While enthusiast publisher Interweave offers a free app for its online community KnittingDaily.com (which serves as a content aggregator for blog and video Web sites), its focus for the past year into 2011 has been on launching "eMags" that run on Adobe’s Air platform that can be downloaded directly to the user’s MAC and PC. While that may sound like a fairly old-school approach (Interweave plans to have 18 eMags up and running in 2011), it’s also a profitable one that serves Interweave’s audience where they are today.
"We put a publishing plan together for digital eMags in early 2010 even before the iPads had launched into the marketplace," says John Bolton, senior vice president and publisher. "We knew that 95 percent of our existing customer base has access to a computer and could read our eMags, so we could reach the most customers possible. As the tablet devices gain market share and the technology evolves, we expect to adapt our eMags for tablet devices in 2011. For now, we’re creating a great and highly interactive digital magazine experience that has a much broader market potential."
Large publishers may be able to experiment on tablets, but many independent and smaller publishers need to be more conservative about where they put their time and money, especially if a significant return isn’t likely in the short-term.
WTWH Media (which stands for "Willing to Work Harder") is a b-to-b publisher serving design engineers, engineering management and other related engineering professionals in the semiconductor, medical equipment, packaging, material handling, off-road, wind power engineering and solar engineering markets.
Last week, WTWH launched an iPad app (a paid app that costs $2.99) for one of its flagship brands, Design World. Here, WTWH vice president of new media Marshall Matheson shares the considerations his group went through in launching the app.
1. Do you have the necessary tech skills or do you need outside help?
WTWH initially tried using an independent developer to build its iPad app, but that ended up creating more work for the staff internally, so the publisher ended up seeking a third party vendor (Mutual Mobile).
"For a small publisher to do a true app and not just a digital edition, you’ll have to get into software management which may be beyond their core competency," says Matheson. "Deciding on feature set and when to lock down is challenging–people will constantly want to add or see new features, and even small ones added later in development can kill your deadline and budget. So going with a professional third party may be key, with a strong tech lead managing them. But then costs could be significant."
2. How much time, money and people can you put behind an app–especially if revenue won’t be immediate?
So far, WTWH has $25,000 invested in its iPad app (that’s not bad considering Matheson has talked to other smaller publishers who put $50,000 into developing an app).
It took five months to build the app with Mutual Mobile (if you count WTWH’s first start/stop with the independent developer, the timeline stretches to seven months).
It was important to WTWH to develop an app that went beyond a static digital facsimile. "A main driver for the app was to take SEO optimized content from across our network of web sites (over 25 now) and aggregate to an app," says Matheson. "We also wanted to take advantage of the digital interface and the digital environment. By environment I mean a user engaged on a digital device is much different from the psychological engagement when reading print. Our feedback has been that a direct digital translation of a print magazine is not what users want online."
This is where many publishers are challenged with the price / feature tradeoff, according to Matheson. "The iPad screen size and touch capabilities makes it really easy to sort through and push through a bunch of content very easily. A user can quickly navigate to subjects of interest, video or user forums and drill down. From an article, post of video via the app, a user can email, share to social media or save an article for later reading. All the content streams down real time, so when a story or video is posted online, it will propagate to the app."
To account for the constant demands of new content, the "plumbing" for WTWH’s app is based on RSS feeds, rather than a content management system. "Once we publish to one of the sites, within an hour it gets published to the app," says Matheson.
3. Are your advertisers ready for mobile and if not, can you afford this as a ‘learning experience’?
One of the first things to consider is whether there’s revenue behind it. WTWH features advertising in its app but is offering most as value-added. "We can’t go out and sell somebody on the idea that there will be a ton of traffic or impressions," says Matheson. "We knew that would let our advertisers down. We wanted to go down this path, we knew it was coming and we didn’t have to do direct one-to-one with a potential revenue model. We did have a couple top advertisers say that mobile strategies were key to them, and that helped drive our decision as well. "
4. You may need to focus on one device to start, but be ready to move to others quickly.
The ultimate goal is reaching your entire audience across any device they wish, but publishers may need to dip their beaks with one platform to start,
"There is a lot of talk about convergence across all these mobile devices and the Android and everybody claiming HTML5 will converge, but I don’t see that coming anytime soon," says Matheson. "The challenge is that there are some advantages to apps in terms of real-time or being able to load quicker, or load without Internet connection. We have to keep paying attention to the technology. We need to see if HTML5 really does start to change things and you really can have an app type feel through Web browser."
Matheson says the biggest lesson so far has been the need for tighter project management. "Our payoff as earlier adopter is experience with the technologies as well as refining our own apps as we move forward to explore very near future possibilities," he adds. "As pleased as we are with Design World version 1.0, we know we have more work to do and the technology will always move fast.