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The Future of Mobile and Tablet Publishing

Posted on Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 12:22 PM

The future is bright for mobile and tablet publishing, but don't be blinded by hype.

By Meredith L. Dias

With smartphones poised to become the primary Internet browsing device within the next ten years, it seems logical to consider what a tablet edition or smartphone app might do for your publication. In all probability, at least some of your readers have already hopped aboard the portable reading bandwagon in some capacity (whether via laptops or netbooks, iPad, Android, iTouch, Kindle, iPhone, Nook, Sony Reader, etc.). Some are likely smartphone or tablet users.

Personal computing, suffice it to say, is changing. It is becoming increasingly portable -- in many cases, even pocket-sized. Consequently, magazine publishers must consider a host of devices when making content delivery and platform decisions. Should you offer an iPhone edition? An iPad edition? A mobile digest of your print content?

Our Survey

We recently surveyed publishers regarding mobile and tablet publishing. Some had already developed iPhone editions. Some had no plans to pursue mobile or tablet publishing at all. What was most noteworthy about the response, however, was the lack of response. For whatever reason, the topic didn't appear to resonate with our list of publishing executives.

With smartphone and tablet use on the rise, why is this? Perhaps the publishers were simply too swamped to respond -- with the industry changing so rapidly, this is a real possibility. Perhaps some publishers haven't given the idea much thought yet -- after all, the iPad has only been on the market six months. Either way, our response rate was quite low compared with past surveys.

What Publishers Said

There were, however, some interesting responses from our list worthy of mention. Terry O'Neill, editor of Powder and Bulk Engineering, tells us, "We do publish an email newsletter which we expect to be available soon in mobile format (for smartphones). Our regular print and digital magazines aren't considering smartphone or tablet apps at this time and probably won't for quite some time, if ever." A few other publishers told us that they have no smartphone- or tablet-friendly content at all.

There were, on the other hand, publishers charging ahead with smartphone and/or tablet editions. Lucy Collin, publisher of Marketing magazine, says, "We have developed a mobile app for our daily news and we are working on iPad now. Our daily newsletter app has two banner ad positions." About revenue, she says, "We see it as a growth area. Most indications are that mobile Internet use is going to increase over the next five years, so however important the Web has been to a given publication over the last decade, it will become doubly so when mobile sites, apps, and online video/audio content becomes a regular part of the editorial and production process."

Paul Westervelt, vice president and group publisher of Oil and Gas Journal, shares Collin's vision of mobile publishing's future: "We believe mobile devices are an essential part of our publishing future." He said that his journal will offer both smartphone and tablet apps starting on October 12.

Other publishers were just beginning to discuss smartphone and tablet publishing.

The Current Mobile/Tablet Publishing Landscape

The varied responses reflect the industry as a whole. It is only recently that mobile and tablet publishing have gained significant momentum, particularly with the release of the iPad and mounting popularity of the iPhone and Android. Some cutting-edge publications are ahead of the curve, with apps and tablet editions that already border on established. Others -- particularly association publications where print is still the hot commodity, or publications with limited online presence -- have no real use for smartphones or tablets right now. Still others, bruised and battered by the recent hard times, are approaching this new wave with caution.

A recent Harrison Group/Zinio survey forecasts that "tablet-based devices and e-readers together will exceed 20 million units in the next year and they may well be the Christmas gift of 2010."

The Harrison Group/Zinio Survey

While the survey reveals some interesting statistics about the reading habits of tablet and e-reader users, the press release about it is not without hype and causal assumptions. For instance, "Tablet and e-reader owners spend 50 percent more time reading magazines and magazines articles." This is, upon first glance, a stunning statistic. However, we must pay attention to what it actually tells us: simply that tablet/e-reader users spend more time reading magazines. It doesn't specify that they are reading the magazines on their portable devices, and it doesn't necessarily mean that they are reading more magazine content than before. It simply tells us that these device users read more than non-users.

Similarly, although the press release states that 33 percent "are spending more money on buying things to read," we don't know from the information given whether these device users are actually buying digital content or even reading what they buy.

Perhaps most important to note: According to the press release, "28 percent are now reading digital magazines or books." While this constitutes nearly one-third of the survey respondents, it means that over two-thirds are not consuming digital content. What's more, those 28 percent of digital content consumers may be reading on a desktop computer. (Note: The survey involved "1,816 Americans, ages 18-64").

Beyond the Buzz

With so many misleading statistics out there, it can be difficult to make smart decisions for your publication. Most important, as mentioned above, is to filter out the hype from the hard numbers and rational analysis. There is no question that digital reading and portable digital reader (or PDR, our blanket term for all portable devices that enable digital content consumption, including laptops/netbooks, smartphones, PDAs, e-readers, and tablets) ownership are on a meteoric rise. However, allowing ourselves to become blinded by hype could prove disastrous to our bottom line.

So be careful when doing the math, and take care not to taint your statistical analysis with unsupported assumptions. Just because something worked for your competitor or a major national magazine doesn't mean it will work for you. A splashy iPad app may seem like a foolproof idea, but if you can't get your readers to purchase it or advertisers to invest in it, all that expensive design will become an eyesore.

The technology may be changing, but the rules of engagement haven't. Never dive headfirst into new technology without the proper research and strategy, no matter what headline-worthy statistics and forecasts you've read.

Meredith L. Dias is research editor of STRAT.

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