Beyond the magazine replica: Publishers explore new types of content-driven apps
Publishers are evolving their app strategies beyond basic magazine replicas, experimenting with a variety of new formats and products that have the potential to create new mobile revenue streams.
The apps cut across a broad spectrum of features and content offerings but generally fall into one of three categories: utility app, special issue or content feed. Interviews and other commentary from a variety of consumer publishers – including Consumers Union, New York magazine, Hearst and Meredith – offer some insights into how publishers’ mobile app strategies are extending beyond print content.
Filling the idea pipeline
Most publishers will readily acknowledge that they are still in the very early stages of determining what type of content best lends itself to an app experience. One thing they quickly figured out: Smartphones offer a much different user experience than larger-screen tablet devices. Smartphones are very much utility-driven, with users often looking for specific information to help them complete an activity. Early research on tablets points to a lean-back reading experience that equates more with traditional magazine reading than with the task-driven Web.
“We look at each product as native to each device we’re going to use,” said Jerry Steinbrink, vice president of publishing for Consumer’s Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, which recently released its new Mobile Shopper iPhone app and is developing additional apps for the iPhone, iPad and Android environments. “We work very hard not to deliver a magazine-like experience in something that isn’t a magazine.”
Consumer Reports has the benefit of a rich trove of testing data that it can turn into apps for specific product categories or consumer experiences, such as buying a car (Steinbrink says to expect a smartphone app specifically for this task within 6-8 months).
“We have an enormous amount of data that we have never used because we couldn’t figure out how to package it,” said Steinbrink. “Because of the [mobile] form factor, we can develop niche products for enthusiasts – those who care deeply about tire wear on a Ford Cobra, for example, or people who are really hungry for data about kitchen appliances.”
Many publishers are tapping into the expertise of their editorial teams to identify popular content, topics or themes that could play well in the mobile space.
“Our app ideas typically come from our editors,” said John Loughlin, executive VP and general manager of Hearst Magazines, which continues to hone its apps strategy. “They look at the most popular columns or recurring features in their magazines and think about how those can be adapted to a smartphone or a tablet.”
A dose of consumer research
Publishers are also pairing editors’ suggestions with consumer research to ensure that a legitimate target audience awaits a new app.
“We did a lot of user segmentation and mapping to determine women’s passion points and their perceptions of relevance and value,” said Lauren Wiener, senior VP of interactive at Meredith. “We have been taking this information to our editors to power product development.”
For example, Meredith research showed that women care deeply about being great entertainers. So the company created Celebrate the Holidays with Better Homes and Gardens, a $3.99 iPad app that Wiener said provides “full-service execution of parties” – from recipes (down to the ingredient shopping level) to decoration ideas to music playlists.
Here’s an overview of the three main categories of “non-magazine” magazine apps, including examples of each.
Utility apps – what Hearst’s Loughlin calls “standalone consumer experiences” – offer tips or other information that help a user accomplish a task, be it shopping, cooking, traveling, working out or virtually any other daily activity.
Examples: Mobile Shopper (Consumer Reports), Gourmet Live (Conde Nast), Cosmo’s Sex Position of the Day (Hearst), Shape Flat Abs (Rodale), Golf Digest Tips (Conde Nast), Time Out New York.
Pricing: Some utility apps (Gourmet Live, Golf Digest Tips) are free, supported by advertising and sponsorships. Others range in pricing from 99 cents (Meredith’s iPlay and Learn) to $9.99 (Consumer Reports’ Mobile Shopper, Economist Group’s Which MBA?).
“Our brand is about telling people all the best things they can do in the city and how to take advantage of it,” said Marci Weisler, digital business director of Time Out North America, which released its free Time Out New York iPhone event-finder app in September. “That’s why the mobile app is very utilitarian — it’s about, I need this app right now to figure out where to go next.”
Theme-based collections of content are a no-brainer for publishers with deep archives – especially photographs or other rich media – or those that already produce buyers’ guides of products or services in their market. This content can be repackaged and enhanced for mobile, offering new options for monetizing existing content.
Examples: Life’s Wonders of the World Photography Book, Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, GQ’s Men of the Year, Golf Digest’s Hot List, Popular Science’s Tech Buyers’ Guide, Mac Life and Forbes Intelligent Investing.
Pricing: Ranges from free (most of the buyers’ guides, which are usually ad-supported) to $9.99 (Life’s photography book and other jazzed-up collections of photos or essays).
Several publishers have created apps that pull RSS feeds from their websites into a packaged app that delivers breaking news, videos, or blog content to users on the go. These apps are increasingly popular for sports, news and entertainment topics; Hearst’s LMK unit, for example, has released nearly 70 apps devoted to specific celebrities, sports stars or hot topics, from Alex Rodriguez to Zac Efron. But the feeds don’t have to be culture-driven; B2B publishers such as IDG have created feed-based apps to deliver vertical industry news.
Examples: Atlantic Wire, Sporting News, EW’s Must List, SI.com, Hearst / LMK.
Pricing: Generally free, with monetization through in-app advertising or via the website that app users connect to when they click a link. LMK is one exception, changing $1.99 for its topic-specific apps (which ironically often feature no original content from Hearst).
The Atlantic is about to become another exception; it is enhancing its free Atlantic Wire offering with a paid app called Atlantic Premium, which will bundle the company’s online content into a customizable daily feed. Scott Havens, The Atlantic’s VP of digital strategy and operations, believes that users will be willing to pay for the convenience of receiving custom feeds on their mobile devices – even if that content is freely available on the Web.
Some publishers are beginning to experiment with hybrid apps that combine magazine content with news feeds. New York Media last week launched an iPad version of New York magazine that does just that.
“We saw the iPad app as a great opportunity to combine the magazine-like experience offered by the iPad with the constantly updated content of NYMag.com,” said Michael Silberman, GM of NYMag.com. “Most publishers have focused on one or the other, so we saw a chance to innovate.”
Additional reporting by Ellie Behling