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The Quest to be Everywhere

“Be everywhere” is a mantra that's been popping up in interviews with magazine media executives — and, writes Karlene Lukovitz, perusing the weekly stream of new-initiative announcements from the majors confirms that this isn't mere hyperbole.

By Karlene Lukovitz

It's fascinating to watch publishing business models being transformed in real time to "brand" models, as companies seek to strike a balance between investing in digital initiatives with clear, short-term returns as well as longer-term bets with currently unknowable pay-offs — all while striving to preserve and nurture (or at least not undermine) the print businesses that still drive the preponderance of their revenue and profits.

Driving consumer and advertising revenue from magazine apps is, of course, among the most obvious significant strategies. And more than one digital pundit has recently argued that magazine apps or tablet editions — barely three years old — are already failures, doomed by their "closed" models, which don't allow consumers to readily search, select, aggregate and share the specific content of interest to them (à la personalised social media "magazines" like Zite and Flipboard), or tap into the web traffic that drives discovery and app usage.

No question: discoverability, and massive competition for app users' time and dollars, are core challenges. But publishers clearly are pushing to leverage their apps and overall content models to engage new and existing audiences - without endangering longer-term monetisation by giving away the store (while also pushing to standardise audience engagement metrics so as to drive more revenue from tablet advertising). Time Inc's recent move with People — offering a menu of paid options that lets readers choose platforms, but requires substantial payment for tablet versions (rather than bundling them free with print subs), is one key example.

Like all media platforms, the point is whether a given tablet app fills a genuine user need. As Sam Kirkland recently pointed out in, tablet editions can range from relatively straightforward, text-oriented formats that simply make it easier for a magazine's fans to sit back and read content (like the Atlantic's new weekly edition that bundles existing content for those who may have missed some of it), to the "sensationally interactive" Esquire app.

And, most crucial of all, is the broader context. Kirkland wisely stresses that "the strongest media brands can meet readers everywhere; they don’t have to choose between having a website and having an app." And while he acknowledges that it's impossible to say at present whether the investments required to produce heavily interactive apps can pay off, he adds: "But that doesn't mean publications should stop experimenting with apps completely — at least not until the web becomes so robust that apps lose their advantages in bundling, design, and interactivity, and this debate becomes moot."

On the other hand, Robert Newman, who's been creative director for Reader's Digest, Real Simple and other brands, recently noted that "thanks to DPS, CS6 and whatever is coming next, apps will be so easy and cheap to create that magazines will be doing more of them with fewer staff, faster, more efficiently and probably on the go." (Newman also offered a host of specific examples of how various publishers are reaching out to engage readers socially and across platforms, including tablets - highly recommended reading)

Indeed, things are moving so fast that publishers can't afford not to develop capabilities in virtually all platforms. With evolving web and mobile ecosystems in mind, Hearst recently announced that it's developed "wholly integrated" site systems for and (with other brand sites no doubt soon to follow). But at the same time, it announced that all of its brands' tablet editions are being converted to a "universal design" that will include a feature enabling instant product purchasing from the apps' pages, along with bookmarking to preserve links and social network connections.

Monetising cross-platform

Equally interesting is how various companies are finding ways to subsidise and monetise these cross-platform investments. Native advertising vehicles are one big focus, but e-commerce and unprecedented types of partnerships with outside companies are also proliferating.

One intriguing example: Condé Nast's decision to revive Domino as a minority investor in a venture that's primarily driven by an e-commerce platform run by partners with e-commerce expertise — but also incorporates a quarterly, newsstand-only print magazine (with an $11.99 cover price that's high by US standards) that appears to be being directed mainly by Condé. Nor is Hearst alone in enabling in-app e-commerce: Condé's Wired has partnered with MasterCard to enable users of its iPad edition to simply tap an icon on the page to purchase a product without leaving the app.

In my view, Mag+ CEO Gregg Hano, accurately summarised the current big picture when he wrote: "Three years is not enough time for the publishing industry to test, evaluate and iterate upon what audiences want from this new and complex mobile media [meaning tablet apps]… It is also not a lot of time to learn how to monetise this new platform, particularly when trying to balance mobile growth against an existing print business. In fact, it is vital to look at tablet magazines in the context of a publisher's existing print business, because most successful publishers are looking for a broad variety of ways to engage the same readers over multiple platforms, each delivering unique value, rather than [to] simply migrate them from one to another. Finding the right balance and offering will take time. It will also require publishers to step up their game creatively."

Newman takes this further, postulating that the future of magazines is headed toward "ultimate personalisation… We're going to end up creating and designing many multiple versions, with wide varieties of content [and media offerings ranging from all-text to all-video] for each publication" — all converging in "some kind of ultimate mashup of web, digital, mobile and print. It’s all about diversification, engagement, multiple audiences, and the brand experience."

He concludes: "That means it’s going to come down to the readers' / viewers' / experiencers' trusting and believing in your product and your brand."

As publishers venture into uncharted territory like native advertising and e-commerce (where some, I see, are letting advertisers buy their way onto lists of purchasable products supposedly "curated" or recommended by editors), "brand trust" should perhaps override even "be everywhere" as their primary mantra.