree with that.

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    1. Hi M. Thomas Ridley – Sure, a hundred thousand paying customers are better than none. But it isn’t going to save a sunset industry. And it indicates that going in a more open, web-oriented format, would yield much better results.

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    2. Hi M. Thomas Ridley – Sure, a hundred thousand paying customers are better than none. But it isn’t going to save a sunset industry. And it indicates that going in a more open, web-oriented format, would yield much better results.

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  2. In addition to the magazine app, you need a browser version of the magazine and a site. Then you cross promote. It helps to create an interactive magazine app instead of a replica. People will come back if they get to drive.

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    1. Hi Kelly – publishers must absolutely feel free to develop an app for the very limited audience they most likely will be able to attract. All I’m saying is: please focus on making a great website of the kind that adapt to your device, making it possible for your magazine to flow freely on the searchable, social and open web.

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  3. “It’s messy but far more open, more accessible and more adaptable to me, my devices and needs.”

    This nails the problem for me. Obsessive control over layout, placement and font were great for the static world, but create artificial boundaries in the digital world, especially for mobile. 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.

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  4. I don’t think it’s fair to say tablet magazines have failed. Every magazine and newspaper I read that offers a tablet version charges more for the digital version than for the dead tree medium. Which is ridiculous. If you buy the paper subscription, you get digital access for the same price, or less.

    The problem is the way publications sell ads. They charge a lot more for print ads than digital ads, even if the digital ads (like in a magazine) are sticky and don’t change with every view. So they need to keep their print circulation high so they can charge more for those ads. If they increased the price of digital ads, and lowered the digital subscriptions, they might get more tablet subscribers, and less tablet advertisers, but more digital revenue. It’s a chance they have to take if they want to make that transition.

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    1. I wish it was this simple, Kenninca, but new pricing strategies won’t do, I’m afraid. There’s something fundamentally flawed in the magazine-app model…

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      1. How do you know? If the pricing pre-empts people from trying a tablet app, how can you say the app model isn’t working?

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        1. Sure, lowering the prices would propably make more people buy. But, for the reasons stated above, I don’t think that’ll do.

          At least it didn’t do the trick for myself: being an international subscriber, I benefitted tremendously from changing my print subscription on Wired to an iPad-only subscription. The price went down from $70 to only $19,99. Plus I now get Wired before the printed magazine hit the streets. When I had the print issue delivered it would take several weeks to get to Europe. I’m still a subscriber – but only very rarely reads it!

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      2. André Kenji De Sousa Monday, October 7, 2013

        There is. Most digital magazines are in fact print magazines transported to the tablets, including the ads. Most digital magazines have 300 to 800 mbs. That´s a considerable amount of space for tablets and phones(And that also usually means that most magazines don´t have a phone version).

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        1. That’s not correct Andre. The average digital magazine, read within an app, is under 50mb. This month’s Glamour, for instance, is over 300 pages and only 10% of your data size claim. If a magazine app isn’t available on iPad (I can’t think of any that aren’t) it’s due to screen size not memory.

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    2. Agreed. I wont even consider a tablet sub to a magazine that costs more than the paper version so how can you know the model wont work?

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  5. Strange. According to this article, I’m an anomaly. I no longer receive any paper based periodicals, but rather only iPad readable. I use Economist magazine app, Sky&Tel I read as a pdf in iBooks. Wish newspapers, I only use WSJ app, NYTimes app, and the Washington post. I have no paper to throw away, and always have all my up to date periodicals with me at all times. Regarding interactive adds, frankly I find them annoying and prefer traditional static images I can more easily read or ignore at my choice. A magazine that doesn’t have a tablet compatible version is less attractive to me. I like being able to download an instant copy of current magazine, rather than to have to search a news stand.

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    1. That’s the problem! Of course the digital version is better than the paper version, but only we 30s and up crowd can appreciate that. What happens to all the teens now who never experienced the paper versions?

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  6. Rafe Needleman Sunday, October 6, 2013

    What about NextIssue? One app, one price, lots of magazines. Really interesting revenue sharing model, too.

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    1. ha — that’s a joke.

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  7. I think the real problem is the poor experience most of them provide. Done well (I’ll point out Wired and Bloomberg Business Week on the iPad) these can provide a very rich and engaging experience. However, most digital magazines I see take very little advantage of the interactivity available or optimizing for the screen and touch. If content creators got serious about really creating optimized experiences for the tablet I think the subs would grow.

    Then you have the problem of access. Those great experiences I used to get on the iPad don’t have similar versions for my new Nexus 7. You can’t ignore the Android tablet market and expect to build a strong revenue stream. Give access to people and the subs will grow.

    Also, the pricing. As already mentioned by others, several digital editions cost more than print. That is insane.

    I think when we have more tablet only magazines, without the cost infrastructure of print, creating truly optimized experiences on all major platforms we will see successful stories. It is just going to take some people with vision and the willingness to build the audience.

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  8. You are missing the most obvious reason for the failure of magazine applications. 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.

    Fix that and magazines will flourish on tablet platforms.

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    1. I completely disagree with you here, Tim. Many iPad apps – like Wireds – are really great. (Although you’re right about the downloading part)

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  9. The same reason magazine apps fail is the same reason that pay walled newspapers will fail. Pay walls for news content goes completely against the social media flow of information. If newspapers want to remain relevant they have to provide free content to be shared, nobody wants to have there information curated by a single news source any more.

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    1. It’s that simple, is it Elizabeth? So tell me, where will the revenue come from? You clicking on a story and maybe adding a simplistic comment doesn’t bring in a dime.

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    2. My experience tells me that you are largely right about this, notwithstanding kirklandbaseball’s reply, which, albeit true enough, misses the point.

      I find that when I read a magazine on an app, that “paywall” certainly exists. I cannot select an article and send it to my reading application of choice (normally Readability on my ipad, but sometimes Instapaper which is delivered to my Kindle DX). I can’t select an article & send it to my wife or brother or friends or children to read, either. Very few of them allow me to copy a paragraph to file away in Evernote.

      It seems to me that there is some kind of “recombinant” aspect to electronic media where the value to the reader resides. If I am just going to sit down & read the magazine through from cover to cover, that’s no different than reading the print version – but at least my eyes don’t get weary as fast while reading the print version.

      If I made one of these apps, I’d allow for all kinds of copying & sending to others – but I would arrange it so that anyone getting such a copy would have a nice, easy way to visit my website & subscribe themselves. Adding “social” to media should be regarded as advertising the magazine.

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    3. I agree with you Elizabeth, paywalls and native apps both work by separating the content from the open web – which is why clever paywalls lets a reasonable amount of trafic flow freely through the walls. Apps doen’t have the same possiblities for such graduations of the barriers… either you have the app or you don’t.

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  10. The authors observations are interesting, but I believe the conclusions are flawed, or at least premature. Believe it or not, it is still early days for the tablet market. Forrester recently speculated that the tablet market is only 20% served, and the remaining 80% of the market – the mainstream – will choose their tablets and content differently. A good portion of this user base will be transitioning from print media without going through the step of web-based media, so there won’t be any perceived lack of flexibility.

    When it comes to attracting and holding our attention, magazines are typically one of a few or maybe a half-dozen options on the coffee table. Transitioning to become one option of dozens of options spread across numerous screens filled with distractions is an unsolved issue for media properties on tablets, and it’s part of the reason why digital doesn’t command the same ad rates. It’s hard to sell a front page ad when you’re app #10 on screen 5. Amazon and Facebook are betting that customized tablet experiences will emerge. There is already a custom Facebook launcher, and Amazon is selling screen-based ads. It’s anticipated that more theme-based tablets might emerge, especially as the tablet costs drop below $100, e.g., a ‘Sports Illustrated Tablet’. These tablets will reestablish the front page ad by making the media property the main event and making the other apps secondary. This kind of tablet model is unlikely to appeal to the technical crowd, who prefer to manage their own tablet experiences, but it may give the non-technical mainstream a reason to acquire a tablet.

    So… I think it’s still too early to decide on the future of magazines on tablets.

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    1. Hmm, Mcbeese – according to Pew one in three americans own a tablet today (or did this summer) http://mashable.com/2013/06/10/pe-tablet-study-2013/ Wired Magazine has the perhaps most tech-savvy audience of all – digital subscription still only accounts for a little more than 10 percent of total circulation….

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      1. If 1 in 3 Americans owned a tablet, that would be 110M tablets in America alone, with significantly more across the globe. I believe that number must include smartphones too, which I wasn’t counting because they are a very different content experience.

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        1. Oh, no, sure it’s not smartphones but tablets the survey is about. The only thing here being a little unclear is what is meant by “own”: are one in three saying they themselves own a tablet – or are they saying that their household owns one… I’d tend to go for the last interpretation.

          This also corresponds very nicely with the figures from Denmark, Europe. Here 44 % of households are found to own a tablet. (In Danish: http://memit.com/23732_smartphones-og-tablets-stadig-mere-udbredte-blandt-danskere)

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