Tuesday, December 21, 2010

American City & County releases Handmark developed mobile apps for Android, BlackBerry and iPad

The Penton Media owned trade magazine American City & County has released a series of mobile apps for the various mobile OS platforms, including a rather awful tablet edition that should have been launched for the iPhone instead.
The apps, developed by Handmark, are the usual RSS feed driven apps, but in this case produced by a B2B that really doesn't need a mobile app because of the lack of new content its editorial team produces. Articles in the app show that only one new story has been generated in the past 24 hours, with most of the stories at least a week old. A weekly e-newsletter would probably be a better fit.

The apps take their content from a single RSS feed taken from the "In The News" section of the AC&C website. Because of the way the site is designed the "Top Story" is therefore omitted. Other "sections" of the app are either promotions for other apps the developer has created, or are the readers "Saved" stories.

Since all controlled circulation magazines depend on advertising to pay the bills one would think that any mobile or tablet efforts would be built around the paid ads found in the latest issues of the magazine. Nope. There is one tiny ad found at the bottom of each page -- obviously designed to be displayed in a smartphone environment, but there in the iPad version, as well.

Man, what a mess.

The basics of the B2B media industry are easy enough to understand. Except for a select group of magazines that charge subscriptions, like AdAge, Engineering News-Record, and others, most B2B magazines are controlled circulation magazines. Since the magazines are, therefore, free to the reader, the way the bills get paid is through the advertising found in the magazines. And in many, maybe most cases, the advertising is as interesting as the stories since so much of the editorial content found in these magazines are PR driven drivel.

OK, that was easy enough. So why should B2Bs who produce controlled circulation magazines be interested in mobile? For the same reasons they are interested in print: to drive revenue -- either through advertising or by now charging for their content.

These are the ground rules. But there are major barriers to success. For one thing, getting a list of those people in an industry or audience segment in order to send a print copy of a magazine is fairly easy -- there are lots of list brokers out there who will sell you a list of manufacturing executives, for instance. When I was in charge of getting a list of top manufacturing executives in the U.S. I simply bought a list that told me the target reader's name, address, title, company name, size of company, etc. Voila, a choice list of future readers.

Ah, but Apple doesn't have this same information for sale, and neither does the various carriers who sell Android and BlackBerry OS smartphones. So targeting readers is impossible, the best a publisher can do right now is to simply launch an app and hope the right people find it.

Are the readers there? Maybe. Take American City & County again. They have a BPA audited circulation of just under 70,000. Say the size of the municipal and country government market is between 50,000 and 200,000 -- remember we want "qualified" readers, not just any old government employee, but those with the authority to buy and specify products and services. Now by my very rough calculations I estimate that there is between 3,500 and 14,000 possible iPad owners that would fit the description of a potential American City & County reader -- not bad really. Then you can add in those that own Android and BlackBerry phones and the market seems viable.

Great, let's go. Right? But what is the product? And where is the business model?

A publisher is either going to make money by selling apps or subscriptions, or by selling advertising. It's one or the other.

An app that will be paid, or only offer full access through a subscription, has to offer valuable (or interesting) content. These publications often have robust websites that generate lots of content. And, no, press releases probably won't qualify.

That means that for most B2Bs, their mobile and tablet efforts have to begin with the notion that they will be advertising driven --- either display ads for their tablet editions, or else display or directory advertising for their mobile efforts.

That leaves two last alternatives: the single-sponsored app, and the special product.

Single-sponsor apps are all the rage for the simple reason that it is easy to launch an app with one advertiser, then after a while the publisher begins to know how many people have downloaded and installed their apps, and then (maybe) they can start to pursue more advertisers. Publications from the NYT to many consumer magazines from gone this route in order to avoid giving the first ads away to their list of clients. Better to sell or give away one ad, the thinking goes.

The other option is to avoid producing an app that replicates the monthly print magazine or the website at all. Instead, some publishers are launching special editions that take advantage of the magazine's brand, but creates something new altogether. This is the approach being taken by UK-based Future Publishing and its US division, Future US.

After producing a very nice "special edition" of Mac|Life back in September that loosely resembled its print magazine, it has since released a new app called Mac|Life Essentials Guide for iPad -- basically a special section. The apps is also charging for the app, in this case $1.99.
The other option is to avoid producing an app that replicates the monthly print magazine or the website at all.
These special editions can either contain advertising or not, be paid or free, but in any case the business model will be obvious once the choices are made -- as long as the choices result in a free app without advertising, then what would be the point?

But these are precisely the kinds of apps being pushed by the third party vendors who are developing apps. The idea is to just get something out there and maybe some network advertising will lead to a few dollars.

Sadly, those falling for this sales pitch -- whether newspaper chains or magazine publishers -- have suddenly forgotten the basics of their own businesses. Maybe they are trying to impress the PE firms that own these companies, but they are certainly not impressing readers, if the reviews found in iTunes is an indication. And most likely advertisers are not even being approached by these media companies, as so many publications have excluded their ad teams from the conversations that went into the development of these new mobile and tablet products.

The good news, though, is that this is a great time to go back to basics: who do we want to reach? what is the content going to be? can we charge readers? and if not, who will want to support the product via advertising?