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If an App Is Your Content Strategy, You Are Doomed

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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 (s aapl) — 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 (s nws)). 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 (s adbe)  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 (s goog)? 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.

Related GigaOM Pro content (sub req’d):

Post and thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user Giuseppe Bognanni

22 Responses to “If an App Is Your Content Strategy, You Are Doomed”

  1. Excellent Writing. We did a few tests at CTNDIGITAL and found the same, Magazine property specific tests. WIRED and such presented in a manner where cognitive mapping of article placement ( left-right-up-down use-case for task = find and then move forward and then re-acquire content ) was unsuccessful in more than half the focus group. They preferred the physical edition or a page flipper and found their way back to content 3-5x faster. They had problems with price-point. Tours of current standard available iPad digital editions resulted in some value assessments that ran unfavorable, to our dismay and surprise the bell curve peak was skewed negative. We had planned to evaluate touch-interaction paradigm preferences and ended up with the fundamental problems you describe instead.

    I will just send every one a link to your article which sums up the top of the problem pile nicely.

  2. Zineo interested me for a long time but didn’t make sense until my iPad. Smithsonian and Car And Driver subs at half or less. See everything in mag with text option for easy reading plus clips or extra pics. Reading at night without turning on lights to bother wife. Very pleased!

    Also happy with Economist that works about the same. Probably will go without the print version when sub up.

    From iPad.

  3. Sandeep

    I completely agree with the post, and some very relevant points. The problem is with this hype of social media and apps, just fews days back I saw an article on how spends on conventional online marketing always yield better returns than social media spends. And I am not against social media spends, but all with ROI rather than excitement of being on Facebook in form of an app, FB page apps or CPC advertising. The app business on tablets and mobile platforms is the same, without understanding everyone just wants to jump on the bandwagon, as if it is a part of their curriculum. These are people who want to be associated with the newest things and want to drive only the new and “sexy” part of marketing and business. Apps are sexy, in terms of presentation and on a tablet, oh wow! but real businesses need real ROI, I guess I meet some of these new age marketers and businessmen who just want to copy or get on to the latest thing they have seen. And at some level I blame the advertising agencies and some part of media fraternity for it, pushing their clients into app strategy. Everyone is asking, what is your app strategy, more as a bus which we shouldn’t miss, rather than where does it take us.

  4. P. Douglas

    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

  5. 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

    • 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. Jimmyzatl

    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