Magazines on tablets: publishers' painful lessons

The Adobe Digital Publishing Summit

This year was meant to be the year where I was deep in the production of tablet editions of various B2B mags. Life didn't work out that way, but when I was offered the chance to attend the Adobe Digital Publishing Summit this morning, I couldn't resist the chance to see how things had evolved since I was last involved in actively researching it. The answer?

Well, not quite as much as I was expecting. The stats delivered by Guy Philippson of the IAB weren't a huge surprise - huge growth in mobile traffic, tablet as the dominant force in second screen viewing, tablet use big in the evening and weekends. All things we've seen before. However, he did show some interesting research that showed that users view static ads as annoying interruptions, but actually quite enjoyed playing with interactive ads. Sadly, the later presentations suggested that most agencies just aren't up to delivering these yet, so once again the industry is playing catch-up to the consumer. 

Revealingly, he suggested that over 50% of search traffic will be on mobile devices by next year - a figure he was so impressed with that he asked people to tweet it around, in what I hope was a jokey aside. 

Then came the meat of the day for me - presentations from three publishers actively engaged in creating tablet editions. 

Here's my key takeaways from the event:

Pageflippers are now, enhanced apps are the future.

Dennis doesn't "send all its kids to university" - only a handful of its apps are enhanced apps, rather than magazine replicas. IPC produces mainly replica apps, with a handful of bespoke special editions. Both talked very clearly about a gradual customer migration to enhanced apps, though, meaning that the current page flipping replicas are seen as a stopgap during the early stages of transition. Thankfully, publishers are moving away from the half gigabyte downloads by streaming video instead of embedding it... 

The results are, at best, OK at the moment. 

Dennis's Tim Danton was a little downbeat on the success of the PC Pro enhanced edition on iPad. He said subscription numbers were in the "thousands, not the tens of thousands". However, it is bringing in benefits in incremental increases in subs and advertising revenue. The enhancements he showed off were fairly perfunctory - some basic animations and the like, so I was left wondering if the lack of enthusiasm from the market was the problem, or a less than exciting product. 

Workflow is key

The event organisers Adobe must have been wincing throughout. Pretty much every speaker talked about the workflow problems involved in producing tablet editions. Condé Nast has experimented with both split production desks and integrated one - and surprisingly has fallen on the side of split desks. Their experiences seem to prove that it works better, and that integrated desks tend to become effectively split over time anyway. The roadmap for the Adobe DPS product suggested that there are ways of making this easier already in place - but not being used by the publishers. I'd love to know why. 

Tablet diversification is a real problem...

Liam Keating of Condé Nast made it amply clear that the rise of the cheap Android 7" tablet is causing problems. Publishers can no longer rely on the tablet having the power under the bonnet to handle all the enhanced features they add to magazines - and the 16 by 9 ratio of the screen means another redesign. In the end, they've solved the problem by abandoning dual layouts. Their mags now only work in vertical format, meaning that they only have to design for the two form factors, not for two orientations of two form factors, for four sets of design in total. 

...or is it?

One shocking figure came from Adobe's senior director of product management, Zeke Koch. He said that of all the downloads of Adobe DPS-powered magazines, a grand total of 3% were on Android. 3%. Not 30%. 3%

That suggests that the figures that show that Android users browse the web less than iOS users - and buy fewer apps - apply just as much to magazine tablets. Working on the assumption that the Kindle Fire accounts for the majority of magazine sales, the rest of the ecosystem is essentially dead to publishers right now.