Digital A-List 2010

App for That: Magazines Forge New Vision of Digital Future

Consumers May Not Pay for Content Online, but They're Happy to Purchase for Mobile

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NEW YORK ( -- Everybody knows digital media's arrival hasn't exactly been easy on magazines. Ad rates on the web couldn't match their levels in print, many magazines struggled to build compelling websites, new competition strove to steal readers' attention, and the web itself engendered an attention-atrophied reading style that undermined readers' very ability to settle down with a good, fat print issue.

But as mobile devices added capabilities, app stores took off and the dawn of e-readers and tablet computers finally arrived, magazines have pushed aggressively to participate, experiment and hopefully make money from the new opportunities presented. And with an emerging economy of app "stores," they may have found a way to get consumers to pay once again.

Despite some stragglers, it seems like nearly everyone has an app out by now, at a minimum reinforcing readers' relationships with their brands. But magazines' push into paid digital content, in the form of apps that carry price tags, is looking even more interesting.

Condé Nast Publications, which has taken heat for focusing too much on traditional ad pages, was the first to deliver issues as apps, starting with GQ's December issue. By mid February, it had sold 6,835 copies of the December app and 15,068 copies of the February issue at $2.99 each. That's small potatoes compared with the magazine's print circulation, which averaged 193,440 single-copy sales per issue over the second half of last year. But Condé calls it a start, a play to get in position for the iPad, and probably a net positive in any case, arguing that many of the app purchases will come from people who don't buy GQ in print already.

"We still be studying carefully both through research and analysis and the data we have, but we suspect it's going to be a mix," said Condé Nast Digital President Sarah Chubb. "Maybe a newsstand buyer who bought it on a newsstand sometimes but maybe someone who'd been interested in the GQ brand but for whatever reason never picked it up."

Into the routine
It can be labor-intensive to render issues as apps, too, but now Condé Nast is working with Adobe to not just build an app version of Wired but to fold the creation of these digital editions into the day-to-day creation of each issue. It's also planning to get Vanity Fair and other titles available as apps.

Hearst's Esquire issue app followed soon after GQ. "We wanted to learn how to do it because clearly there is a multiplicity of devices that we're going to be designing for," said David Granger, editor in chief of Esquire. "The second reason is even though the revenue stream doesn't seem to be particularly significant, if I can get 50,000 or 100,000 people paying $3 a month, after a while those three dollars add up."

Maxim came next, becoming the first title to offer subscriptions to its issues-as-apps. And meanwhile Zinio, which has been selling digitized magazine editions for display on computer screens, just introduced a free app that optimizes the digital editions for iPhones. About 20,000 people downloaded the new Zinio app within its first few weeks; on Feb. 12 it was the No. 1 news app, having toppled The New York Times from the top spot, and was receiving prominent promotion in the App Store.

Many publishers, from Time Inc. to Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, are selling apps that don't replicate or enhance regular issues but instead offer practical advice on nutrition, instruction on workouts or updates on celebrities. Rodale apps have been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, about half the time at some cost to the consumer, according to the company. "And I'm not talking about 101,000 apps, either," said Sean Nolan, VP-online operations at Rodale. "We're well in the hundreds of thousands."

Pricing on the Men's Health and Women's Health apps, which comprise the bulk of Rodale's app portfolio, range from free, for Women's Health Best Foods for Women, to 99 cents for a Smoothie Selector, the cheapest app, to $4.99 for Eat This, Not That, an extension of the Rodale book of the same name.

Extra content
There's also the interesting precedent of Rodale's workout apps that let consumers buy new workouts within the apps themselves. One in three people who bought one of those apps subsequently bought additional content from within it, according to Mr. Nolan.

"This is not like the widget craze of a few years ago," he said, referring to the push to build little branded modules that might live on outsiders' sites such as Facebook or MySpace. "There's a real opportunity here."

John Squires
John Squires
Nobody's forgetting the potential, moreover, for new advertising sales. Advertisers' requests for proposals increasingly come with the question: Do you have an app where our advertising can appear?

And perhaps most strikingly, the industry is just not letting each competitor go it alone. Before Apple's iPad was more than a rumor, four big magazine publishers joined with News Corp. to create Next Issue Media, a joint venture that plans to build a storefront to offer digital editions of magazines tailored for whatever devices come along. "We really believe that it's going to be immersive, it's going to be friendly to brand-building and it's going to have incredible impact against consumers, plus some really great metrics," said John Squires, the longtime Time Inc. executive who left to lead the venture while a search for a permanent CEO got underway, in an interview as the joint venture became official last December. "We're thrilled by the opportunity to do what existing print properties do well and what the web does well together."

Early sales figures for GQ's issues as apps show there's at least some appetite for this new circulation channel.

Rodale apps that let users buy extra content from within the apps themselves are finding traction.

Marketers' requests for proposals increasingly inquire after magazines' app inventory and capabilities, according to publishers.

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