|Apple CEO Tim Cook says tech innovation is moving from PCs to tablets and smartphones. Slowly, magazine publishing is following. Speaking at a recent conference, Cook said there's a "sea change" taking place in the PC industry as development shifts from PCs to mobile devices. "But we're in the early innings of this game," he added.
Not too early for magazine publishers to start shifting resources toward their tablet strategies. A new study from NPD Group found that more than one-third of consumers are transitioning some of their content consumption from PCs to tablets and smartphones. Combine consumption and engagement trends with rapidly growing tablet sales - Apple shipped 23 million tablets in the fourth quarter alone, and lower-priced, 7-inch tablets are rapidly gaining share while creating a mass market - and the stage is set for a significant uptick in sales of digital content, including magazines.
Last week's magazine circulation report from the Alliance for Audited Media shows the gains digital editions are making - but also the untapped opportunity. Digital replica editions among the titles reporting to the AAM more than doubled over the second half of 2012 from a year earlier, accounting for nearly 8 million digital replicas. That number is still just 2.4 per cent of total circulation, however. And just 65 per cent of magazines in the AAM report reported digital circulation; several large titles did not, including Better Homes and Gardens, Barron's, AARP, TV Guide, and Time Inc's major titles such as Time, Sports Illustrated and Southern Living. This suggests even higher sales of digital editions.
Innovation from upstarts
While digital replicas have allowed publishers to quickly establish a presence on the iPad and other tablets, much of the design innovation with tablet magazines is occurring among digital-only publishers that are unconstrained by legacy print conventions. These digital-only publishers are offering compelling tablet experiences, leveraging interactivity and other enhancements without abandoning traditional layout and navigation principles.
Consider the latest title from Future Publishing, a weekly called Football Week that covers the UK's English Premier soccer league. Launched earlier this month, the iPad publication includes several innovative design elements while preserving what Mike Goldsmith, editor in chief of Future's digital editions, called its "magazineyness."
Football Week features a customizable cover (based on a reader's favorite team), data-driven statistics and standings, and live updates from league games. The navigation is clean throughout and more intuitive than many digital replicas I've seen.
Future is also getting creative with advertisers: One section of the magazine, sponsored by EA Sports, promotes EA's FIFA 13 video game, and an interactive game called "Extra Time" prompts readers to enter an EA-sponsored weekly sweepstakes.
"There is no manual for this," Goldsmith told The Guardian. "We're making something that's as beautiful as a magazine, but as live and relevant as a website. It's been really enjoyable, and also a real rollercoaster."
Future has ridden the rollercoaster into what appears to be a sustainable model for digital publishing, having built its own publishing platform, called FutureFolio, and surpassing $1 million in monthly digital edition sales last November.
Others would love to replicate that model. To do so, some publishers believe they must move away from digital replicas and start producing native apps to provide a better user experience.
For example, GIE Media, which covers the lawn, landscaping and golf course markets, has decided to focus solely on native iOS apps for its titles, which include Pest Control Technology Magazine. The decision was based in part on its experience producing a consumer title, called A Garden Life.
"We went through all the growing pains and learning curve with A Garden Life," Chris Foster, president and COO of GIE Media, told Talking New Media. "People engage in the native app versions of magazines so substantially more than they engage in flipbook apps." Foster told TNM that engagement rates for A Garden Life are "roughly 47 minutes per entrance into the app, which is huge."
Rising subscription prices
Publishers are showing less innovation on the revenue side of the tablet business, seemingly content for now to take advantage of consumers' willingness to pay for content from Apple's app store by raising subscription prices.
Digital subscriptions present "an opportunity for the magazine business to become more leveraged toward consumer revenue and a little less dependent on advertising," Hearst Magazines President David Carey told the Wall Street Journal.
Condé Nast President Bob Sauerberg echoed that comment: "We're using this new platform and the clear demand for all access to our content as a way to redefine our subscription offerings at a higher price," Sauerberg told the WSJ. "The industry is trying to take a step forward because we're all trying to get more money from the consumer."
One challenge in betting on the tablet space - and determining the right price points for both subscriptions and advertising - is that audience and circulation measurement systems have yet to adapt to the world of multi-channel publishing. Mary Berner, president and CEO of MPA, the Association of Magazine Media, told Ad Age that last week's AAM report "doesn't capture audience, which is like saying we're going to judge a television network's ratings by the number of TV sets in households. It's an old way to measure. Unfortunately it's the only way we've got right now."
"I think you'll see tablet adoption snowballing," Berner told Adweek. "It went from nobody having tablet editions to almost 100 percent in less than 18 months. The data hasn't actually caught up to what's happening."
Until it does, publishers should use their time wisely by finding ways to move beyond print replicas and provide their audience with a more compelling experience - and a reason to come back for more.