Who Killed the Magazine App?

97% of Newsstand apps are now free

The Association of Magazine Media (MPA), the magazine publishers trade group, this month reported some seemingly encouraging results for an industry that’s become all too used to bad news.

While print advertising—still by far the lifeblood of the magazine business—continues to contract, ad units in magazine tablet editions have soared 22 percent so far this year versus last.

It would appear reassuring for publishers desperate to grow their businesses beyond the core yet shrinking print product. But the fact is that many of those tablet ad units are merely pickups from print—meaning that advertisers paid not a nickel for them.

While the tablet has dominated conversations inside the halls of publishers and at industry gatherings like this week’s American Magazine Conference in New York—and may well still represent the future—it has not turned out to be the savior the industry had hoped for. It says something that the tablet isn’t even on the agenda at the publishers convention this time around. Meanwhile, many of the industry’s most fervent tablet evangelists have moved on from their pulpits—among them, Meredith Corp.’s chief digital officer Liz Schimel, now with Condé Nast China; Time Inc.’s Terry McDonell, who stepped down as group editor for sports; Daniel Bernard, The Wall Street Journal’s original app architect, now at Time Inc.; and Scott Dadich, Condé Nast’s tablet czar, now editor of Wired.

Three years after Apple unveiled the iPad and revolutionized the way consumers interact with content, tablets still account for a tiny share of magazine readership—just 3.3 percent of total circulation. Not taking into account the top-selling digital title, Game Informer, which boasts nearly 3 million digital copies, the number slips to 2.3 percent.

The problem isn’t the device itself. Tablet sales are still growing at a brisk clip. By 2017, tablet users are projected to number 160.7 million, or about half the population, up from 128 million this year, reports eMarketer.

And consumers who do opt to read magazines on a tablet apparently love the experience. Publishers’ internal research indicates that the time readers spend with tablet versions is comparable to print. This, even though digital magazines, like print, still must compete with other media for consumers’ attention. Boston-based research firm Mequoda found that magazine reading ranked 11th in daily activities on the iPad, with 6 percent of tablet users doing so—far down the list from such activities as searching the Web (65 percent), going on Facebook (44 percent) and playing games (43 percent).

Publishers falling short of commanding consumers’ attention is not for want of trying—magazines have aggressively marketed their digital editions, to be sure. However, a number of obstacles seem to be just as aggressively working against the success of the tablet magazine.

The infrastructure for buying apps is one persistent problem. Maddeningly, app marketplaces don’t make it easy to find digital magazines, subscribe to them or gift them to others. And once a reader does go to buy an app, the download time can be a turn-off. Even Next Issue Media, the magazine consortium-backed e-reading platform, doesn’t make the process so smooth, requiring users to sign up online before downloading a digital issue of the publication.

The difficulty in buying digital editions has hampered the industry’s growth, affirms the MPA’s president and CEO Mary Berner. “What we’ve seen in tablets is, once a consumer has a magazine, there’s a high level of engagement,” she says. “So how do you remove the friction to buying something and make the experience better?”

Then, there’s the design—or lack thereof.

The tablet became a phenomenon in large part because of its lush, interactive elements. But when it comes to magazine apps, not only do the ads tend to replicate print, so does editorial content. For the large part, magazines are still cranking out plain-vanilla apps that feature little in the way of the bells and whistles that the devices offer and that consumers crave. Mequoda found that the most common complaint among digital magazine readers, in fact, is that digital versions offer nothing special or interactive.

There’s a good reason publishers have not been more innovative—they are encouraged not to be.

The Alliance for Audited Media (formerly the Audit Bureau of Circulations), the gatekeeper of magazine sales data, actually encourages the replica model by requiring that digital magazines include, at a minimum, the same editorial content as print editions if they’re to be counted as part of a title’s total paid circulation. Because ads are sold against that total paid circ number, nearly all magazines follow the AAM’s strictures.

It is a frustrating predicament for consumers—and also for advertisers.

According to one media buyer who does business with major magazine publishers and did not want to be identified for this story, the print-to-tablet model leaves much to be desired. “Ads can appear differently in terms of orientation, position, URL activation on some devices but not others, etc. Given the inconsistency among publishers and titles within their portfolios on pricing, forms, process and metrics, it has been a challenge to develop an overarching tablet magazine strategy for our clients,” says the buyer.

And yet, with such relatively low readership numbers, there’s little motivation for advertisers to invest in specially tailored ads for digital editions—which is why so many digital ads simply replicate print ads and are a free add-on to print.

Naturally, publishers simply cannot justify the expense of creating apps for the hodgepodge of different devices in the marketplace. While they may create an app for the iPad, the market leader, versions for other devices tend to be bland replicas.

“What most magazines are doing today isn’t much more advanced than what they were doing in 2010,” says Joe McCambley, co-founder and creative director of The Wonderfactory, a digital media and advertising design company. “Magazines got things off the ground, and then everything came to a screeching halt.”

But not for all publishers.

The Atlantic, for one, opts to not include its digital edition in total paid circ so that it can maintain more flexibility in the design and content of its app.

“If people are trying to keep their rate base, that’s going to stifle innovation,” says M. Scott Havens, president of The Atlantic. “We decided we’re not worried about the rate base—we want to create a better reading experience, and we’ll monetize it with advertising.” The Atlantic is in the enviable position of meeting its circ promise to advertisers independent of digital sales, and of earning as much revenue from its digital products as print. (The Atlantic’s average total print circulation is 477,990; the magazine would not divulge digital sales.)

The Atlantic is one of the magazines that makes its content available via Flipboard—an innovative app that represents both the promise of and the challenge for digital magazines. With 90 million users, the popular aggregator app bills itself as a way for magazines to put their content before potential subscribers. But some titles, including Condé Nast’s Wired and The New Yorker, have shunned Flipboard over concerns it is a replacement for rather than a driver to their brands. Even publishers that believe they need a presence on the app have expressed reservations. “If there are 90 million people, you have to be there,” The Atlantic’s Havens points out, while admitting he has no way of knowing whether his magazine gets any actual subscribers via Flipboard.

Despite the pitfalls, there are encouraging developments on the digital magazine front.

Wired is enhancing its November iPad edition through a deal with MasterCard that will let readers shop from its pages without leaving the app.

Hearst is rolling out a feature allowing its app content to be more sharable on social media and a universal design letting it publish one time across various devices. “It’s a little bit maddening” to have to approach devices one by one, said Chris Wilkes, vp of Hearst’s App Lab, “and it certainly isn’t scalable.”

Both Hearst’s Esquire and The Atlantic have introduced weekly apps that provide a way for them to connect with consumers outside the magazines’ regular publishing cycles. Such apps could be a way for magazines to get around the discovery (and rediscovery) problem.

“You have so many choices,” Havens says. “You’ve seen the data on the number of apps people download and the number people actually open every day. And when they open, they’re probably opening [The New York] Times and [The Wall Street] Journal more often than they’re going to The Atlantic.”

A similar tactic has worked for New York magazine—like The Atlantic, far ahead of the rest of the industry when it comes to growing the digital business.

When it relaunched its app last spring, New York blended its weekly content with daily updates to encourage repeat visits. In the span of just a few months, New York saw users of its app return more often to the app during the week.

Given that consumers open so few apps on a regular basis, New York saw the imperative of keeping its content fresh. “If you’re only in the game once a month, the chance people are going to put you in their diet every single day are relatively low,” explains Michael Silberman, the magazine’s digital gm. New York also believes its “freemium” approach—giving consumers immediate access to content rather than making them buy before trying, as other apps require—has encouraged repeat visits and purchases. (New York’s app sales of 12,000 are still dwarfed by the 18 million monthly unique visitors to NYmag.com and its other sites, however.)

While tablet sales are still through the roof, how consumers are using the devices could spell still more bad news for publishers. Tablet users spent 66 minutes per app per month as of this past June, down from 80 minutes in January, according to Flurry. And while we love our mobile devices more than ever, apparently we’re more drawn to the smaller screen. In the same period, time spent on iPhone Newsstand applications increased to 20 minutes from 11 per app per month.

Then, there’s the issue of giving away the product for free. Magazine publishers, seen as having for so long failed to take full advantage of all the Web has to offer, heralded the tablet as a digital do-over of sorts, an opportunity not only to showcase the kind of content they’ve always excelled at via a machine seemingly meant for the medium, but also to persuade consumers that content was worth paying for. And yet with the tablet, as with the Web, the trend has continued toward content that’s gratis—and that practice is accelerating. Ninety-seven percent of iPad Newsstand apps were free to download this year, up from 73 percent in 2011, according to Flurry. (While it's true that many magazines require a purchase after a free download—Adobe data supplied by MPA show 22 percent of magazine apps are free, with the rest sold as single copies, digital subs and print/digital bundles—few are generating significant money from apps.)

The tablet may still represent great promise for magazines. But so far, it’s a promise nowhere near being fulfilled.