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What next for digital editions?

In publishing companies over the last twelve months, there has been a noticeable shift towards reducing the costs of the creation and distribution of digital editions. David Hicks takes a look at the potential reasons behind this move in a marketplace that was deemed to be the saviour of publishing five years ago.

By David Hicks

The Launch of the iPad

27 January 2010: The arrival of the iPad, launched by Steve Jobs and Apple. It was a revolutionary device, for browsing the web, reading and sending email, enjoying photos, videos, music, games, and reading e-books and magazines. Jobs was so proud of his creation, “The iPad creates an entirely new category of devices that will connect users with their apps and content in a much more intimate, intuitive way than ever before”.

Ahead of the game, WIRED magazine in the US worked with Adobe to create the first consumer iPad magazine. Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of WIRED stated, “The tablet is our opportunity to make the WIRED we always dreamed of. It has all the visual impact of paper, enhanced by interactive elements like video and animated infographics.”

WIRED on iPad was ground-breaking in its time, and it created an exciting buzz across the publishing world, with over 100,000 downloads initially, although this dropped to under 30,000 within a few months. Several magazines followed, from the US - Time, People, Popular Science; from the UK, consumer technology magazine T3, Wallpaper, and soon after, Project magazine was unleashed by Richard Branson, to be sold for the price of “an expensive cup of coffee (2.99 per issue)”.

Most consumer titles followed these pioneers into the App Store, most as print replica edition apps, but a few took a much more interactive route. Designers were now inspired to create for something other than paper. There were hotspots, video, swipeable galleries, and navigation menus to help the user engage with the content. It was a wild west of digital design, and a great time for designers to learn something new.

Teething Problems

Frustratingly for many readers, magazine apps were fraught with technical ‘bugs’. Customers complained of oversized downloads, slow app performance, sign-in problems, device errors and crashes. Few teams had the right customer services or technical nous in place to deal with the masses of iTunes complaints and negative reviews. First impressions for most readers weren’t great - and the market never really recovered from this.

The Advertising Challenge

In 2011, Apple invited developers to integrate iTunes subscriptions into their apps. For some titles, this was a fast route to the top of the grossing sales charts, and the competition to appear at number one was fierce. In 2012, digital plus print subscription entitlement options were included - although this never turned out to be the bonus many publishers were hoping for. Readers found storefronts confusing and badly signposted, making purchases, signing-in and downloading entitled editions a technically challenging and frustrating prospect.

From a commercial perspective, profit margins were narrow to begin with, and additional advertising revenue wasn’t giving commercial teams the boost they needed. Ad agencies maintained a cautious approach towards download numbers, engagement and dwell time. And, although the top-selling monthly editions in the UK were shifting between 5k and 15k downloads, the most reliable advertisers stayed away.

Having said that, there were some impressive campaigns across many magazine apps. Brands including Jaguar, Panasonic, Toyota and Renault all made significant investments in digital advertising during this period.

Apple vs Android

After a period of excitement over the iPad launch, the next challenge was to launch equally engaging Android editions into Google Play, the main rival to Apple’s App Store. This was no easy feat, as there were a multitude of devices, screen sizes and operating systems. Add to that an Amazon Kindle edition, and that’s a lot of extra effort! Publishing teams had to work out a way of getting their issues onto all devices by creating separate workflows for digital magazines, with extra staff - some employed up to four designers to create digital editions. As positive as this sounds, the resource required was not going to increase margins unless in-app purchases were significantly greater.

For the majority, the cost of making an Android version was a fruitless exercise, and publishers now mainly sell replica editions via Google Newsstand, aside from a hardy few…

Going Mobile

Another must-have for publishers is mobile-compatible editions. Which means creating an alternative product for the smaller screen using the same editorial. Only a handful of titles tried this initially, and some have now reverted to replica editions. Mobile remains an untapped opportunity for most titles, but we are starting to see much improved mobile products launching - particularly from publishers who use responsive HTML methods in their workflow. Some good examples of mobile editions include British Vogue, New Scientist and Glamour.

If you take a look at the App Store grossing charts however, the majority of titles are replica editions, not exactly ground-breaking experiences for people accustomed to Facebook and Snapchat, but the readers do like the simplicity.

Numbers game

Back in 2012, the UK’s Audit Bureau of Circulations allowed publishers to include (albeit separate) digital edition numbers in their reports. ABC considered that these editions were “sufficiently similar to the print product to be represented on the same certificate”. Download numbers weren’t huge by print or web standards - but this was a positive growth period, and many believed digital magazines remained ‘the future’ for publishing.

Move forward to 2015 and publishers could now combine digital and print edition circulation figures. The top-selling editions included The Economist (70,953), Top Gear (14,562), and Empire (11,433). The Economist on mobile grew considerably in 2015/16, with their excellent digital edition and subscription offering, and their strategy for enticing existing and new customers appears unrivalled. Additionally, they have launched an innovative news app, Economist Espresso, which has been a resounding success in converting new readers into subscribers.

The failure of Newsstand

In 2015, Apple’s Newsstand store for magazines was closed down, and all apps were merged back into the App Store within a ‘news and magazines’ category. Although initially responsible in 2012 for driving solid revenues, alongside spectacular app download figures, and widely raising awareness for the promoted titles, Apple Newsstand was largely ineffective for those niche titles that needed additional marketing support amongst the millions of apps, and - worst of all - it was woeful in discoverability terms.

The demise of Newsstand coincided with the launch of the free Apple News app - which is very similar to the pioneering Flipboard app. In Apple’s press release, they hailed Apple News as “a reading experience that combines the rich, immersive design of a print magazine with the interactivity of digital media”. Installed on every device that upgrades to iOS9, Apple News is a different proposition to the Newsstand experience, and offers readers a regular flow of new articles based on their preferences. A large selection of titles are represented, its innovative and feels fresh, with superfast delivery, and isn’t peppered with advertising, yet. On that note, Apple News publishers keep 100% of the revenue from advertising they sell themselves, or 70% if they opt to have Apple’s iAd platform sell ads for them.

I’m not yet convinced about the revenue-earning aspect of Apple News. Plus, it’s another app for users to formulate a habit of using. And that’s always been the developer’s eternal problem. Can you get your app onto a user’s home screen? It’s a privilege, a great opportunity, and a massive challenge.

Platform Publishing

In May 2015, Facebook launched Instant Articles which included features requested by a selection of publishers. High on the list were integration with Google Analytics, ComScore and Omniture for analytical data capture, customisable look and feel for branding, native ads and video advertising. Delivery is ten times faster than a standard mobile web article, it’s available on all devices and the user experience is well considered.

Add the 1.59 billion Facebook users to those who regularly use Snapchat (100m), Instagram (400m), Pinterest (100m) and Twitter (320m), and there is so much potential for platform publishing like this. It’s no wonder digital magazines are low on the priority list for publishers.

What Happens Next?

Are we seeing a slow death of digital magazines as individual apps? I would say a definite ‘yes’. However, crafted magazine stories, distributed in a new format, into niche markets and regions, has huge potential looking into 2017 and beyond. The major platforms and advertisers require strong in-depth editorial, particularly video, and that demand will not go away anytime soon. Cosmopolitan on Snapchat has proved it can be done…

While publishers have remained faithful to circulation reporting guidelines, and persisted with digital editions as apps, we now need to break away from making digital products in a ‘magazine format’ (ie: cover to cover). Content creators should be distributing stories – long and short form, including rich media - via their chosen platforms, as well as into article-based apps, continuously via social, online and email. This should all be supported by advertisers and sponsors, and, ideally, your subscribers, via a well thought out and marketed paywall or membership model.

You need to turn your ‘magazine’ content into individually available stories, with easier access to sampling and purchase information, shareable via social media, and readable on all devices, for better value than a £3.99 PDF.

With the platforms stealing users’ attention from individual apps, you have to be willing to cover all bases, including maintaining the quality of your die-hard print issue. Be flexible and ready to learn and change direction when the readers do. It doesn’t mean your editorial teams relinquish control – it’s quite the opposite; you need to be agile and open to new iterative methods and constant change. It requires continual investment in user testing, training, production processes and marketing.

I am positive that readers and advertisers will come, if you build the right products with the medium in mind. The good news is, some publishers are already on their way.