New Research Paper on Native Digital Editions

October 2, 2014

Here’s a new read regarding the lack of spectacular success with digital editions on tablets by Jill Van Wyke and Jeff Inman. Titled We Were Promised Jetpacks: The Digital Magazine Non-Revolution and the Waning Promise of an Enhanced Content Explosion, one could read it and conclude that those of us in the space – publishers, providers, editors, ad salespeople, etc. – have missed the early mark.
It’s a good read, if mostly irrelevant to most digital publishers. To see why, one need look no further than the “methods” section of the paper which includes the following: “…we decided a small convenience sample of U.S. consumer magazines was more appropriate.” That line is followed a paragraph later by this one: “…we decided that all sampled magazines would be native to the iPad.” (Emphasis mine.)
I’m reminded of the old joke where one asks an economist how to open a can and he begins by saying, “Assume a can opener.”
Whenever journalists and researchers want to explore the magazine space, they invariably go to large, mass market consumer titles. Maybe because these are titles we know. Maybe because with their large circulation numbers, we assume they possess the Midas touch. But if the Internet has taught us anything, it’s that those with a laser-like focus on identifying their audience have the most to gain, and with all due respect to People and US Weekly, that’s not their forte. Instead, it’s the BtoB titles who’ve learned to dominate the marketshare of their comparably much smaller audiences that have found ways to crack the digital code. Not in all cases, certainly, but to a much greater degree than consumer titles. The researchers correctly pointed out that many of the consumer titles they looked at had low single figure digital circ rates, but neglected to see that many BtoB titles are enjoying 25% or more. (For today, I’ll avoid my popular rant about how comparing circulation to readership is like comparing apples to elephants.) Long before the tablet came along, BtoB titles trumped BtoC titles in digital edition success, yet the authors chose to focus on the latter.
More so than that, however, is the choice to focus on native distribution. Certainly, they’re not the first to do so, but those of us who’ve been in this space for years know that the best way to tablet success is to offer the digital edition via both the browser and native app. While the latter gives you a dedicated branding experience, the former opens you up to search engines, social media, faster access (you can read the article without going to the app store, downloading the app and finding the content). When digital editions made the leap from downloadable PDFs to browser-based editions, readership soared. Focusing on native-only distribution isn’t a step forward in accessibility, but a predictable step backward.
Across the board today, total mobile and tablet readership constitutes nearly a quarter of all Nxtbook readers, but the bulk of these continue to come from the browser. Certainly, there are exceptions, but like all things, readers will follow the path of least resistance and the browser provides that.
This all said, it’s a nicely written paper and does point out many of the flaws committed in those early digital editions. Just remember that in many cases, those flaws were inevitable given the titles, distribution method and investment amounts that defied logic.


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