Bryan Dunn

Product Manager/Entrepreneur

I’m a product manager living outside Boston with an engineering background and a track record of building products from vision through execution leading to acquisition. I’m an expert in lean startup principles, agile development and technical leadership.

Regarding the death of tablet magazines

This post originally appeared here

There have been a number of recent stories in the press lately detailing the failures of tablet magazines. It’s hard to argue with any of the evidence:

So what happened? It seemed like a natural fit; a device with a form factor similar to print means publishers get a new distribution channel without having to change workflow or advertising strategy. Even before the iPad had a name the magazine industry was talking about tablets being the industry’s savior. Time and Bonnier even released videos of high-end tablet magazine concepts as early as 2009. 

What we’re finding out is that the tablet magazine market isn’t a panacea. It’s going to take some work. Let’s explore where things went wrong and and how we move forward (particularly in the B2B and Niche space). 

Where It Went Wrong

Utility

The rate of innovation in the mobile space is staggering and every industry susceptible is being disrupted. We all know that Flipboard, Zite, Google Currents, Pulse, and others have led this wave in the publishing industry by aggregating content from a many sources, which provides tremendous utility to their readers. I can quickly find a relevant story to read when I have five minutes to kill or sit back and casually browse through a giant curated list of stories when I’m at home in the evening. 

Conversely, PDF and PDF-like magazines take a long time to download, have a limited amount of content, and are only easily read on large tablets. Publishers that only include magazine content have no replacement for the quick-read. If publishers want to compete to be one of those 8 apps that users give regular attention to, they have to up the experience and provide more utility. 

Design

Let’s face it magazines, your looks have become a problem. I’d argue that the reason for such a high rate of adoption of “tablet magazines” isn’t that the data about usage patterns show a great fit for readers (it doesn’t); it’s because magazine art direction saw the screen size as an approximation to print. Large magazines seized it as an opportunity to put more bells and whistles into their magazine while smaller publishers saw a quick and easy win - just publish the print PDF to the tablet. 

If you look at all the disruptors in the space, you’ll note how little the content appears “designed” yet users are flocking there by the millions. Meanwhile, the vendors traditional print publishers have trusted for ages have provided a set of tools that mimic the print workflow, but as we’re finding out, that workflow is wildly inappropriate for digital. Pixel perfect control isn’t something that’s easy to achieve when the number of screens users are reading on is increasing by the minute. 

As Karen McGrane puts it: 

You don’t get to decide which platform or device your customers use to access your content: they do.

For the vast majority of brands a new workflow that separates content from design is needed to ensure:

1) Readers get a great reading experience on every screen size

2) Advertisers get platform and screen appropriate billing 

 

The Good News

Despite the less than stellar performance of tablet magazines so far, there’s reason for hope:

Brand Trust

In a world where the amount of content being created and ways to consume it are growing exponentially, brand trust is critically important. Successful print magazines already have an army of loyal readers who trust them to provide great content. That is an excellent starting point as brands transition to digital. 

Content Experts

First and foremost, magazine publishers are subject matter experts. In the consumer and technology verticals, a lot of effort is being put on creating a great digital experience. The rest of the world, especially B2B and Niche publishers, still have time to get it right. Here, the novelty of having your content available on your tablet is going to last a little bit longer while we all figure out what the next steps are. 

“Magazines" Still Have Value

Content Overload is a very real problem. With all the ways to consume content, and the never-ending stream of information we’re processing every day, there’s still a role for magazines. What if we looked at magazines simply as a collection of curated content created by a trusted resource? It’s a viewpoint that’s certainly working for the user created magazines on Flipboard. 

 

What’s Next?

So where do we go from here? Here are some things publishers need to think about:

Content Comes First

We’ve learned from disruptors that above all, users value content. Combine that with the increase in number of screen sizes and there’s a strong argument for the vast majority of publishers to adopt responsive design instead of trying to lay content out for each and every screen size and flood it with interactivity. 

While all the interactive elements showcased in the big brand apps provide some flash, we’ve seen publishers switch to our platform because their users don’t find the huge downloads and lack of small screen support worth the bells and whistles. Instead of those bells and whistles, users should get a great reading experience on whatever device they choose to consume it on. We built Turnstyle for this reason and so far, readers agree.

Instead of being adversaries, art directors and content strategists should work together to create future friendly content with responsive templates appropriate for each content type. There are some very smart people doing really great work in this area and they merit listening to.

Obviously, the amount of interactivity and heavy design will vary by brand but I’d venture to guess that the vast majority of magazine publishers would be better served by focusing on content quality and volume, helping advertisers create great digital ads and leveraging user-level analytics for lead gen.

Brand Apps, Not Magazine Apps

Apps that simply contain magazine content were a great start for many publishers on digital but things clearly need to evolve before we start seeing real success for traditional print brands. Publishers should be leveraging that brand trust by giving users an experience that includes more than just the print magazine. Content fed from the web and social networks give users a reason to come back between issues and interact with the brand.

Work With Disruptors

Content needs to get to where the readers are. This means not only a publisher’s website and apps, but also those disruptive channels that readers are flocking to (Social, Flipboard, Zite, partner channels, etc). These platforms provide a great opportunity for content marketing and publishers should leverage it. Even traditional brands, like Forbes and the New York Times, have experimented in both the areas of volume of content and distribution channels. What is appropriate for each brand depends on a number of factors (size of market, customer demographics, etc) so while there’s not a one size fits all formula, it’s clear the field of content strategy will be an important one. 

New Advertising Paradigms

If the content is responsive, the advertising needs to be too. While the ad technology is still a bit behind, there’s lots of companies out there trying to solve this problem (Flite and Google for instance). The good news here is that on digital, brands have a real opportunity to engage readers. For B2B and Niche content, the ads are often as important as the editorial. If you know who your readers are you can provide higher value to your advertisers via lead gen.