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Magazines Pull Back on Tablet Bells and Whistles

Why it's back to basics for some publishers

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When the iPad launched, magazines rushed to shovel expensive rich-media features into their tablet editions. But now that they have to create editions for the new Kindle Fire and Nook Color and their ilk, some are downplaying the need for often-expensive enhancements.

Publishers say their research shows having a tricked-out app isn’t the highest priority. “The number one benefit is to have a great reading experience reading the tablet,” says Steve Sachs, executive vice president of consumer marketing and sales at Time Inc. “Interactive elements are valuable to [readers], but they’re a secondary benefit.”

Similarly, Hearst Corp. says its research found no meaningful difference in willingness to pay for magazine apps based on advanced elements.

“Those advanced elements are often more likely to be distracting, cause confusion, and occasionally irritate customers if the execution is not perfect,” says Chris Wilkes, the Hearst Magazines vice president in charge of its App Lab. One might expect readers of a magazine like Popular Mechanics to be more interested in enhanced content than readers of something like Good Housekeeping, but Wilkes says there wasn’t a significant difference.

Others warn, however, that it's a mistake to go plain vanilla.

“It’s more effort, it’s more expense, but it does bear out in engagement,” says Scott Dadich, executive director of digital magazine development at Condé Nast. “Something like a GQ, seeing models on a fashion shoot, or seeing the clothes move—there’s definitely value in that.”

Rebecca McPheters, president, McPheters & Co., says publishers are misguided in not recognizing the importance of enhancements. McPheters, whose iMonitor service rates apps, says high-scoring utilities like those from The New York Times, The New Yorker, Wired, and Martha Stewart Living are highly enhanced. “If you look at the apps that are pulling in the biggest amount of money, it’s the more sophisticated apps,” she says. “Our analysis showed people are seeking out the enriched experience.”

The problem for publishers is that customized, enriched experience can add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of developing each issue of a magazine. And as the market sorts itself out, some publishers have decided that they need to have a presence on as many devices as possible.

If publishers don’t want to enhance apps for readers, they may want to do it for the device maker. Matt Bean, associate vice president of mobile, social and emerging media at Rodale, points out that run-of-the-mill apps stand less chance of getting significant promotion in Apple’s App Store.

“There’s no question, the enhanced editions are being promoted more and the reviews are more favorable,” he says. “Apple wants to promote products that take advantage of the device capabilities.”