Monday, December 21, 2009

Launch on Friday, failure on Monday

This was a great way to start the Christmas week, with a laugh: here's a story from the The Business Insider on why the GQ and Esquire iPhone app launches are an abject failure.

That's right, Condè Nast and Hearst launch their magazine apps late last week and within a couple of days a columnist has already passed judgement: no one wants to read their magazines on a phone.

After a few days of sales, neither the January issue of GQ (featuring a near-naked Rihanna), nor the January issue of Esquire are in Apple's list of the top 100 best-selling paid apps in the App Store. (Each costs $2.99.) Nor is either in Apple's list of the highest-grossing apps, which sorts by revenue generated (versus strictly unit sales).

(By a weird coincidence, I am currently rereading a biography of Thomas Edison. As the book points out, Edison's work method was simply to try a million different ways to get the result he wanted, refining as he went along until he got something that worked. Thank God Edison didn't have to read this kind of nonsense or we'd still be in the dark. And I'll take this analogy one step further: the move from a successful print model to a successful online or mobile model is no less daunting than creating the phonograph or incandescent light bulb -- ask any publisher or ad director.)

As for whether people will read publications on their phones, the writer ignores the fact that both the New York Times and WSJ apps are doing well. Both apps are free, however.

So now publishers are experimenting with paid models. Will a paid app model work? I say yes; Dan Frommer says no, with a bunch of caveats where he speculates that a tablet reader might work better than an iPhone reader, etc.

But can we at least give it a full week before declaring the experiment a failure?

Both publishers should be applauded for taking the leap: by getting their apps into the iTunes app store, a process that takes a while, they now have built new sales platforms. The process is . . . well . . . a process. You build the app; test it; submit it to Apple; get it approved; have users discover faults; submit a revised app (this happens all the time and has become part of the way to build an application -- basically use the early adopters to beta test your product, then quickly fix the bugs and add the features users desire but you didn't originally think should be included), often discount the app; before finally having a finished product.

Because they have taken the leap both publishers can begin to promote their applications. I see the successful model looking like this: a magazine like Rolling Stone creates and launches their app > after a month or two they can now start to use the app to drive readers to a particular story or writer to drive readers to the app store -- in this case using a Matt Taibbi story about Goldman Sachs or the Obama administration would be perfect > now they have sales coming from both print and device sales.

High profile authors or stories can drive sales. But you have to have the app already in the store in order to take advantage of the opportunity.

For trade publishers I would see things working a little differently. Like GQ or Esquire, the B2B publisher would have to have their app created, tested, approved and launched before they could begin to advertise the application. Then they could use their print magazines and electronic newsletters to promote the iPhone app. Additionally, since trade publishers generally have good e-mail lists, they can do e-mail promotion to drive awareness and sales.

The beauty is that an e-mail, web site, or newsletter can contain this -- an actually link to the store. Print magazines can contain bingo cards, tear out fax pages and the like, but the time from awareness to sale is long. A link to an online store can shorten the time from awareness to final sale to minutes instead of days or weeks.

Give it time: three days is a little fast to declare something a failure (unless you are talking about the Bears or 49ers, in which case they only need 60 minutes to give you a result).