Keeping pace with the dramatic changes on the smartphone and tablet front is no small feat for any publisher, but doing so presents a particular challenge for smaller companies without a safety net of funds for experimentation with platforms that are at once in their infancy and yet increasingly seen as essential.
For many, the first question is: do we create the apps ourselves, or partner with vendors?
For its iPhone apps, Wells Publishing, a b-to-b media company serving the insurance industry, spent a one-time fee of $4,000 with an outside developer in early 2010 but decided before long to build them in-house. “When you use a vendor, you lose a lot of that control,” says Wells’ VP of design Guy Boccia.
Apps for the iPad, though, have been another story. At first, Boccia says his team considered building them in house but soon saw the continuous changes and updates and lack of specifications were too great a challenge. “We realized we were better off buying a product that will give us a guarantee so we wouldn’t have to worry about changing what we built and training every two weeks.” After working with three different vendors within two years, Boccia says he feels the changes have slowed down enough, and his team has learned enough, to bring development in-house.
Music magazine Spin partnered with Bottle Rocket Apps for its highly successful Spin Play app, named to the top five in Apple’s Newsstand Rewind for 2011. Brand creative director Devin Pedzwater, who led its development, attributes this to it being more than just a replication of the magazine. “We looked at software options we could have used to build the app ourselves, but we decided to go with Bottle Rocket because they took a different approach, and we wanted that.”
Racer X Illustrated publisher Filter Publications, on the other hand, wanted a simpler format for its Racer X iPhone app and went with AppMakr software. President Bryan Stealey says he mostly built the app himself, with a little help from a developer, and the service at the time was free.
For its widely successful gaming app Mad Skills Motocross, however, Stealey says its partnership with Swedish developer Turborilla, which owns the game and pays a revenue-based fee to Filter in exchange for branding, was essential. “There are partnerships to be made,” he says. “Developers don’t seem to innately be great marketers. They know how to make something that people want to use, but don’t necessarily know how to get it out there.” The game has hit a worldwide rank of number two for paid iPhone apps in the App Store and has reached number one in the racing category, exposing the Racer X logo to millions of people.
Tailoring a Strategy
The key, says Pedzwater, is to know what best fits your audience and tailor a strategy to that. Spin, for example, has focused only on the iPad for now. “When we made the investment, iPad apps were brand new territory, but we took an approach that said this is where we see our audience going, and we can be successful here. Looking back now and seeing how it has shifted our company in a digital direction and benefited the brand overall, it’s well worth it.”
Boccia makes a similar point: “You gain momentum when you’re on three or four devices, but trying to cover all of them isn’t possible. You have to ask how many users you’ll bring in from each device, and is it worth it?” He emphasizes the advantage of waiting: “I’ve learned not to be first to the market because typically there’s going to be a bleeding edge. You’re going to get hurt. It’s probably better to wait a couple months to let things settle.”
Pedzwater agrees: “We set out pretty early and had a long track to think about it. We started with Bottle Rocket on the basics, sketching it out with pencil and paper, until we reached a decision on what we wanted. We ended up with something unique, so that time spent was well worth it.” He warns, though, not to underestimate the time it takes for data conversion, as cleaning up web and content feeds was an unexpected time drain leading up to launch.
The Road Ahead
While the trajectory of all this change is hard to foresee, it’s important to be in position to handle them. Pedzwater says his Spin has reworked its entire workflow around digital, without diminishing print. “It actually makes print stronger,” he says. “I think we’ll continue to keep pushing to make this its own product, separate from what a traditional magazine can do. It’s fun to see how far we can push that, and it makes us better able to take advantage of what print does really well.”
While Boccia has faced greater challenges with developing apps for iPad than the iPhone—and though the iPhone apps have so far yielded a healthier return on investment—he sees real opportunity with the tablet platform, especially in 2013. Average users spend sixteen minutes on his company’s iPad apps versus two minutes on those of the iPhone.
“Engagement will become a much more important metric going forward, versus number of downloads,” says Boccia. “Advertisers are still shy about the iPad, but there’s a story to tell, a definite market for it. Sales people just haven’t figured out how to tell it yet.” For this reason, he says, developing a focus on analytics is essential.