Tablet magazines: failure or future of publishing?
Late last year, Danish News Association’s chairman Jon Lund released an article “Why tablet magazines are a failure”, sparking much controversy in the digital world. His points were well argued and draw on areas that the world of digital publishing definitely needs to improve upon. But calling tablet magazines a complete failure after only three years since the first magazine app was created is a bit much isn’t it?
A former believer in the success of tablet magazines, Lund discusses how having access to so many other apps providing a constant stream of curated articles, such as Twitter and Flipboard, the magazine apps are easily forgotten. Even those that he pays monthly subscriptions for get lost amongst the favourite apps that deliver information for free.
In addition, Lund believes digital magazine success stories are rare, largely due to the inability to share content from inside an app via social media, leaving only readers with the app able to access the articles. Focusing on presenting their content openly in website form is what Lund sees as the only path of success for digital magazines. Lund points to low magazine circulation numbers to argue that tablet magazines are not making any real difference.
So they haven’t substantially impacted overall magazine circulation yet. But if hard copy books are becoming insignificant as the era of ebooks takes over then surely magazines are likely to follow suit. Videogame retailer Game Stop’s Game Informer magazine has the highest digital circulation with 38% of readership online, which is 3 million digital subscriptions. Lund claims this high circulation is due to their free online subscription that consumers get when they purchase Game Stop’s $14.99 loyalty cards, but maybe that is just a clever way to gain app readership.
According to Game Informer’s associate publisher, Rob Borm, more than 99% of the app readership has stemmed from the loyalty card. Borm says that, “While getting the same dependable and entertaining coverage of games as found in our print editions, our digital editions satisfy the techy side of a gamer’s appetite with embedded videos, animations and rich screen shot players.”
Similarly, Men’s Health magazine links to workout videos that readers can access on the app. This is proving a successful technique as their digital following was up 51% at the end of 2013 from 2012. Other upmarket men’s lifestyle magazines are also showing a strong movement towards apps according to The Professional Publishers Association (PPA).
As well as Men’s Health, titles such as GQ, The Economist and Esquire are in the PPA’s top ten along with Glamour and Good Housekeeping, showing that a variety of audiences are slowly warming to digital. Though the original hard copy formats are still outselling the digital ones, it will only be a matter of time before it is the other way around. Publishers with a longer history in digital, such as Future Publishing, are able to sustain several digital-only titles, because they pick their audiences carefully and target their marketing well.
In response to Lund, Mag+ wrote an article saying that digital format can and will be the future of publishing, once the industry completely embraces the full potential of the medium. They argued that saying tablet magazines are a failure now is like “claiming your kid is not college material because he did not walk at nine months”.
It’s true that there have been a couple of failures along the way. News Corp’s The Daily was one of the first publications to experiment with the digital format. It achieved 100,000 subscribers but was overall unsuccessful. The content was good, as was the design, however it was exactly the same as a print newspaper – except that it wasn’t on paper. It wasn’t interactive, nor was it social or current. So understandably people did not want to pay for news they could get elsewhere for free.
Readers don’t want to have to download and pay for information that could be found on the internet already. Especially when they don’t get anything physical to show for their money. Magazine experience is what sells so digital publishers need to get creative. There are endless opportunities to craft experiences with magazine apps compared to print.
The key is to include the reader. Give them something to do as well as something to read. Interactive advertising, click-to-buy shopping catalogues (something Wired magazine has already included in their app), videos and audio are just examples of ways digital magazines can truly capture the essence of their brand.
Apps give readers the ability to store dozens of publications on their tablets or phone – a dream come true for minimalists. And the convenience of having all your favourite copies with you at all times without the excess weight is another appealing factor. An article can be brought up for reading with just a tap instead of riffling one-handed through pages while trying focus on not falling over on the bus.
I suppose Lund is right that the biggest strike against app publications is their lack of social connectivity. App readers cannot easily share, link or grab content from inside the app, and the content isn’t always accessible on Google. But by being shut off from the rest of the internet, the app has the ability to draw the reader into the publication and away from other distractions. A reader of an online article is likely to be a skim-reader of several different sites at once, whereas an app encourages readers to take their time, savour the experience of reading, rather than rush through it.
It needs time to be perfected, but it is the publishers who take the time to be creative and give their readers something to look forward to that will be successful over time. The groundwork is being laid by a few leading innovators and it will only be a matter of time before magazines are changed forever.