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The Trouble with iPad Magazines

Vanity Fair’s June 2011 iPad Issue | Source: Vanity Fair
By
  • Vikram Alexei Kansara

NEW YORK, United States — The iPad is one of the fastest growing consumer electronics devices in history. According to figures released by Apple, the number of units shipped in the first three quarters since launch left the company's highly successful sibling products, the iPod and iPhone, in the dust when compared to the three quarters following their respective launches. And although recently reported component shortages and production problems may limit sales figures over the coming quarters, analysts have estimated that Apple could move 45 million iPads in 2011, on top of the 15 million they sold last year. To put that figure in perspective, this would make the iPad the second best selling album of all time following Michael Jackson's Thriller, which sold 110 million copies, despite the fact that even an entry level iPad costs almost 50 times more than the average record.

The aesthetically appealing iPad has also found particular resonance with both fashion consumers and industry insiders. "Pictures and videos look amazing on the tablet," said founder and editorial director of Dazed Group, Jefferson Hack. "Photographers, stylists, art directors and designers are all showing their ideas, inspirations and finished work on [Apple] tablets."

But in stark contrast to the overwhelming success of Apple's tablet, iPad magazines have yet to take off. Indeed, for many of the world's largest publishers, who have poured millions into developing digital editions for a device that has often been declared "the saviour of magazines," iPad apps still account for a tiny percentage of total circulation."In the long run, it is certain that tablet ownership and readership of magazines on tablets will expand," Jonathan Newhouse, chairman and president of Condé Nast International, told BoF. But figures released a few months back by the Audit Bureau of Circulation in the US show that despite rising iPad sales, average monthly downloads of iPad magazines slumped towards the end of 2010 after an initial surge of interest, indicating that consumers are giving the magazine app experience, as currently conceived, a collective thumbs down.

What went wrong?

The absence of digital subscriptions — meaning users had to manually purchase individual magazines, at costs that were far above normal subscription rates — has often been cited as the primary reason for this failure. But with a series of recent deals between Apple and major publishers like Condé Nast and Hearst allowing consumers to sign up for digital subscriptions inside magazine apps (publications like EsquireOAllureGlamour, and Vanity Fair already, or will soon, offer in-app subscriptions), this theory is about to be put to the test.

"I think the real problem is that people just aren't interested in these apps," said Khoi Vinh, former design director of NYTimes.com. That's because most iPad magazines are nothing more than delivery mechanisms for print content — what Condé Nast calls "digital replica editions" — built on the false premise the what works in print will work in digital, with slight modifications.

"Many publishers would probably agree that this is a broken premise," said Vinh. "But I think what's happening with a lot of these apps is that publishers have convinced themselves that what they're doing is not just a regurgitation of print and that they've added enough bells and whistles to these apps to somehow make them different," he continued. "In spite of all the added video and three-dimensional rotations and other nonsense, the core thinking behind a lot of these apps is still very, very print-centric." As such, they are fundamentally out of sync with the way people engage online.

"Pretty much all of the major publishers are creating what I call 'paper for the screen,'" said Remi Paringaux, creative director of the experimental iPad-only fashion magazine POST. But the internet is completely different to the print medium which preceded it. While print is a monologue to a passive audience, digital is a conversation that's inherently active and social.

"Publishers should not rest on the assumption that readers want to be merely readers," said Jeff Jarvis, highly respected media thinker, journalism professor and author of What Would Google Do? who spent ten years as president and creative director of Advance.net, the online arm of Advance Publications, which owns Condé Nast. "They have proven a will to create and share," he continued. "What makes the tablet special is that one can interact with content and with fellow readers — just presenting content is lazy."

The iPad provides tremendous opportunity for publishers to experiment with new interactive experiences. But today, the most interesting magazine apps are personalised, social magazines like Flipboard — compiled in realtime from a user's favourite websites and the things their friends are sharing on services like Facebook and Twitter — and useful services like Net-a-Porter's iPad magazine, which closes the gap between editorial inspiration and retail.

At major media companies, rather than saving magazines, the iPad may actually be deluding publishers into believing that they can somehow avoid rethinking their products and business models in the face of a digital reality that presents fundamental challenges to both. “I think editors and publishers are fooling themselves into believing that the iPad returns to them the control over the experience, content, brand and business models that the web took away,” said Mr. Jarvis. “Sorry, but there is no going back.”

But there are signs that change is afoot, and magazine companies are beginning to think more creatively about how to use the iPad. “I believe there will be a strong market for these magazine ‘replicas,’ which will be a tablet version of the print product with added interactive features, like video,” said Mr. Newhouse. “But at the same time, publishers will produce a lot of completely new branded products for iPads, along with other tablet devices and smartphones.”

In order to earn a presence in the lives of today’s digital consumers, for whom the internet makes content abundantly available, these new products may have to be very different from magazines as we currently know them. “The best thing to do on tablets is to experiment: with form, with user interface, and with thinking of readers in new roles in new places and times,” continued Mr. Jarvis. “The tablet and the smartphone will merge and diverge in ways we can’t predict now.”

The iPad magazines of the future may look at lot less like the print-centric products we're used to seeing and more like branded services that let users not just read about, but actively experience a stylistic point of view. Could a location-aware W app offer curated recommendations on nearby fashion and art? What might a Vogue shopping service look like? The possibilities are endless. But to seize this future, publishers will need to innovate in ways that may not be easy to accomplish from within.

“Maybe the best advice I can offer publishers is to disabuse themselves of the notion that a print staff can seamlessly start building successful digital products,” said Vinh. “As with the success or failure of any technology, it’s really about the people.”

Indeed, seizing the digital opportunity means completely rethinking the process of creating magazine content from the ground up, which requires a serious re-examination of the types of people a magazine needs, from the very bottom to the very top of the organisation. Perhaps more than anything, publishers need to seriously engage the start-up community, actively recruit from technology companies and search for new talent at forward-thinking university programs like New York's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) and Stockholm's Hyper Island.

Earlier this year, it was encouraging to see Andrew Siegal, senior vice president of strategy at Advance Publications, actively engaging the digital community at South by Southwest Interactive during a session called "Conde Nast in Start Up Mode." But publishers need to do more.

Nobody knows what the ideal digital magazine experience looks like — or whether such a thing will even exist. But as publishers face the challenge of imagining the future and making up for lost mindshare, one thing seems clear. The iPad will not save magazines as they are. It’s magazines that must innovate in order to save themselves.

Vikram Alexei Kansara is Managing Editor of The Business of Fashion.

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