It’s that time of year

Jim Foster’s publishing world…

By Jim Foster

It’s that time of year

Traditionally, September is a busy month for us digital folk. We’re testing app builds in preparation for the drop of the latest iOS update (oh the joys THAT can bring!); budgeting for the following year; making plans for Black Friday and Christmas sales bonanzas; trying to progress our apps as far along the dev roadmap as we can get them before the Apple shutdown happens in December… it’s all go.

This year is no exception. Things are manic. But that’s good, it’s how I like it. I’d rather be busy than sat at my desk twiddling my thumbs, fighting the temptation to scroll down endless, instantly forgettable social media updates.

For many of our titles, 2017 could become a seminal year in terms of digital edition sales. Why? Because more and more are seeing digital downloads account for over 10 per cent of overall circ, a trend that I’m sure is being replicated within other publishing houses.

Take premium motoring title Car, for example. This time last year, some 6,000 people per issue would read the digital edition. In July 2017, this figure had risen to over 10,000. If print were seeing similar circulation percentage rises, people would be going crazy!

Significantly, this growth is mainly happening to specialist titles – titles that, traditionally, you might not associate with a strong digital following. Included in this category would be Practical Fishkeeping, Bird Watching, Country Walking, Model Rail, Today’s Golfer and Rail, among others – all of which are now seeing digital editions now contribute more than 10 per cent of their overall circ. In some cases, quite a bit more.

Anyone who says digital magazines are dead is clearly talking out of a bodily orifice that doesn’t biologically contain vocal cords.

All this is very nice ‘n’ all, but growth does attract attention from the ‘big cheeses’ – so, as a result, I’ve had to write some detailed business papers in the last couple of months on how and where we should invest to accelerate our ePublishing growth at an even quicker rate through 2018 and beyond. Which is something I’ve enjoyed doing, as it’s given me a better insight into the thought processes of some of the most astute people within Bauer and what’s really required to get things accomplished in a big corporate.

As part of all this, I’ve tried to articulate to the business how vital it is that we develop and grow an incisive and – importantly, affordable – mobile strategy.

My target is to double digital magazine turnover by the end of 2019. Ambitious, absolutely, but I think achievable, given a fair wind in tech, adequate marketing resource and improvements to the mobile products we offer.

Ah, mobile. I’ve been saying it for so many years now, but mobile really is the key to growth. Kind of a ‘no-shit-Sherlock’ thing to say… except now, tangibly, for the first time, I think it’s within our grasp to monetise our mobile app traffic effectively, on a decent scale, without spending a fortune in the process.

I’ll return to this in a moment. First, a bit of background and some analytics.

The mobile opportunity

Our growth thus far in the digital magazine mobile arena has really come despite of what we’ve done, as opposed to because of it. It’s important to recognise that. Of all our titles, Grazia has the only optimised-for-phone app we’ve had live for any meaningful amount of time, with around 35% of all digital readers paying for issues on their iPhone.

Yet even on our PDF replica apps, which frankly are bloody awful on the phone, our portfolio is showing steady and not inconsiderable growth in terms of the number of app installs and purchases we’re seeing made on smartphones.

Which amazes me.

But it’s true: if I were to take a mean of all 50-odd magazine apps we have live, I’d say a quarter to one-third of all our app users are now reading our mags on their phones.

Celeb gossip title Closer leads the way in terms of mobile readership share. Staggeringly, despite being a PDF replica, 51% of its app users (the last time I checked in GA) were accessing the digital edition via their iPhone. Given that the readership is 97% ABC1 females, with an average age somewhere in the mid-30s to early 40s, perhaps this isn’t entirely surprising.

The problem is, because of the poor user experience PDFs offer, we’re finding engagement and conversion to paid subs is significantly worse on phone apps than it is on tablet. Three-quarters of all users who install one of our PDF replica apps on their iPad come back and use it repeatedly after installation. But only half of all smartphone users come back after their initial visit.

All of which demonstrates that there’s an opportunity for us, an opportunity that gives rise to a simple hypothesis – that if we deliver a better mobile experience, a more complete, optimised mobile app, then over time, we will see increased engagement, more repeat visits and more subscribers delivered. Easy! Plus, we’ll be safeguarding ourselves against a potential, though by no means inevitable, decline in tablet usage as phones become more and more powerful.

Except… it isn’t as simple as that. Why? Well, only our pinnacle titles – I’m thinking Grazia, Empire here – have the kind of art and production resource needed to create a bespoke, responsive tablet and phone edition every issue. Mobile optimised apps, put bluntly, are expensive and time consuming to create. Too expensive.

So, how do we do it? Well, as I said a moment ago, I think we’re on the cusp of finding an answer that can be scaled out across the majority of titles in our business, without any significant financial outlay and risk.

The idea is simple. A single merged PDF of each issue of our magazines is created, then automatically sent via our CMS to various SFTP drops, which include Zinio, Readly, PocketMags, and so on. Soon, we’ll also be sending these PDFs to a production company who will extract XML from it, before repurposing articles into phone-friendly formats and sending them back as ‘ePubs files’, which are integrated with the PDF replica display.

Once downloaded, all the reader has to do is tap a button – or the article – to launch text view and see a beautiful, easy-to-read display that scrolls smoothly, and nicely enhances the PDF experience.

Of course, there is a cost to this. To start with, it won’t be viable to launch text view phone editions across the business. But, it will allow us to launch phone-optimised versions of titles we haven’t been able to to date, such as Closer, Heat, Today’s Golfer, Practical Fishkeeping and others. And see what happens.

Combined with decent marketing and great CRM, I’m pretty certain we can prove our hypothesis and grow the mobile business doing this. It would be just the start. Then, who knows: maybe we bring the previously outsourced XML extraction in-house. Now that would be exciting, as it would allow us to start thinking about structured content workflows and pushing content into properly optimised templates on an automated basis.

One step at a time, Jim! Now, I’d best check to see how our new iOS11 app builds are performing in tests. The golden beta is due to drop any day now; I always think of Willy Wonka whenever I talk about Apple’s golden beta, for some reason.

As I said, things are manic…