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Mobile Content Gets More Personal

Publishers aim to zero in on user interests.



By Esther D'Amico
03/30/2011

A father gets into his car, starts the engine, and turns to the back seat where his three year old sits in her car seat. He chooses an app from his phone, hands her the device, and drives. She spends the ride touching the screen - she knows this app -- and the term "audience engagement" takes on new meaning.

That kind of sharing is becoming more common as digital offerings grow, become more portable, and zero in on user interests, says Ira Wolfman, SVP of editorial at Weekly Reader, who relays the story he heard from the father. "Digital opens up a whole world for us" and one to which WR's young and increasingly tech-savvy readership demands to have access, he says.

Weekly Reader reaches more than 250,000 teachers, who are its main venue for getting its publications into the hands of 8 million students from pre-K to grade 12. "The first way children encounter our materials is when the teacher hands them out," Wolfman says. Next, is when the teacher uses an interactive whiteboard to connect to WR's Web site and bring up a digitally optimized magazine to complement a lesson.

"Every kid walking into school is so technologically sophisticated that they demand to be taught on new technology," Wolfman says. As a result, Weekly Reader is now developing a third way to engage kids via an educational game app based on one of its magazine's popular science-trivia departments. WR is working with VPG Integrated Media to turn the content into a game for the iPad and iPod Touch, with a launch date as early as this summer.

"We know that there is a lot going on where parents and kids are sharing devices," Wolfman says. WR, which has been directed toward schools for more than a century, is tapping into that and sees mobile and tablet apps as opportunities to further expand its reach outside of the classroom.

"We know we can make educational content engaging, but what we're now doing is seeing if we can adapt material so that it's not just for teachers in class," Wolfman says. WR plans to develop a variety of educational games for pre-school children and up.

"Our digital magazine is geared toward the classroom, and the app is a more personalized approach," says Susanne Goebel, WR fulfillment director. WR manages billing, renewals, as well as customer service through Advantage Computing System's Access Management and Billing software. The system also allows WR to offer online access to archived issues, Goebel says.

Meanwhile, regional magazine 360 West, a controlled-circulation lifestyle and luxury startup, launched iPhone and iPad apps last year as an extension of its brand. "We definitely saw a spike in total page views," says Jerry Scott, publisher of the two-year-old magazine. "We had been tracking up about 60% year-over-year in page views anyway, but when we launched the iPad it spiked up a little more."

The apps are customized versions of the print magazine with additional functionality. The publisher also has a digital replica of the magazine on its Web site. "All our digital versions are renditions of the print magazine, so an advertiser gets the dual audience," Scott says.

The publisher uses digital publishing firm Blue Toad to turn its PDFs into digital content. "As a small start-up magazine, we don't have a Web developer and we're not going to go to an agency to do it," Scott says. Blue Toad charges on a per-page issue to host the digital edition, he adds.

306 West's apps are free. "I'm not sure that regional magazines are going to create much demand for paid, but may be they will. It doesn't mean any ad money for us," he says. "This is a better fit for controlled," as it potentially makes the content accessible to a broader audience, he adds.

Many publications are debating the issue of whether and how best to monetize mobile content. The Guardian News & Media announced earlier this year that the advertiser-supported U.S. version of its iPhone app will be offered as a free download. However, outside the U.S., the app is a subscription-based service offered without advertising.

The publisher is offering full access for [British pound sign]2.99 for six months and [British pound sign]3.99 for a year. Non-U.S. readers can download the "intro" app, which offers the option to subscribe. The Guardian is using Urban Airship to power the subscription function.

"With the new app we'll be launching more frequent updates, offering a broader range of content and bringing you a better experience," Jonathon Moore, Guardian product manager of Mobile & Emerging Devices, said in a Guardian blog post earlier this year. "This means ensuring we can meet the associated development costs. The best way to provide this in the longer term, we believe, is to move to a subscription model."

From the standpoint of how content is consumed-whether on a Web site or digital device--scholarly journal publishers are further ahead on the pricing issue than consumer publications, says Dan Heffernan, VP of sales and marketing at Advantage, whose clients include academic journals such as Duke University Press. That's because scholarly publishers have been getting paid via pay walls for online publishing for well over a decade. "This type of publisher's customers are generally libraries and research institutes that buy site licenses," Heffernan says.

Also, these journal publishers have long had their content hosted "in such a way as to allow for linking and citing and other cool features that only the digital world can allow. Consumer publishers haven't really done this yet," Heffernan says.

Beyond the pricing issue, one of the biggest challenges for all of industry is how quickly the mobile content market is changing and how quickly major players are emerging-from tablet providers to digital newsstands, Heffernan says. "It's all changing so fast it's hard for the publication to figure out which horse to hook their wagon to."

That, he adds, is probably one of the few things that most everyone agrees on.

By Esther D'Amico
03/30/2011







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