To “Appify” Old Media, We Need a New Approach

The publishing industry is keeping its formerly inky fingers crossed that mobile devices, including the seemingly ubiquitous iPad, will save its behind. With the mobile market still in its infancy, it’s a tad early to be calling definitive trends, but there is one interesting tendency underway that may endure long-term — and that is the “appification” of media content.

This “appification” is being driven by one question — what is it that the audience wants? And the answer resoundingly is this: don’t just replicate the brand, give us something different. In fact, according to a recent study by Mediavest, people typically rank magazine apps as way down on their list of wants. Which is why, if media companies are banking on mobile, they need to be thinking way, way outside of the box. And while we are starting to see that some are –- most could still use a healthy dose of Red Bull to get the creative juices going. For publishers this means knowing and anticipating audience needs, having a thorough understanding of all available content, including content from public databases, and having a nimble infrastructure that allows disparate types of content to be “mashed together.”

Apps People Covet

I asked my friend Rick Treese, CTO of, what his favorite app (of the moment) was — and he said, BeBuzz. BeBuzz lets you assign LED colors or specific vibration patterns to virtually anything on your phone — from calendar appointments, to calls, to SMS messages. “I can just glance down at the blinking light or note the vibration pattern and know what is happening without being rude and continually picking up my phone,” said Treese. I also asked Rose Southard, vice president of technology, Putnam Media, what her favorite apps were — and she listed three including SplashID, a database for all those passwords. Okay, that is just a dataset of two, still the point is, people want apps that are useful! So what can magazines do to provide utility in an engaging way?

The Medium Is the Message

Users want apps that are easy to use, solve immediate problems and offer more — and sometimes even less — than what is available in any other medium. What can be forgiven by people who are sitting at large screens using keyboards with all the time in the world, will be untenable to those standing on the precipice of decision making with fat thumbs.

In the B2B space that means creating apps that embed themselves into the entire content chain of their readership. At the American Institute of Physics (AIP), which publishes 13 publications and 10 journals, plans are to let its tech-savvy readers access and retrieve only the most pertinent content — as determined by readers. “Our readers may be in situations where they only want the answer — not to read through 15 pages of a PDF,” explained James Wonder, director, emerging technology, AIP.

On the consumer side, companies like Conde Nast are creating apps that focus on only a department within a brand, such as Glamour’s Dos & Donts, or that offer a slimmed down version of its online-only title Epicurious. The Epi app (free) lets readers access recipes and create a shopping list, which comes in handy when you are standing in the grocery store trying to remember how much bittersweet chocolate goes into the Chocolate-Peanut Butter Terrine. And handy is the point.

Behind the Scenes

Presenting only the content that readers want to use is a challenge though. Because periodical content is largely unstructured — not available in tables, nor necessarily following any schema – so indexing the information is tough. Most magazines use PRISM, a flavor of xml, to help add structure to content. With so much of the content being math and scientific in nature, AIP is using MathML, semantic analysis and other variants to create metadata.

“Once everything is tagged properly, we will use MarkLogic [see disclosure] to index, search and deliver content on demand,” describes Wonder. “The tagging is the tough part.”

The end result will mean readers should be able to find snippets of information that reside in 7,500 word documents, “which is precisely what readers want if they are standing in the field looking for an answer,” says Wonder.

In both of these cases, content is not so much repurposed — but deconstructed and served, with simplification being key. For other periodicals, stepping outside of the construct of their content may also be beneficial. BeBuzz could have been the brainchild of a meeting or event planning magazine while SplashID could have been spawned by any computer mag. If you are all about woodworking, then think about creating an app that lets readers find supplies by geography. A daily newspaper may create an app that lets readers search and buy tickets for cultural events.

Monetization of Mobile

There will be three means of monetizing mobile: advertising, sponsorships, and fees for the apps themselves. The secret to monetizing apps will be in creating something that audiences want — and can’t get anywhere else and making it easy to use. As to how much these apps should cost — well that’s for another day.

Diane Burley is a veteran Internet executive, having put brands on the Internet since 1995. She is the Media Strategist for MarkLogic Corporation, a company that develops databases for unstructured information.

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