FEATURE 

Do you really need an app right now?

You might have noticed the seeming headlong rush by publishers to develop apps. A cool head is needed, says Ryan O’Meara to make sure you make the right choices and for the right reasons.

By Ryan O'Meara

They reckon the best way to make a killing at the height of a gold rush is to be the guy or girl selling the shovels. Well, us publishers can't fail to have noticed all the buzz about Kindles, iPads, iPhones, Apps, eReaders and the riches to be had by delivering mobile content. The thing is though, unless we've got an unlimited budget, we've got to try and evaluate which, if any, of these shiny new objects is the platform best suited to our readers and our brand.

Let's take a look at Apps.

An App, for the un-initiated is a piece of software that tends to sit on mobile devices such as the iPhone, iPad, Android platform mobile phones etc. It can do anything from serving up an entire magazine to mimicking the sounds of a silent dog whistle.

Publishers have to first decide exactly how the App should fit with their business model - in other words, is it simply an additional way to read the content, in which case, I suggest not a lot of financial resource should be ploughed in to it as it can't be considered mission critical – it's simply an optional delivery platform. Or is it going to offer something extra that the digital or printed magazine does not (such as live services, games, quizzes, interactivity etc), in which case the content of the magazine itself may be a little diluted and advertisers might be less than pleased at playing second fiddle to the bells and whistles of a glimmering App that distracts its users from the content.

A third option might be to gear your App toward doing something very specific in line with the general ethos of your publication – for example, if you published a dog magazine, your readers might want to learn how to teach a dog to sit and an article in the magazine goes some way toward helping them achieve that. A video in a digital edition makes that experience even better but is nothing a simple web page couldn't achieve the same results with. However, a dedicated 'teach your dog to sit' App is something people might actually fork out some money for and even help to spread awareness of your magazine's brand to a whole new audience.

New technology presents us in the media sector with a real challenge. You have to be on the train or you potentially miss out on the gold rush, but if you throw everything at it and it turns out you miscalculated, it can be pretty painful and all you do is make the shovel sellers rich beyond their wildest dreams.

The paradox: you can't wait and let things unfold, but you need to have some indication you're about to back the right horse.

Let's look at things in simple form:

1) If you have more than 500,000 paying or registered, regular readers, you can justify your iPad expansion right now because it's virtually certain there's enough of a critical mass of your readership who will actually own (or be about to own) an iPad and they WILL want to use it. May as well make sure you're there for them.

2) If you are in any way a tech orientated publication or present yourself in any way as modern or cutting edge, again you simply have to be iPad ready right now or I genuinely believe you'd suffer some brand damage

3) If you're anybody else, the challenge is in knowing how much to commit and how heavy you want to plunge in. On the one hand, it's been shown with iPhone apps that it is the early adopters who make the big killing as they are there first and they enjoy the privilege of low competition. Ultimately, the simplest and most reasonable approach is to start asking readers what they want and balancing their feedback between your business instincts as to where you see your brand over the next 2, 4 and 6 years.

Incidentally, I have a bit of quick-fire / cheating way to really test the demand for iPad content with readers that could genuinely save publishers a LOT of money. It works like this; get yourself a sub-domain (eg. ipad.yourdomainname.com) – install the latest version of Wordpress on your sub-domain (it's free). Buy this theme - http://budurl.com/ipadtheme (just $37)- populate your site with content from your magazine and install a web-traffic package (such as Google Analytics) – direct your readers who own an iPad to 'view your BETA iPad edition' for free by simply visiting ipad.yourdomainname.com – see how many take you up on the offer. Keep adding content to your iPad site (note, this is not an App, it's a website designed to display perfectly on an iPad) and keep promoting it. You'll soon get a feel for how many of your readers are A) iPad owners and B) Want to read your content on the device. This could certainly be a very low cost way to test the water and, at the very least, you can impress everyone by declaring you've already got an iPad edition up and running even if it might not yet be up to the standards of the all singing, all dancing iPad edition from the likes of Sports Illustrated.

I have more tips like that one for publishers seeking to make the most of digital media, visit: www.magazineprofits.com/inpublishing and sign up for free.