Jason Pontin, editor of MIT’s Tech Review, recently announced that, after much pain and expense, the Tech Review is abandoning native apps for the iPad and other mobile devices. Describing the publications experience with app development—which involved spending $124,000 on software development and selling only 353 iPad subscriptions—Pontin reports that, “Like almost all publishers, I was badly disappointed. What went wrong? Everything.”
It didn’t have to be this way. Tablets like the iPad offer rich possibilities for telling engaging stories that take readers well beyond the print experience, with the portability to enjoy that experience anywhere, anytime. But to fully realize that potential—without the high cost and frustration seen by Tech Review—publishers must think more holistically about their long-term strategy for delivering a fresh, high-quality experience across all mobile devices. A few simple rules can guide you to the right strategy for your publication and readers.
Rule 1: Remember the business you’re in. Publishing is supposed to be about content—not code. If you find yourself hiring separate development teams or agencies to create your HTML website, iOS apps, and Android apps, then something has already gone wrong. The right digital strategy will allow you to focus your resources on creating great experiences for your readers, not paying an army of developers to replicate those experiences in different languages for different form factors.
Rule 2: Don’t settle for static pages. Like many publishers, Tech Review began with the approach of replicating its print edition page by page in PDF form. The whole point of digital media is to do things that aren’t possible in print, using interactivity, rich media, social sharing, and other web-like capabilities to engage readers more deeply. And what reader wants to sit around waiting for an entire 96-page PDF to download before they can start exploring its content? As with a desktop website, publishers should curate their content for mobile engagement and focus on delivering the right experience for the right device at the right time—instead of trying to turn tablets into a paper delivery device. Tech Review realized their error and have since taken the PDF replicas off of their app and now have live streaming articles.
Rule 3: Don’t chain content to design. Editors shouldn’t have to deal with design code or the mechanics of layout—especially when that layout will have to change depending on the device a reader uses to access an article. Instead, designers can create templates in standard web protocols that allow editors to choose whatever layout they want, without the risk of breaking the design. This allows editors to focus on editorial, and designers to focus on design, while providing unlimited flexibility—and creativity—to present each article in the best way for each platform.
Rule 4: Think about the day after launch. A digital edition is never truly “put to bed.” A mobile app needs to be updated constantly with fresh content, enhanced usability, and new features. How will you get this done and who will do it? If you hired a development firm to build your app, then will you have to keep paying them for every change? If you build it in-house, will your editorial team be constantly at the mercy of your IT department’s workload? Find a simple, cost-effective way to flow your content everywhere your readers want to experience it or you’re likely to find yourself sharing in Tech Review’s misery.
Rule 5: Make friends with the cloud. The platform-independent nature of the cloud is a precious gift for publishers. Instead of having to create, update, manage, and analyze separate apps for iOS , Android, and HTML5 apps in addition to their mobile website and desktop website, a cloud-based strategy makes it possible for content to be published once, and then enjoyed on any device. Similarly, updates can be performed once in the cloud, and propagated automatically at the same time across both smartphones and tablets. The same is true for monetization and analytics, which are unified in the cloud rather than being fragmented in platform-specific silos. The cloud could have saved Tech Review a lot of time and money—and saved its native apps from their impending demise.
The iPad and other tablets were supposed to be a boon for the publishing industry, giving content creators new ways to connect with and engage readers. This potential still exists—in fact, it’s stronger today than ever. By learning from the mistakes of the first wave of PDF replicas and development-intensive app strategies, publishers can find the mobile success they’ve been looking for–in the cloud.
PJ Gurumohan is the co-founder and CEO of cloud solution provider GENWI.