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Jim Foster on the world of ePublishing

Jim Foster

Posted on: 01 April 2016

Sadly, a think of the past at Google HQ...
I love a visit to Google HQ to see our Play Newsstand manager, Liz Bauer, and her boss, Luca Forlin.

My latest trip established four clear things. First, the average Google employee is some ten years younger than me. Depressing. Second, they always have squid on the lunch menu when I visit and third, free Google Curly Wurlies are not available anymore.

Finally, we established what we already knew: that Google Play Newsstand isn’t working as a deliverer of revenue. Despite million upon million of actively engaged users on the platform globally (it’s working for those that want free content), the platform is in decline in terms of paid-for digital subscriptions.

I’m not really surprised. Other than UX alterations, some Play Store restructuring and the growing proliferation of free, streamed content in (mostly news channel) verticals, the product hasn’t really changed in three years. The Newsstand UX is decent enough, the purchase process via your Google Wallet account quick and easy, but once purchased, the actual experience of being in the magazine – in digital terms – is antiquated and ‘stodgy’. Even for those titles supplied to Google via RePubs, the text view isn’t particularly good. Churn rates for those that do take out a paid sub are crazily high.

Liz and Luca wanted to know what my view was of it and if I had any ideas to move it forwards. I’ll come back to that, but first I’d like to run you through some of the marketing initiatives we’ve embarked on this year to really try and give Play Newsstand a push.

O2 promotion

If you’re an O2 customer, you’ll be aware of their Priority scheme and the fact we’re giving away free digital issues of certain titles to Priority members. The aim is simple: to drive awareness of the Play Newsstand magazine platform. Alas, O2 are insistent that we don’t get any data in return, so it was a marginal decision to go with it; but we decided to on the proviso we could work with the Google merchandising team afterwards to try and upsell and drive subs growth off the back of it.

While O2 seem to work on a ‘fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants’ basis (!) the process is slick from a Priority customer journey perspective. You get a code, you go into Play Newsstand via a link, redeem the code and download the issue. It’s slightly more complex for iOS users, but we’ll skip over that!

In the first week Heat was available, we saw over 54,000 redemptions of the code, leading to nearly 25,000 successful downloads. Or, to put that into some kind of perspective, some 25 times more downloads that we’d normally expect (albeit paid) for a single issue of Heat in Play Newsstand. Which all goes to show the demand for that kind of content is there.

One of our concerns was, of course, cannibalisation of paid-for single issue sales, both on the print newsstand and digital. So we monitored the situation closely. We thought we might see a dip in sales of the first ‘O2 issue’, but actually, the reverse happened: we saw a significant spike in sales on that very same issue, across platforms. Of course, we need to do some more work to try and establish a link – it’s very tenuous seeing as we don’t get any data from O2 – but all the same, a positive start.

Simultaneously, Google assisted us in running some ‘upsell card promos’ in Play Newsstand pushing Heat subs, driving people to a subs option with a special trial offer (two months access for £2) followed by a regular subscription. It’s too early to really make a judgement on whether this is working in terms of subs uptake, but I’m hopeful. We still have five months of the deal to go with O2, so let’s see what happens, but the fact we’re working with them and Google to properly promote our titles on Play Newsstand is exciting.

How to improve Newsstand

Luca asked me what Google should do to improve Newsstand. Well, a better UX when in the magazine would be a start, especially with text view and mobile. Having some kind of interactive subs upsell in each issue would be beneficial (tricky in a replica PDF but not impossible; we’re working on it); more free promotional sample content; more price promotions and working together to establish optimum subscriptions price points… and, I said, better search.

On the subject of search, I asked how AMP (Google’s new Accelerated Mobile Pages walled content garden project) was doing since its introduction a couple of weeks earlier. “Great!” was the expected reply. Liz rattled off some figures.

“Have you thought about hooking AMP up to digital magazine content from Play Newsstand?” I asked. “For instance, if someone searches for ‘Star Wars Episode VIII news’, and we’re running a feature on that in the current edition of Empire, can’t we pull that feature from Empire, push it into AMP for free consumption, then upsell?”

They can do it for Twitter. Why not digital magazines? I wondered if I’d said something stupid. My brain whirred – as long as the text is searchable in a digital edition, which it should be on RePubs titles, then surely Google’s tech engineers could sort it.

“We should be able to do that,” said Liz. “Write it down on a list of recommendations for us and we’ll look into it.”

I won’t hold my breath. But imagine how bloody brilliant it would be if just one AMP slot could be dedicated to a content search of digital titles in Google Play Newsstand. Imagine how it might help discoverability and upsell, having it at the top of Google search on mobile.

There probably isn’t much hope of it happening. But there’s definitely more chance of AMP being hooked up to Play Newsstand than there is of Google reintroducing free Curly Wurlies at their London HQ. They’re on an employee health-kick, you see. Apparently, squid is brain food and better for staff productivity!

Play Newsstand: “Churn rates for those that do take out a paid sub are crazily high.”

About Jim Foster
(Details last updated: 12 May 2014)

Jim Foster is head of ePublishing at Bauer UK.

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