The next big thing
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Why tablets aren’t for preserving the printed artefact

Seeing past the PDF

To many publishers, the iPad has looked like the cavalry coming over the hill – a last-minute rescue for a threatened industry. Surely this is no less than a glorious new start for the printed product in all its carefully crafted packaging and design beauty?

Well, the relief may be short lived, at least for publishers who have not yet grasped that the key to digital survival is continued innovation. Because all the signs are that tablets are not dutifully preserving the printed artefact in digital form, but starting to change digital content consumption in a way which creates whole new challenges. And some interesting opportunities.

Let’s not forget the really good news in all this. The tablet has proved that people will indeed pay for digital content, something which remained in doubt until the iPad came along. What a breakthrough. Suddenly, loading up a PDF of the printed magazine meant you had a low-cost path to new distribution, a way to reach new paying markets around the world. What’s not to like.

Well, the problem is that it now looks as if tablet users will skip past the two-dimensional PDF magazine replicas and go for something more exciting, if given the chance. They want something with sizzles, which utilises the functionality of the tablet. And they are starting to want their digital products served up in different-sized packages to suit their convenience.  

What have we learnt?

Future is a UK-US publisher of over 80 special-interest magazines, websites and tablet apps. When the iPad was invented we decided this looked like an ideal route to reach people with our passions in all corners of the world – and on a scale we could never achieve by printing and shipping printed magazines. We were pioneers in getting our content into iPad-ready form. Today, we have more than 70 digital titles on tablets and are the biggest UK publisher on the Apple Newsstand. Right now 13 of the top 50 titles on the UK Newsstand are from Future.

And what have we learnt? Take our T3 tech/gadget title, the UK’s top-selling iPad magazine. We were doing just fine with a straightforward page-turner, a replica of the glossy mag. Then we launched a fully interactive version which has got more inventive with every edition. A typical edition of T3 on the iPad now has over 300 interactive elements, including embedded videos, photos which spin around when you touch, writers who speak to introduce their pieces, link buttons to let you buy cameras, phones or laptops, funky review buttons which let you drill down for more information.

We still sell the PDF version of T3 – but its sales have stagnated while the all-singing and dancing version now sells more than two-thirds of our 30,000 sales a month.

We had a similar experience with another popular title, Total Film. This was selling just fine in basic magazine format. In May, we launched an interactive high-def version, with embedded film trailers, video interviews with stars and all kinds of whizzy moving graphics. Sales more than doubled in a month.

We are finding that enhancing a digital magazine, either with full-blown interactive elements or even just some suitably embedded graphics and video, is a sure-fire way to accelerate sales. Hey, the guy on the cover of our Guitarist magazine now plays a riff when you download the mag – that sells.

We are also finding that innovation in packaging and chopping up the content pays off. Put simply, a lot of iPad owners just don’t want to sit down and plough through a whole magazine or newspaper. They want to graze a bit, read a bit, then go do something else. So we are launching bite-sized weekly apps like Cycling News, for fans who want a regular quick, multi-media summary of the latest Tour de France, Giro d’Italia or local race-fest news.

Suddenly, there are new ways to make money

Advertisers are finding that readers engage in much larger numbers with interactive ads on tablets than they do with web ads or display. And they are asking digital publishers to make the ads for them – which we have done for auto and electronics manufacturers.

So suddenly there are whole new ways to make money. Like making ads, or sharing transaction revenues from click-throughs. And that is important because it is one thing to have the ideas about how to make electrifying digital content apps, it is quite another to work out how to pay for the video content and extra production resource. The economics are different and the production mindset has to be different too.

The answers are kind of simple but daunting. You have to rethink your products, rethink your markets, create electrifying new ways to engage your audiences.  That’s really it in a nutshell. And don’t forget we are just at the very start of a long journey. If iPad users are already getting to be more finicky, how are things going to look in two, three, four or 10 years?

The good news behind all this is that it is still quality content which draws customers to our products in the first place. So publishers are one step ahead of the start-up whizz-kid with a bright idea.  The other good news is that the creatives – the editorial staff and designers – all get it. They are excited by this new world with its wonderful ways to bring content alive and engage with readers.

Will publishers survive?

Probably not as we know them. The signs from the iPad patterns suggest that they will metamorphose. The lines between different content genres – publishing,  TV, web – disappear.  Is T3 a magazine, a new kind of TV show or a clever app? It doesn’t matter – it just matters that people like it, will pay for it and, as more tablets hit the market, that there are more and more of them.   

Tablets are liberating innovative content producers, not threatening them, and they are encouraging consumers to try new things. People who would never buy a paper magazine are happy to pay for them in digital form – 90% of Future’s tablet sales are to new customers. 45% of them take out a subscription rather than just buy a one-off.

The iPad has sparked a revolution and the results of all revolutions are not easy to predict. But what we see in my company is a route to establish truly global brands and grow our consumer base worldwide. We already know that the Chinese iPad consumer, like the American or the Brit, wants to hear that guitar wail, not just look at a photo of it and read Jimmy Page’s description. What a wonderfully exciting world we publishers are entering.