Why tablet magazines are a failure

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.

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