It's been two weeks since users started getting their hands on the Apple iPad, which seemed to present a good occasion for magazine editors to take stock of their digital efforts to date and assess what tablets can do for their products.
Editors confessed that the industry has made some big goofs in mapping out a Web strategy. But they also expressed hope that the iPad and other tablet devices could become a boon for print.
“[The Web] is a tough space; much of what’s out there is commoditized, and differentiation is rare,” said John Byrne, who until recently was editor of Businessweek.com, and is now founder of C-Change Media. He spoke on a panel at the American Society of Magazine Editors’ annual meeting on Tuesday.
Byrne spoke candidly of mistakes he believes Businesweek made, like failing to monetize its online audience to the fullest extent.
“Because we were so eager to get traffic, we failed to get critical information on our users,” he said. All the while, he said, Google “figured out how to kill us.”
The advent of tablets offers magazines a chance to rethink their approach to the Web and other digital platforms, attendees said.
There was general agreement on the need for magazines to make their free Web sites more distinctive so as not to undermine their efforts to charge for iPad versions.
The tack at People.com, for example, has been to serve content in ways that are different from what users will find in print, with the goal of getting them to return to the site several times a day, editor Mark Golin said.
“There is no magazine content online,” he asserted.
Similarly, the iPad presents a turning point for magazines to reclaim the ability to charge for editorial content or risk destroying business by giving it away their for free, said Byrne.
“It takes courage, but if you don’t do it now, you’re going to regret it,” he exhorted his fellow attendees.
Reflecting a shift from a traffic-building to an engagement-based strategy, several magazine executives shared their efforts to build strong user communities on their Web sites.
But as some testified, such attempts haven’t always gone as planned.
NationalGeographic.com hosts massive user-generated content, but the site has missed chances to create two-way conversations with its audience, said Rob Covey, svp, content and design there.
Only now is the site getting ready to establish a "comments" feature and a blog network, he said. “We’re running hard, but we missed a couple of years.” An effort to sell a book of users’ photos was another flop. “People stayed away in droves,” he said.
Executives on the business side, not surprisingly, expressed more optimism about the business opportunities for magazines on the iPad.
Bill Wackermann, a publishing director at Conde Nast, said that the tablet offers the best of all advertising worlds: a lush environment with sound, video and transactional abilities, so much so that Glamour, one of the titles he oversees, sold out eight ad spots on the iPad in two days.
And despite the noise from some advertiser corners that there’s little appetite to pay for ads on an unproven platform, that feeling apparently isn’t universal. Phil Cowdell, CEO, Mindshare North America, said his shop has asked clients to help foot the bill for iPad content development.
“A few are up for that because they understand they have to co-create the future,” he said.
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