Friday, December 9, 2011

Developing for new digital products such as tablets: the battle for market share and brand protection

This is one of those "automatic writing" exercises I occasionally produce. You may find it complete hogwash, or of some value.

Two years have now flown by since I first began writing posts here at Talking New Media, and it is safe to say that the landscape for publishers looks completely different than it did in late 2009. Then, the big issues involved web publishing and whether mobile would become a viable platform.

As a former newspaper and magazine publisher, I lamented the lack of commitment to sales – both print and digital – that many publishing executives seemed to have. Cost-cutting ruled the day then, as it does now.
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The first iPad app post on TNM
featured the newly launched NYT app.

But in two years we have seen both the continued growth of mobile, and the rise of the tablet platform; and while many publishers have embraced the new digital platforms, many others have either decided to stay on the sidelines or else outsource these digital products to outside companies.

But in conversations I have had with print publishers, I have been struck by a basic misunderstanding many seem to have about what the new digital platforms will mean for their businesses. Many seem to look at mobile and tablets as they once did of the web: simply as new products totally unrelated to their print products.

Thinking of it another way, it would be like a soft drink maker contemplating whether to get into the frozen food business – it might involve a brand extension, but whatever they do in the new category has no effect whatsoever on their core business.

This is the wrong way to look at things.

While I often say that the new digital platforms – mobile and tablet – should be looked at as new, unique product areas, it is not true that they are as different as soft drinks and frozen foods. Readers are migrating to the new platforms and a publisher risks their overall market share when they fail to realize that they must compete just as hard in digital as they had in print.

Far too many publishers seem to believe that all that is necessary is to make their existing print products available on the new reading devices, in what form they are available is seen as irrelevant.

But as readers migrate, they are looking within the various app stores for many of the same brands they used to seeing in print. But when they open up that new digital product they are most definitely judging the product with new eyes, seeing the product's readability and features as they exist in their new digital formats. Your well designed, easy-to-read and navigate print product will only be a memory if your digital product is hard-to-read and hard to navigate.

(The page size of a replica edition on an iPad is approximately 65% of the size of the print page, yet many magazine apps make no adjustments whatsoever to their fonts and instead force the reader to zoom in to read.)

Let's do a little thought experiment: say that only ten percent of current print readers in the U.S. will own a tablet by year's end. Of that ten percent, half will actively read newspapers and magazines on their tablets. That means five percent is up for grabs.

What many of the publishers seem to think is that simply by having their products available for download on, say, the iPad this will be enough to guarantee that they will maintain their market share. What they fail to see is that readers will be comparing their new digital product with other new digital products. The fight for share will be won or lost in that new digital market.

If print and digital were separate markets – like soft drinks and frozen food – this might not matter. So what if we lose in the digital arena, we still have print.

But print readers are migrating and so the loss in one arena will translate into a loss in total market share. (Using the figures above, five percentage points would be at risk.)

Many publishers are hopeful that the new digital platforms will bring in new readers, and that is possible, but I would not count on too big a gain. It could be argued, and I am sympathetic to the view, that the new digital platforms will introduce young readers to publishing brands they would not have normally been introduced to. The argument goes that young readers will be introduced to, say, The New Yorker, earlier due to smartphones and tablets, than they would have been in a totally print marketplace.

I used The New Yorker on purpose, though, to show how limited this argument might be. Yes, my teenage daughter may have seen The New Yorker in the App Store at some point, but I really doubt that she is a good candidate for buying a subscription.

As someone who has been in this business for 30 years, and who first held the title of "publisher" 20 years ago, I am amazed how much the role of "publisher" has changed in just the last two years.

Ten years ago, it was clear that the web was changing publishing dramatically. But at most publishing companies website design and creation was either the domain of an IT person, or was outsourced to a vendor. Publishers that cared very deeply about every detail of their print products were forced to watch as websites carrying the name of their magazines were built and launched without their direct input.

Even today, many publishing companies routinely push their print publishers to the sidelines when the strategy sessions are being held regarding the web. Things are just as bad, or worse, in the areas of mobile and tablets.

But the publisher that is able to control their brands across all the publishing platforms is probably at a huge advantage over their competitors. By guaranteeing consistent quality, readability, and marketability, the cross-platform publisher can more easily present their integrated advertising options to agencies and clients.