Are ‘Lean-Back’ Apps the Way to Go?

Roy Greenslade at The Guardian recently conducted an interview with Andrew Rashbass, the “chief suit” of The Economist. As the chief executive, Rashbass’ commercial story “turns out to be more of a digital story,” even with their impressive print circulation numbers.

Rashbass draws a distinction between the “lean-back, immersive, ritual pleasure” that comes from reading The Economist in print, to the “lean-forward, interactive” way that people use the website. He was previously in charge of The Economist’s website, and its own research found that readers were eager to build a community and have discussions on the web.

But when e-readers and tablets came about, The Economist saw them as a “lean-back” version of digital, or “lean-back 2.0” as Rashbass called it. They decided against a highly interactive app for one that can provide “ritual pleasure.” In the app, you can scroll through magazine covers and pick one to download. Once downloaded (and cached), you can flip through the pages, or choose a topic or region to browse. It comes with an audio button for listening to articles and the most interactive parts are the ads.

This approach reflects a broader trend for publishers, something Lucia Moses wrote about at Adweek. A couple notable publishers cited their own research, which found that consumers are not so enlivened with all the bells and whistles. Of course there is dispute in the publishing world about the importance of the oft-expensive enhancements, but such questions will be settled as tablet usage continues to evolve. The new findings already challenge previous assessments that advocated for magazine interactivity on tablets.

So far, research has shown that consumers are receptive to interactive advertising. In this sense, The Economist’s app is astute: interactivity can make ads more effective, while keeping the reading experience a “lean-back” one. They no doubt save a lot of money on app development without all the interactivity, helping their steadily increasing operating profit.

What do you think? Should magazine reading on a tablet be a “lean-back” one? Or do you want the interactivity that print can’t provide?