Are Digital Magazine Apps A Stepping-Stone to Paid Content?
The conventional wisdom on digital magazines is that they’re dead, at least as a custom format, separate from print and enhanced for the tablet or phone.
Apple often gets the blame - killing Newsstand killed digital magazines. But the shuttering of Apple’s standalone magazine space, as awful as it always was, was a symptom not a cause. Excessive production costs and audience apathy killed the generation of magazine apps inspired by the launch of the iPad.
I got my first glimpse of what was in store for digital magazine apps in 2015 at a ‘How to create a successful digital magazine’ evening course I hosted in London. Conde Nast digital designer Liam Keating dedicated his 30-minute slot to tips on radically streamlining workflow. Liam went on to spend the last days of his tenure at Conde Nast successfully automating custom design out of digital magazines and now works as a designer for Volvo in Sweden.
It’s easy to see the templating of digital editions as the beginning of the end – sophisticated magazine apps became unevolved digital replicas or responsive repurposing websites. But there are signs of life at the replica end of the digital magazine spectrum.
Newsstand app Readly is reporting an 80% increase in UK usage last year; the number of issues read on its UK platform grew from under 7 million in 2016 to 13 million in 2017. Much of the growth is down to a TV campaign that tripled the firm’s subscriber base, but readers are paying about $11 to spend an average of 7 hours a month with the app.
In a paid-content context, the numbers are interesting and Readly’s paid-user growth alongside Apple’s rumored subscription plans for Texture started me thinking. If flat replicas and repurposed content attract paying customers, would a return to fully functioned magazine apps make sense in the post-platform drive for paid content?
Improve User Experience to Nurture Paid Users
While they deliver some revenue and maybe some potential to upsell, all-you-can-read newsstand subscriptions don’t typically support the direct reader relationships that drive paid-content success. The most exciting developments on that front are taking place away from the world of PDF conversion with a growing number of news publishers that are revisiting bespoke app development.
One of the key contributions to The New York Times paid content success is its complementary apps. Of the almost 140,000 new digital-only subscribers the paper posted in Q1 2018, 40,000 were said to have come for cooking and crossword apps.
Across the pond, The Guardian has upgraded its premium app as the first part of a strategy to move free readers to paid. The app redesign focuses on a scrolling news feed called Live and a longform format called Discover. The changes are designed to provide a “superior user experience,” laying the foundations for a revenue layer separate from The Guardian’s open-access website.
“We will be thinking about how we get people to move from being just web users into the app and then maybe moving them on to becoming premium app users,” Caspar Llewellyn Smith, editor of The Guardian’s digital platforms, said in a May interview.
News weekly The Economist has also announced an app upgrade for paying subscribers, and again it’s about improving user experience for paying customers. The first update to its mobile app since it launched on the iPad in 2010 took 10 developers nine months to build and introduces a “Daily Picks” section that helps readers discover content. The curated list is the first thing people see when they open the app and it draws in content from The Economist Weekly edition, Economist.com and Espresso, The Economist’s daily short-takes app.
The driver for the project was a desire to give subscribers “the best possible experience of The Economist,” according to product manager Richard Holden. Better UX also aligns with a need to boost renewals, according to the Economist’s head of product Denise Law. “People who engage with digital products are more likely to re-engage with their subscription,” she explained at the time of the app launch.
Develop Something Different
In a well-timed post on his blog last week, Seth Godin inadvertently outlined the problems digital magazines have faced in the past. “Digital analogs only work when they’re better and different, not when they’re almost the same,” wrote Godin.
Back in 2016 The Times and Sunday Times invested in a redesign of their mobile apps, moving to three daily editions and away from the rolling news used by most other news publishers online. That shift has been credited with bringing a 15% increase in subscribers over two years.
Alan Hunter, head of digital at The Times, has said that the editions are something different in a world swamped with commodity news said. “Our readers love the curated order, finite experience and editorial choice.”
The differentiation evident in the London Times’ approach is also present in the NYT’s crossword app, The Guardian’s Discover feature, and The Economist’s Daily Picks: Doing something “better and different” may be the key for magazine publishers thinking of revisiting digital magazine apps.
For digital magazines that may mean publishing on a new schedule like the Times, more flexible than daily print, but not as overwhelming as a rolling news feed. Or introducing completely new formats like The Economist’s daily short-takes. Or it could be delivering personalization.
Many publishers have leveraged social reach to build their subscription business, but the game is changing. “While it’s still important to get our brand across as many channels as possible, reach is not a wise game to play in the long term. We need to serve customers with great product experiences,” said the Economist’s Law.
If digital magazine apps have a place in paid-content strategy, their success or failure will depend on the value readers perceive in the product. App technology, and some developing web technology, gives publishers the opportunity to design differentiated, superior, user experiences. Investing again in apps will make sense if they deliver that value.
Peter Houston runs Flipping Pages Media, an independent consultancy and training firm, helping publishers build multi-platform success. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing and was formerly Editor-at-large for The Media Briefing. He now co-hosts the Media Voices Podcast, delivering a weekly take on the media news and guest interviews with senior players at a leading media organizations, from Facebook to Nieman Lab, The Economist to CNN.