Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Perusing the French App Store to see what readers think about what they are being offered from publishers

Every time I write a piece that blasts some big publishing company for releasing unimaginative, and sometime downright cynical media apps – see below for example – there is a bit of a twinge that hits the back of my neck. It is that contrarian in me that asks "but what if readers like these things?" What if they use these digital magazines as finger exercise – you know, a doctor says that the best way to heal that sprained finger is to pinch-to-zoom five hours a day (after all, that is how long it would take to read some of these digital magazines).
The two best ways to check to see if you are not completely nuts is, of course, to listen to the customer. That is why all research being done on tablet and mobile editions is important to check out right now. Yes, you can have Steve Jobs's attitude about the customer not always knowing what they want, but I wouldn't go through life believing the customer is never right.

But reading reader reviews inside the App Store often will give you a false impression of the state of the medium. Many perfectly good tablet editions, for instance, get marked down by readers over issues of pricing. For instance, the Bonnier Technology Group apps are great, period. But if you are a print subscriber you certainly have a gripe about having to pay again for digital and might say so in a one-star review inside the App Store.

Perusing the French App Store I read a lot of reviews that were simply wrong or naive. Some readers complained that their app disappeared following an update - it had simply moved into the Newsstand (or Kiosque). Readers are not shy about giving a publisher a one-star review if the downloads prove to be slow, or a back issue suddenly disappears following an update. One has to be careful about what exactly readers are telling them in such a chaotic environment such as the App Store.

Early on in the life of tablet and mobile publishing there appeared to be a bit of difference between the tastes of European readers and those on this side of the Atlantic. Many replica editions were marked down as mere PDF versions of print magazines, while early reviews in French, Italian or Spanish stores seemed more open to the reading experience. I now think this was a phase caused by the lack of an alternative. Often a review was written as soon as a magazine title appeared, readers telling the publisher how happy they were to see the title available for their eReader. Digital publishers, though, would be foolish to dismiss reader criticism altogether, however.

A better measurement tool, though, may be the top charts, specifically the top grossing chart. A new app, no matter how good or bad, may be downloaded by a reader, especially if the app itself is free. Lots of downloads leads to appearing in the top ten. But if a reader choses to subscribe to the digital edition, or buys individual issues, that title will dominate the top grossing chart which measures revenue. (But be cautious about making too much of these charts, they measure in short increments and Apple's algorithm remains a bit of a mystery, so it is easy to break into the chart for a short time, then slip out.)

The top chart inside the French App Store for free Newsstand apps is a bit of a mixed bag – some native designed tablet editions, some replicas. Le Journal du Dimanche, from Lagardère Active Digital, released a couple of days ago, is a top ten free app as of this morning.

But looking at those titles that are actually getting people to pay, the French store seems to lean heavily towards those publications that put in the effort to design specifically for the tablet. Only one magazine was universal, the aforementioned Le Journal du Dimanche.

One needn't lecture me about the charts and how Apple's system for ranking apps remains vague and sometimes questionable. I understand that sometimes new apps, just launched, suddenly appear despite the fact that it seems doubtful that their numbers could be better than an app that has been in the App Store a longer period of time.

So one needs to be cautious when reading too much into either reviews or the charts. But there is a big difference between over weighting reader opinions and Apple's charts, and dismissing them altogether.