Jan 112011

During the last year, magazine and newspaper publishers around the world have been rushing to be part of the first and second waves of paid digital content products on Apple’s tablet computing platform.

Between flashes of euphoria and claims that we have finally been given a digital ecosystem that can persuade the unfaithful hordes of digital content consumers to break away from the free model and start paying to ensure the survival of the media corporations and the plethora of digital agencies that provide them with development services, small cracks have appeared in the shiny surface.

Complaints that Apple is taking a lions’ share of the profits, of the anti-Flash hegemony, of blatant content censorship have been met with circumvention attempts and new platforms are rising rapidly, the most notable like the Motorola Xoom are based on the Android Honeycomb operating system, Googles bid in the tablet game and still an unsure ecosystem as opposed to the Apple app store that has made millions if not billions of dollars for developers.

So a new platform war is on in full force and 2011 is going to be an extraordinary year for digital content business. However, something has happened recently that should make the digital directors in all the publishing houses a bit less self-assured, and it probably does exactly that, even if everyone seems to be in denial: Report of slow content sales on the iPad have been replaced by reports that sales are dropping drastically.

Obviously, the industry is not getting it. However, it is not clear what it is that they are not getting. Seen from a perspective over the developments since the advent of the iPad, there are a number of possible indicators (but not necessarily always errors) that are worth considering, and several of them have their root in plain old groupthink or a feeling that “now we are finally getting the worth from digital publishing that we deserve”.

1. Shovelware
The original deadly sin of digital publication is to just take what you have and shovel it from one platform to the other. It took 15 years of kicking and screaming to make publishing houses understand that this was a bad idea on the Internet. They have, if not completely, then largely forgotten this lesson with their tablet products. Many first-generation iPad newspapers are basically PDF versions on steroids.

2. Pseudo-magazines
A lot of the current solutions are using the mindset from the paper-based world. The iPad magazines (even the ones that are produced specifically for the platform) often come in “issues” and are structured in much the same manner as traditional magazines. It is as if the publishers are forgetting than only very few people actually start with page 2 and then slave their way through the entire product.

The tablet is not a replacement platform yet, it is just as often a supplementary platform. Yes, it might replace books in very few years, but the laptop PC, the TV or the gaming console – maybe even the magazines are not being fully replaced by the iPad. They are being supplemented by it – at least for the next 3-5 years. This means that shifting the entire product now could be a bad move in some cases. Users are not stupid, and any attempt to just repackage the same content and then expect the entire market to change is naïve.

3. Hideous pricing
Scared by the mistakes from the dawn of the desktop and mobile web products, a lot of publishers have insisted that prices should match (or at least aim for) those collected for paper-based products. The logic is naturally that if the tablet replaces paper, the same revenue is needed, and Apple (or other middlemen) are already taking their hefty share. This is way out of line. The consumer is not concerned with your business case. He compares your paid product to the free ones available and makes a decision on a value-for-money basis.

The daily newspaper that I subscribe to is offering a full shovelware edition on the iPad for free as long as I subscribe to the newspaper. However, I am considering scrapping the subscription altogether, since I never have the time to read the newspaper in the old way, so that would mean that the price is the same regardless of the distribution format. That is unacceptable.

4. Badly balanced paywalls
A lot of the initial experiments have been marked by very poorly balanced paywalls. To ask the user to pay a high-end fee up front for a news app is one thing. But to then charge the same amount of money for a single magazine edition that you normally spend on a game or a utility app that will last for months – that is plain stupid. If the user has to pay twice before he gets any content, you are effectively asking him to go away, and stay away.

5. Misunderstanding the attractions of the platform
The tablet is not about gestures and zooming (a lot of successful application don’t even support these features), it is about stuff like integration, ease of use and utility power. The fact that you can turn it on in a second and then be on the web with a decent screen size is a killer feature. The app store is a killer feature. Always-on connectedness is a killer feature. Social media is a killer feature. Yet a lot of iPad magazines and newspaper apps are working against the grain.

If anything, it is a good idea to work on top of these and create good story-telling, playful interaction and smooth, hazzle-free experiences with high added value. FlipBoard has done this and has become the super-showcase. Not because of the page-flipping but because of seamless social media/google reader/rss feed integration, is my guess.

6. Un-socialness
By definition the closed platforms are very anti-social, sharing links on Facebook or Twitter does not make sense when the content you are linking to is behind both a paywall and a specialized app download. The new web is social. Most news apps are not. Bad form and bad for business.

7. Going it alone
A lot of media companies are highly allergic to cooperation with their peers – that must be the reason why everybody and his dog want their own app. They seem to want to control the billing relation, the user experience and to create a closed garden inside the walled community. This makes for a bad user experience overall, since an iPad rapidly gets crowded with apps. If more media companies got together, they would be able to decouple their content from brands and focus on relevance for the users instead. That is the only way to fight the RSS readers and keep people paying. No single medium can supply the information a modern citizen needs and by fragmenting the app market, they are forcing the user towards aggregators and free content.

8. Lack of powerful innovation
Last but not least is the fact that very few publishing companies have taken this highly innovative platform and done something groundbreaking with it. Where are the services based on geodata, augmented reality, QR codes, ad-hoc communities, gamification or social integration? Where are the funky business models, the groupons etc.? Basically most of the apps are content archives and the most killer of the features is search.

Some of these problems have been recognized by a number of publishers and met with assurances that they will eventually be fixed, right now it is all about just getting a product out there, etc. etc. Well, the myth of the first-mover advantage is still thriving, even if we often see that the successful people are the fast followers, not the first movers. However, users are unforgiving and even if you think you can feed them second-rate products and expect them to stand by for the real thing “very soon”, don’t forget that there are a LOT of very attractive free alternatives on the very same platforms that you are trying to win them over with.

In fact, several studies have shown that news consumers more often use the web browser or a content aggregator like Reeder or FlipBoard for news consumption on the iPad than they use dedicated paid newspaper or magazine apps.

Repeating the same mistake over and over again in the hope that it will work out eventually is not smart business, and that seems to be what a lot of publishers are doing here in an attempt to crack the general nut of digital publishing that has been plaguing them for more than a decade now. Smart publishers who want to survive in this space for real need to follow the users attention, not try to force the user to do something he does not really want to do and then pay for it on top of that.

A piece of advice cold be: Start adding value. Consider focusing on the business opportunities in the periphery instead of the center. Consider the ready-made publishing platforms carefully before jumping on a bandwagon. Consider advertisement as a central business model or add value that is not purely content-based. Content is King, yes. But Context is the kingmaker. And there are such things as kings without castles.