Mastering a three-screen approach to digital publishing

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Editors note: This article appears in the latest issue of Magazine World from the International Federation of the Periodical Press (FIPP), the global magazine association. Republished with permission.

Technology pundits have been proclaiming the “year of mobile” for the better part of a decade. But the rise in smartphones and e-reader devices signals a tipping point in the use of mobile devices – and the ways in which consumers access information online.

The penetration of mobile devices – particularly smartphones and larger e-readers – may be unprecedented from a technology adoption standpoint. AT&T announced that 3.2 million iPhones were activated in the second quarter of this year. Google claims that 160,000 Android phones are activated each day. Apple sold 3 million iPads in less than three months after the table device’s April 2010 release. Amazon recently unveiled its lower-priced, third-generation Kindle device – and quickly sold out of its existing inventory.

Morgan Stanley analyst Mary Meeker predicts that by 2013, more people will access the Internet through their phones than via their PCs. The combination of mobile devices and social media has shaken up publishing business models.

“We’re used to environments where we create content and interested parties seek us out and consume that content,” said Kit Gould, managing director of IDG UK, the UK division of the global technology trade publisher. “Now it’s reversed. We create content and push it out and it finds interested parties.”

A broad and connected strategy

These emerging digital platforms present compelling – and challenging – distribution options for magazine publishers making the transition from print to digital. 

“We can no longer determine the access point,” Gould said, referring to how users choose to access a publisher’s content. “You have to have a broad strategy that allows you to reach all platforms. And you have to be able to flip from one to the other.”

Recent research from Microsoft confirms this concept of a “connected experience,” in which consumers are using multiple devices to access information online. The Microsoft study, conducted among 1,200 U.S. consumers, found that 69 percent of “multi-screen” consumers – those that use a combination of computer, smart phone, TV and game console – said that being able to access related content across different screens “makes the content more useful and their media experience more relevant and informative.”

“Consumers who are actively engaged across multiple devices value experiences that are cohesive and connected across those screens,” said Whitney Cornell, senior marketing manager with Microsoft Advertising, which conducted the research with Wunderman, a WPP company.

Media companies – many of whom have spent the past decade figuring out the right business model for their brand’s website – now are addressing the far more complex challenge of delivering content to an audience across multiple screens: the PC-based Web, the smartphone, and the e-reader. Most publishers would acknowledge that they are still in the early stages of figuring out a coherent strategy around this multi-screen approach.

The new, new audience

Just as the Web gave publishers a chance to expand their print subscriber base, smartphones and e-readers offer yet another platform on which to broaden their audience.

“With every new device, we want to expand our audience,” said Romanus Otte, general manager of Welt Online, the digital arm of Axel Springer AG’s Welt Group. “We are winning new audiences with digital devices.”

The Economist Group has seen strong interest from existing readers who want to access Economist content on their mobile devices, particularly the iPhone and the iPad, said Oscar Grut, the Economist Group’s managing director of digital editions. But he also sees a significant opportunity to grow readership.

“We target our content at the intellectually curious,” he said. “They may not have come across our brand in print, or they may have an image of us that is outdated. Digital devices are a way for us to show those people that our content is relevant to them.”

Digital distribution has had a significant impact on audience development among B2B publishers as well. Many trade publishers built their print businesses around tightly controlled, narrow, qualified circulations that gave advertisers a clear picture of whomever they were targeting – IT professionals, building contractors, food-service managers, or some other niche audience.

Now, publishers such as IDG, the global technology trade publisher, attract millions of visitors to their websites, with a range of interests and backgrounds – and, increasingly, a range of devices from which they are accessing the IDG sites.

In search of better engagement

But while IDG has aggressively shifted its business model from print to digital – more than 60 percent of its revenue comes from digital, and a handful of its brands, including Computerworld UK and Techworld, are Web-only publications – Gould admits that the group’s mobile efforts are still “relatively embryonic.” Access to IDG’s consumer-oriented sites from mobile devices still accounts for only about 5 percent of overall traffic, though mobile users are growing at about 30 percent a month.

“We’re building large amounts of users, but I don’t see that we’ve found a way to really engage with them that’s different than what we offer on the Web,” he said. “One of the challenges is the uniqueness of the mobile platform – it’s much more direct and more personal. Having a direct relationship with the user is new territory for us.”

Publishers are relying on a variety of external and internal research to develop a better sense of how mobile users differ from their traditional Web audience. Welt Group, for example, found that mobile users have different peak usage periods: early in the morning and later in the evening. They do less browsing and are more interested in breaking news, sports, and other short-form nuggets, said Otte. The Welt Online portal attracts about 30 million visitors a month, with about 1.5 million of those visits coming from mobile devices.

The Microsoft study explored how consumers perceived the devices they use to access content. Sixty-seven percent of respondents viewed the computer an “informative” device, while 65 percent cited it as “productive” – the highest-scoring attributes for that device. The smartphone, by comparison, was viewed as being “cool” (61 percent), “stylish” (59 percent) and “trendsetting” (59 percent).

More like a magazine

While smartphone users are content “snackers,” the iPad and other e-reader devices introduce the potential for quite a different reading experience – one that closely resembles print.

The Economist’s Grut believes the iPad and other e-readers like the Kindle offer an opportunity to replicate the lean-back experience of the print magazine.

“The strong message we’re seeing is that people are using these devices in a completely different way than they use desktops,” he said. “We’re seeing increasing evidence of the enjoyment people derive from reading on these devices. For us it’s a complete departure from the old world of digital. It’s much more like print.”

Which plays right into the type of analytical, long-form journalism offered by the Economist. “The weekly Economist has been a ritual, immersive read that our readers prefer to consume in print,” said Grut. “Online is more for analysis, debate and discussion. Now, we’re seeing evidence that these immersive qualities of print can increasingly be delivered by digital devices.”

Welt Group’s Otte agrees that mobile devices provide a similar opportunity for newspaper publishers. “The people we are aiming at are people who love a product with a beginning and an end – not endless like the Internet,” he said. “We think there are a lot of people that are looking for the experience of reading newspapers as a product – a product that we can make even better on these devices.”

Paid content: There’s an app for that

The big question for publishers is, can they get users to pay for a better experience? While Web-based publishing grew as an advertising-supported medium, early mobile efforts are focused on getting users to pay for the convenience of accessing content on the go.

This consumer mindset presents perhaps the most acute challenge to publishers, many of whom have optimized their free web content for mobile devices but are also launching device-specific, paid apps.

Early returns indicate that apps do offer an opportunity for publishers to re-set expectations about paid content, particularly on the iPad.

PixelMags, which translates magazine PDFs into iPhone/iPad apps, recently reported a 235 percent increasein sales from its library for the four months following the iPad’s release. Conde Nast’s Wired magazine sold nearly 100,000 copies of its premiere, $4.99 iPad app, surpassing newsstand sales for the month of June. The $1.99 Popular Mechanics app was one of the top 25 paid iPad apps in Apple’s app store as of Aug. 3.

Publishers are taking a variety of approaches with their mobile models, offering free apps (usually a collection of news feeds or alerts), single-issue paid apps, or subscription models (which are still in their infancy as publishers seek to work around Apple’s control of customer information).

IDG UK sells three flavors of apps for its Macworld UK brand: a free “lite” version that offers daily news and reviews; a more complete app featuring additional topic-based feeds, priced at £2.99 but also incorporating ads; and a £9.99 “premium” version that is ad-free.

The Welt Group has been offering a free trial version of its Die Welt news app, which transitions after 30 days to a monthly subscription priced at €11.99. In July, the group released an international version of The Iconist, a version of its Sunday magazine designed exclusively for the iPad. The app is priced at US$5.99.

An emphasis on quality journalism

Otte admits to being both optimistic and skeptical about the paid app strategy. “It’s a very tough business,” he said. “Free content is always just one click away. It puts more pressure on us to deliver excellent journalism.”

Quality journalism is the concept behind the Economist’s ongoing paid content efforts. It is one of the few publications that has found some success in charging for its Web content. And it hopes to extend that approach to its forthcoming iPhone and iPad apps, which it plans to launch later this year.

“Our starting point is, we believe in charging appropriately for the content, regardless of medium,” said Grut. To be successful, he added, “we need to continue to invest in our journalism and our overall offerings.”

The goal of the new apps is to replicate the magazine experience while taking advantage of the devices’ unique features. “As closely as possible, we want it to feel like you’re reading the Economist in print,” said Grut. “But we’re also trying to make the most of the platforms on which it’s delivered. We can’t be blind to the opportunity these devices present in terms of user experience.”

Grut acknowledged the navigational constraints of presenting magazine content on the iPhone’s 3.5-inch screen. The iPad’s 9.7-inch, high-resolution display, on the other hand, offers more design possibilities, including multi-column layouts and, of course, more rich media presentation.

Grut did not disclose pricing for the forthcoming apps, but did acknowledge that advertising will play a role as well.

“If executed properly, these devices have a huge amount to offer to advertisers, especially if you get the immersive treatment right,” he said. “But the advertising dynamics will change. Advertising is still undefined for this medium.” An iPad app, he explained, may not support the same volume of advertising that a print magazine might include, because it will detract from the user experience.

Clearly, there’s much to sort out around mobile advertising strategies. Many publishers and agencies consider traditional online banners ineffective on smaller screens. But at the same time they see great potential in interactive ads that are more closely integrated with the content and tap into the personal nature of a mobile device.

Where to invest?

In the meantime, publishers are forced to measure their investments wisely. Some are looking to redesign their websites around HTML5, arguing that a mobile Web strategy that is device-agnostic guarantees the broadest reach for the least investment.

Others are picking their spots for app development, sifting through a wide variety of tools and services that range from free to tens of thousands of dollars.

“There is still very little revenue in the space. Ad agencies are still allocating minimal money to mobile,” said Gould. “We want to make sure we maximize investments in those areas.”

The key lies in defining the goals around mobile efforts in the context of a broader digital strategy.

“A lot of folks get caught up in the hype around mobile and fail to figure out what their goals are, and how to measure success against those goals,” Scott Suhy, CEO of app developer PointAbout, told eMediaVitals. Goals might include attracting new customers, getting more revenue from existing customers, or extending a brand.

While all roads likely read to a multi-screen approach to publishers, many are not ready yet to bet too much of their business on these newer, relatively unproven distribution platforms. While high-profile apps such as Wired, Time and Popular Science are generating a lot of interest, the majority of magazine publishers are likely to take a more measured approach.

“I’m nervous about putting too large a dependency on mobile,” said Gould. “We are definitely experimenting. Our job is to make sure we have the right products at the right time in the market. But we’re certainly not using the platform to its optimum potential.” Not yet, at least.

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