Friday, November 12, 2010

B2B publishers take their New Media struggles to the iPad; flipbooks now being converted into iPad apps

No publishing industry is as backwards as B2B. It pains me to say that, having spent so much of my career in the industry. Trade publishers were led kicking and screaming onto the web, and now they are among the last to begin creating products for mobile devices and the iPad.
B2B publisher have a very different business model than consumer magazine publishers, of course. Most B2B publications are controlled circulation magazines, mostly dependent on print advertising to drive profits, with everything else considered an expense line -- editorial, circulation and production. Yes, a few B2B's can charge for subscriptions, magazines like ENR, AdAge and others. But not surprisingly, we are not seeing these paid B2Bs rushing to launch iPhone or iPad apps, there are too many issues yet to be resolved. (Let's ignore the events side of the business for the purposes of this discussion.)

The controlled circulation magazines, though, are starting to show up in iTunes and most are coming from the same vendors that supplied these publishers with digital flipbooks.

Ah, flipbooks. What can I say about flipbooks that I haven't said before? Flipbook vendors love to sell these Flash-driven replica editions to publishers. They are cheap to produce, cheap to deliver, and offer publishers what? (And the vendors always e-mail me to to protest the word "cheap".)

These flipbooks were originally designed to appear on the magazine's website, the idea being that it would extend the brand, attract new readers, and give advertisers further reach. Later, the idea was that these Flash versions of the magazine could be supplemented with interactive advertising and additional content. With rare exceptions this did not happen.

The other proclaimed benefit to flipbooks is that it will convert readers from print to digital, thus saving production dollars. This, in fact, may be happening to a degree. But I would argue that reader involvement with these products is minimal and the result is reduced advertising performance (I'd love to see evidence that flipbook ads generate the same number of leads as their print counterparts.)

Instead, the flipbook has become just another expense line -- something B2B publishers are familiar with.

Now comes the iPad and flipbook vendors are rushing to supply their clients with another digital solution: convert print magazines into free iPhone and iPad apps. One of the leading digital publishing vendors, Texterity, now has 57 iPad apps in iTunes and are releasing new ones at a fast pace.

Before explaining why I think these new iPad apps are a dead-end, let's look at a typical new iPad app for a B2B magazine.

Greenhouse Management & Production is published by GIE Media. GIE Media produces good magazines -- its Lawn & Landscape is a leader in the field -- but its websites are clunky, a bit outdated, and certainly not industry leading. Editorially, their magazines are pretty darn good, though, but their New Media efforts...

GMP has had an iPad app for a while now, and Texterity is also providing their client with Android versions, as well. All the bases are covered.

But let's face it, ever try and read a replica edition on your phone? You better really, really want to read that issue to struggle that hard to read the text. Replica editions make no sense on mobile phones, sorry. Even newspapers, often criticized for being the most backwards when it comes to New Media, understand that using RSS feeds make more sense.
So why aren't these apps RSS readers? Two reasons: one, most B2B publishers are not producing quality editorial online, reserving their original copy for their print editions and stuffing their websites with press releases; and two, their digital production vendors are not app developers, they are flipbook vendors, and that is what they are going to give you.

But what about these iPad versions? Well, at least they can be read.

Unfortunately, I just don't understand the thinking behind their creation. The GMP app opens to this page at right. Why is this here? What value does it bring to the reader? Why not just open on the cover and go from there?
What follows is typical replica edition -- well done, not at all buggy, a few links added in -- but otherwise an exact copy of the print edition. In portrait the app makes sense. Turn it to landscape, though, and the app returns to la-la land. The pages shrink down so that two pages are revealed. You might think this makes sense because that is the way readers read a print edition. But are print edition pages 4" X 6"? No. But they are here, so once again the reader is forced to make adjustments to read the page.

When the New York Times released the first newspaper iPad app they wisely chose to consider each page as separate -- there is one screen, so one screen equals one page, whether in portrait or landscape. A replica edition can not do this because the dimensions are wrong. The app then is forced into the format of another platform -- print.

There are two major reasons why these new B2B apps are doomed to fail.

The first reason is a recurring theme: the tablet is not the same as print. Repeat it over and over until it sinks in.

Unfortunately, this seems to be an issue that crosses over into other mediums as well -- B2B executives don't seem to understand that . . . the web is not print, mobile media is not the web, tablet publishing is not the same as all of the above. You simply can't treat every medium as a variation of print publishing. Each new platform has to be taken as a separate product venture. Porting over your print product to the web, to smartphones, to tablets is a dead-end -- it is the lazy man's solution to a very complex problem.

But without a doubt the other reason these types of apps are a problem is that they are counter to the whole business model of most controlled circulation magazines.

Publishers (and sales reps) know that one of the most important things a magazine has to sell is its readership. Publishers used to spend a fortune (and many still do) to make sure 90 percent or more of their readers are "direct request", that those readers were "qualified", and that those readers received, opened, and read that issue every month. GMP, for instance, has a BPA audited circulation of 20,278, best in the industry. It also shows that 86.7 percent of its readership has been qualified within one year.

So how "controlled" is an app that is free to download inside the iTunes App Store? Who are these people who are reading the issues? What value are they to the advertisers?

In the end, I doubt most publishers are taking these early iPad apps very seriously. Once you get over the initial rush at seeing your magazine on an iPad the reality will sink in that you've created a replica edition that few will see, and none will pay you for.

But you will get that bill from your vendor each month. Enjoy.