Thursday, December 17, 2009

Tailoring content for both web and mobile devices means new content, new service and new ideas

The fact that B2B publishers are suffering in today's economy more than any other medium should not be news -- it certainly is not for the publisher's themselves. But the decline and fall of newspapers, and now their trade magazine, gets most of the attention.

But as I mentioned in the third quarter advertising report story, both mediums are suffering at rates higher than others -- meaning that even in good times these mediums would be in decline.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that both formats have been the slowest to adapt to the Internet and to the new rules that govern electronic publishing. For years now writers such as Paul Conley have been complaining about what he sees on B2B web sites -- the lack of links, the lack of new content, etc.

This slowness to adapt to the demands of the web lies in the weakness of today's trade press model: B2B media firms see their magazines as a product to be defended, rather that an entry into the industry.  By that I mean that too many trade books see all their electronic products -- web, e-newsletters, etc. -- as ancillary products rather than distinct products within an industry.  Because of this, all the products, no matter how they are consumed, share the same basic editorial, rarely tailored for the medium, and more often than not simply republished (often after they have appeared in print first).

This is an old problem already and I'm sure many reading the above paragraphs would nod in agreement, or say "tell me something I don't know".

But the issue comes to a head when you look at something like this: the Esquire demo video by ScrollMotion. The issue of when and how trade publishers migrate their content to mobile media is one most publishers will deal with in 2010.

Sports Illustrated's video of their prototype tablet reader edition has gotten quite a bit of play. But ScrollMotion's video has the look and feel of a finished product. This is something one could consume now.

ScrollMotion's iPhone edition tailors an issue of Esquire for the medium, allowing such things as sharing or e-mailing of stories, different screen views, some additional content, etc. Essentially, the ScrollMotion iPhone edition is a flip book for the iPhone, though with additional content and features.

OK, fine, more flip books. Great. How many pubs are making money on their flip books?

But I'm actually very excited when I see the work being done by companies like ScrollMotion. The flip book was an attempt to duplicate the magazine online. Its weakness is not that it doesn't succeed in duplicating the magazine, its weakness is that it does this too well! The web isn't print, so the flip book does the opposite of what the publisher wants: it takes print content and fails to make it truly web (that's what the web site was supposed to do). Flip book vendors would probably disagree with this assessment pointing out the embedded links and video, and other features that make their flip books more interactive. But the idea of flipping pages is a print concept.  (To be fair, I have seen some innovative flip books coming out of European publishers that begin to move the flip book away from what we see here in the states -- but even these might simply be called Flash sites that have evolved from the flip book.)

This iPhone app is probably not the answer, though, for trade publishers -- but it is a step in the right direction.

Let me digress by telling a little story.

The other day I drove about 50 miles south of my home to pick up my daughter from a trip she had taken. While in the area I realized that I had time to kill and so decided to do some errands. My goal: to find some piping for a home improvement project.  I had my iPhone with me and so decided to use the Google Maps app to find the nearest Home Depot. Worked like a charm.

But if I had been a construction contractor, working a project for a client, couldn't I have used a B2B magazine's iPhone app? Well, of course not, as there are very, very few apps currently being offered by the trade press. But publishers already have all the information necessary to do this, all they need are the vendors willing to create these apps at an affordable price.

Which brings us to the question of what kind of content should a B2B magazine publisher offer on an app and why it should be something more than a mobile flip book.

The  contractor I mentioned above might want that vendor directory accessible on his mobile device, complete with a way to find the vendor (Google Maps), call, e-mail or text the supplier, and access to the supplier's catalog. Now that Apple has introduced the ability to make purchases right through the iPhone, tthe device can evolve into a real storefront something many publishers dreamed about years ago when launching their first web sites.

But doesn't this bring us full circle back to the web and a reexamination of what the content should look like online?

Trade publishers, like their newspaper cousins, are too protective of their print products to see that they are in danger of losing their markets -- in the case of B2B, the industries they represent, in the case of newspapers the geographic markets they represent.

Companies like Multiview have sprung up because they promise trade associations a way of doing industry directories online, adding a revenue stream, and serving their members online in a way either not offered by the publisher, or offered in a better way.  Publishers, stuck on the concept of content as editorial copy, have often downplayed their vendor content, or outsourced their online directories.

Mobile media devices present a new opportunity to look again at the content being produced by their magazine editors and writers. Some might argue that it will be better to have separate web teams just as they did when publishers first went online (and they may be right), but I think the first question that will have to be answered is "do I really want these product releases to be what I give readers on their mobile devices, or is there something they will want instead?"

Being that we are close to the New Year, it is customary to make predictions. Here is one: if trade publishers do not create new products for mobile media, and improve their online offerings by moving from a magazine duplication model to a tailored content model, they will lose their franchises the way newspapers are losing theirs.