Four Lessons from Four Years of Digital Content Publishing

Although mag+ as a project has been around since about mid-2009, we count April 3, 2010 as our official launch date, because that’s the day the first iPad was released and the first mag+ app—Popular Science+—debuted to the public.


Four years and some 3,000 apps later, we’ve learned a thing or two about publishing content to mobile touchscreen devices—mostly that this space is still constantly changing and whatever we thought we knew may change tomorrow. So while I’m sure we’ll learn even more tomorrow, we thought this was a good moment to stop and reflect on four of our biggest lessons from our first four years in business.

1. The tablet is not a magazine.

This sounds obvious, and it was one of our core principles when we built mag+, and yet, four years later, what the vast majority of publishers are doing on the tablet is replicating their print product (nicely redesigned or not, it’s the same product) and trying to replicate their print business. The app ecosystem and the touchscreen mobile devices could not be more different than the print world, so why are we still pretending we don’t need to invent new products and new models for it? Partially because budgets are tight, and innovation takes investment—though not nearly as much as people think. But also because the industry is missing inspiration—some hit apps that break the mold and break the bank. But a new model is coming, I promise, because of these two facts: The world is going mobile and content is not going away. People who produce content for a living are going to have to figure out how to do it for mobile or watch their businesses shrink.

The web is the perfect analogue: In the early days, publishers simply put their magazine content online, and they didn’t make any money. Then the Gawkers of the world came along and showed what online publishing could be. Now (nearly 10 years later) the most innovative publishers—Forbes, Atlantic, New York mag—are making money online, and what they’re doing there is not what they’re doing in print, but still fits perfectly within their brand.

Apps will not replace print any more than the web did. What it will do is add another slice to the overall pie, and since the print slice is shrinking, publishers need to stop looking at the tablet and phone as just distribution channels for their legacy product and start treating it like a new line of business or four years from now, someone else will have shown them how to make content work in mobile and they’ll be playing catch-up.

2. The app market is still in its infancy.

Yes, we tout growth numbers for the app market—800 per second downloaded, $25 billion a year—as much as anyone, but the fact is this is still early days. There are very few truths established and much of the business model still has to be figured out.

First, app marketing is voodoo. Sure you can buy downloads, as games do, but the return is not great, and not consistent—conversions for in-app purchase run from .01 to 5 percent. And it’s still too early to really know what your lifetime value of a customer is. New tools are emerging, and the app stores are going to have to do more with search and discoverability to enable more app developers to sustain these businesses.

Second, there is no ad model yet. In-app banners are a terrible user experience and don’t pay, but no one has really created anything better yet. Since the eyeballs are going to mobile, it is inevitable that an ad model will follow, but when is anyone’s guess. Even the Web is still dealing with ever-sinking CPMs and fake traffic. Fortunately for content brands, native advertising is an option and a potentially lucrative (and low-tech) one.

Finally, we’re still not sure what people want from their apps and their devices, especially tablets. A product category growing as fast as this one has makes it hard to nail down legitimate trends, as the demographics and patterns of your users keep changing.

3. Engagement is what matters most.

One thing we do know—and the web is learning as well—is that eyeballs are the wrong commodity to count. In the app world, unless you’re a hit game, you just will never get the numbers you have in print or online—the market is too fragmented. But what you can get in apps—and this has been shown time and again over the past four years—is engagement. Unlike the Web, apps create immersive environments that suck users in.

The trick of course is that you’re competing against all the other apps (and videos and sites), so retention is tough. But that’s where the new crop of mobile relationship management tools like Appboy and Localytics are stepping in. And when we ultimately get an ad model, it will not be built on our old friend “rate base”—it’ll be built on real, measurable engagement and maybe even utility.

4. This is the greatest time in the history of the world to be a content creator.

A. You have never had a larger and more easily and cheaply reachable audience. The speed with which your content can reach literally billions of people is mind-boggling. And while mass audiences may be getting smaller, small audiences are getting bigger. If fishing for trout is your thing, it’s never been easier to find all the people in the world that also like fishing for #trout.

B. It’s never been cheaper to publish content professionally. Sure, anybody has been able to throw up a blog since the late 1990s. But with social channels, sites like Medium, tools like Atavist, and app platforms like ours or others, you can publish professionally packaged and curated content for a few hundred dollars and put a buy button on it by checking a box. The one-click purchase model of the app store is its true innovation.

C. There’s never been a greater appetite for content. When I was a kid, the TV was going to kill reading. Now we read more than we ever have, and we watch more video and we look at more images. People still want all of it. They want more. Content channels are not dying, more are popping up all the time, both curators and creators. And with second screens, our appetite for content is so voracious we’ve actually figured out how to expand what was supposed to be the one fixed limit for how much we could consume: the time in a day. That’s a great trend for those who make or traffic in content.

More information about digital content publishing with Mag+.