Magazine Smartphone Apps Are Being Brought Back From the Dead

Free content makeovers may be the way to go

Not so long ago, magazine publishers were flooding the market with smartphone apps. But a browse through the Apple App Store reveals dozens of magazine-branded apps languishing in a sort of purgatory—still downloadable, but free of any update going back to Obama’s first term. 

“A lot of publishers jumped on the app bandwagon early on when it was a requirement and their senior management said, ‘We have to have an app,’” said Harry Kargman, CEO of Kargo, a mobile company that works with publishers including Hearst, Rodale and Meredith. “Now that the dust has settled, it’s more about having a balanced approach that will yield the most ad impressions to actually build the business.”

Today, those impressions are found not in apps but on the mobile Web. More than 40 percent of traffic to The Atlantic now comes via mobile, and that’s expected to rise to 50 percent by year’s end, said Kimberly Lau, vp, gm of The Atlantic Digital.

Kargo said other publishers have seen similar numbers.

Still, monetizing those sites remains a challenge. Advertisers continue to be reluctant to invest in a medium that doesn’t offer the same kinds of measurable results as TV or print ads. What’s more, for the most part, mobile ads remain a less-than-desirable user experience.

Publishers are experimenting with ways to make those ads better, by way of sponsored skins, full-screen pre-roll and interstitial ads, and, of course, native units like the KY-branded custom content channel Kargo developed for Shape magazine. And companies like Google and Moat have introduced analytics tools to help marketers better measure mobile ad results.

Meanwhile, a new breed of app is going the freemium route.

Time Inc., an early adopter of the model, offers several apps that let users access a top layer of content for free but requires them to shell out for a deeper dive. People CelebWatch, at 99 cents per month, lets the user access exclusive content and track favorite celebs. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit app, at $7.99, offers features like 360-degree views of the models.

“If you offer content that consumers can get elsewhere, [they won’t pay for it],” said Time Inc. evp and chief technology officer Colin Bodell. “On the other hand, if it’s unique material that they want to engage with, then it becomes quite the contrary. You have to establish a value proposition.”

Other publishers are following suit. Hearst is in the early stages of developing its own freemium products, said Troy Young, president of Hearst Magazines Digital Media. With those, and recent developments at Facebook and Google that will finally make those Web-to-app connections possible, Young said, “I think [the app space] is actually getting more interesting, not less.”