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Getting Your Application Noticed

There are a lot of opinions out there about the benefits and shortcomings of the Apple Newsstand and whether it can help or hinder the marketing of a digital publication. For many digital publishers Newsstand has become an important source of their business, with Android Market gaining but not even close.

Apple is very good at creating easy-to-use, intuitive features to offer a seamless and almost effortless user experience for the thousands and thousands of digital titles available on Newsstand. Users can download a magazine app and pay for the subscription with just one click, ensuring an automatic download when the new issue is available. When there were fewer titles to choose from, it was enough to just add a magazine title to Newsstand and see an immediate, giant increase in downloads and site traffic. Not so much anymore. With tens of thousands of titles vying for attention, something more than just placing a title in newsstand is required to get any significant following.

Publishers must build profitable, “personal” relationships with their customers. They need to promote their content by advertising their content within their apps, through social media, and from their websites. Analytics can be used to track when and how often apps are opened, and a marketing program targeted to user habits can be implemented.

Push notifications are important because they prompt users to make in-app purchases, which are normally just a click away. Push notification allows an app to notify a subscriber of new messages or events without the need to actually open the application, similar to how a text message will make a sound and pop up on a screen.

Maintaining a solid customer database and communicating with them consistently keeps the publication and brand top-of-mind. Everyone knows that positive comments and reviews can go a long way to help an app gain traction, but negative ratings or comments on Newsstand can kill a digital publication in a matter of seconds. It is very important to moderate and keep an eye on all reviews, and address issues as they arise. The best digital strategy seems to be to spread content over various media, devices, platforms and social tools. Blogs remain an important tool in gaining digital exposure and selling digital content, which is after all, the whole purpose of the exercise!

Amagazine executive told me two years ago that they “just were not seeing it” – “it” was ad page declines, readership declines, and the trend towards digital media. The publisher, from Europe, had called me to ask about tablet penetration numbers, as more and more often he was getting internal pressure to build tablet editions.

“I just don’t see why we need to do this when I don’t see many tablets in public, and our readership and advertising numbers continue to look good,” he said (after all this time I’m sure I’m paraphrasing). Today, this same publisher is producing tablet editions, but also seeing weaker ad and readership performance – the same trend seen two years ago with U.S. publishers.
Ad page declines are more and more a worldwide phenomenon. The latest Standard Media Index report for magazines in Australia, for instance, shows ad pages down 8.4% in April, though there were mitigating factors that made the numbers look worse than they may otherwise have been.

Australia is not the only country seeing ad pages declines, of course. Future plc released a profit warning two months ago, quickly followed by the news that CEO Mark Wood would be stepping down, to be replaced by the CFO. Not surprisingly, word is now that Future will be facing more layoffs, despite downsizing headcount nearly 40 percent since 2006, according to MediaWeek.
Looking through rose colored glasses, one could honestly claim that magazine publishers have made great strides with their digital transition, many producing excellent tablet and mobile editions. But the creation of digital editions is seen by many as merely adding expenses, and at a time when costs need to be cut, not increased. Much of the blame goes on underperforming digital newsstands, discoverability, fragmentation and over saturation, and other factors outside the purview of magazine offices.

But one trend, that this website warned about in 2010, is that the drive to create new digital products is mostly being initiated by the editorial side of things, with advertising playing catch up. Few magazine publishers delayed creating their digital editions until they had new commitments for tablet advertising. Instead, many publishers saw tablet editions as a way to maintain their rate bases, and created hybrid editions where the print ads were reproduced pretty much unchanged in their digital editions, while they reformatted their editorial content for better reading on mobile devices. Others created replica editions, motivated by the same goal – maintaining their rate base.

The ad community can certainly shoulder some of the blame here: few agencies embraced tablet editions as a place to create new interactive advertising. Many ad buyers and creatives that concentrate on print, and there are fewer of them, see the digital side as outside their area of concern – though more and more ad agencies are beginning to integrate their approaches.
Many publishers are beginning, reluctantly, to realize that they have made a big mistake by seeing the creation of new digital media products as mostly an editorial concern. The new NYT Innovation Report, for instance, specifically lists improved collaboration between editorial and the business side as one of its recommendations. The report is cautious in its language, knowing the attitudes of many journalists towards ad-edit collaboration.

But one questions I consistently ask big newspaper and magazine publishers is if the ad department was part of the team when a new digital product was created. More often than not, the ad side of the business was approached long after all the decisions were already made.

There are many reasons why digital editions have proved to be a disappointment to many in the industry, but placing the blame on one factor seems ill-advised. Many magazines are recording very impressive digital edition circulation – The Economist, for instance, with its 67K+ digital circulation. And new digital magazines have launched in droves and are never counted when media reporters slavishly report the latest AAM audit numbers – without counting these new publications the digital circ numbers appear far lower than they actually are.

But, like it or not, advertising is still important; and for many magazines, advertising is just as important a part of the content as editorial (think B2B or computer, music or other consumer magazines). Publishers foolishly thought that if they built they (advertisers) would come. They didn’t. This remains a part of the problem, maybe the biggest part.

One thing that was supposed to correct this was the rise of new ad networks. I remember a conversion with Chris English (Tablazines) early on about this topic, and English was excited by the concept that he might be able to use ad networks to drive some incremental ad pages for his new digital magazines. Networks would be of assistance in some circumstances, but it will still be up to publishers, agencies and their clients to really drive significant new revenue into the platform.