iPad Usage is Shooting Through the Roof

We yesterday introduced a straightforward way for our publishing partners to access Google Analytics reports for any of the individual titles that we host for them. Data is available in the amazingly atomic detail supported by Google Analytics, for each title, issue, and page. Also, Google makes it very practical to select specific date ranges, whereas the data we had previously collected from our own logs was lumped together in coarse monthly buckets. The traffic data is aggregated for each magazine, so there should be no privacy issues. Furthermore, each publisher has access to his own data, and stuff that is generic or ‘cross publication’ is not reported via the Google system. The data spigot for each magazine can be switched on as soon as a publisher sends us their Google Analytics code…..

I love the way Google Analytics can provide flexible geographical breakdowns of the data it aggregates:

33 visits from Bari and 71 from Bologna.

Whenever we collect data on our users we are surprised by the extent to which the iPad is making such a big difference to the digital magazine business. Here are a few data points:

  • In the last year we have had more visitors to our website from iPad users than from the iPhone (this time a year ago there were no iPads anywhere outside Apple)
  • These iPad users read/access twice as many pages as iPhone users
  • The iPhone usage has also shot up in the last year. Six times as many visitors this year as in the previous 12 months.
  • iPod usage is also significant and is at about the same level as Android usage. Much smaller than iPhone use but, surprisingly, slightly more sticky (both Android and iPod are slightly stickier than the iPhone)
  • Blackberry and Symbian use is low, and Windows barely registers (guess that is Windows 7?)
  • Our aggregate visits from mobile users (March 14, 2010- March 14 2011) have increased more than 10 times from the previous year (1000%+)
  • Looking at one particular magazine which has been quite popular on the iPhone/iPad, it has had over 20,000 freemium app downloads in the last year and roughly one in 6 of those freemium downloads has led to a sale.
  • We regard 1 in 6 as a good conversion rate. The conversion rate for different magazines varies enormously.
  • Price is a big factor in the conversion process.
  • iPad sampling has marginally outdistanced iPhone sampling. This is really surprising since there must be at least 10 times, perhaps 20 times, as many iPhones as iPads in the market for this particular magazine (which has mostly a UK circulation).
  • We do not yet have relative conversion rates but we would expect the conversion rate to be significantly weighted to the iPad — we know this from smaller samples.

I guess it is possibly worrying that Google know so much about our system, our traffic and the usage of our publisher’s digital assets. Google know so much about all of us. But they do make it easy for web site owners to find out what they know! Apple must have just as much detail on the use of the apps we provide for iTunes, but like all other Apple developers we have access to very little of what Apple must know about the usage of apps.

On the other hand our publishers are now in the position that they have access to what Google know about the digital distribution of their magazines and something of what Apple know. Google and Apple are pretty much ignorant of the other guy’s data. At Exact Editions we see it as our task to help publishers get their digital magazines on as many platforms as possible and to maintain an overall control of that distribution and data. That ultimately gives publishers a position of some strength.

InterDependent Content?

John Battelle has blogged a very intriguing essay on the distinction between the dependent and the independent web. Here he makes the distinction:

The Dependent Web is dominated by companies that deliver services, content and advertising based on who that service believes you to be: What you see on these sites “depends” on their proprietary model of your identity, including what you’ve done in the past, what you’re doing right now, what “cohorts” you might fall into based on third- or first-party data and algorithms, and any number of other robust signals.

The Independent Web, for the most part, does not shift its content or services based on who you are. John Battelle: The Interdependent Web

Battelle goes on to point out:

Consider the sub-category of “content” on the web. It’s a very large part of what makes the web, the web – millions of “content sites,” ranging from the smallest blog to ESPN.com. Most of these sites don’t change what they show us depending on who they think we are. John Battelle: The Interdependent Web

Perhaps a paradigmatic example of what Battelle is getting at here would be Wikipedia, which in spite of being a construct of millions of authorial and editorial acts is pretty much the same wherever or from wherever you are looking at it. But, hold on a moment, note that Wikipedia is changing all the time, and in ways that can be hard to predict (mostly it is getting better) and it is thus highly time-dependent. Independent of the ‘self’ perhaps? Certainly, Wikipedia aims at a crowd-sourced balance and neutrality. But note the variety of languages in which Wikipedia is now developed and edited. Nevertheless, Wikipedia is a standard bearer for web independence, rapidly changing, multilingual but determinate, and in a certain sense ‘objective’. More and more our content services are becoming dependent services. They are not merely web sites. What you see and read depends on who you are and where you are, what you are doing; and you only read bits of what you are reading.

A very strong example of the way in which content services are becoming ‘dependent’ in John Battelle’s sense is offered by the iPad app Flipboard. Flipboard is a pure content service but is totally ‘dependent’, the only element of ‘editorial voice’ that emerges concerns the degree to which Flipboard selects and promotes particular channels (eg this week Davos). Flipboard is not really a web service. It is an iPad app, plain and not so simple, but it aggregates a large number of web-based publications (usually via their RSS streams) and presents them to its subscribers with Facebook and Twitter resources inter-leaved in the content mix. What you see and read in Flipboard is very dependent on the choices you have made in the past, both in Flipboard and in your daily activity on Twitter and Facebook. The user is continually creating and assembling his/her own Flipboard anthology. A hallmark of dependence: no two Flipboard users will see the same content flow — though for sure many components may be viewed in common. One of the key points about Flipboard is that it is at this point iPad-only. Flipboard is a hugely ‘dependent’ system, its shape is completely determined by its user’s profile and activity and yet it is also completely dependent on web technologies and resources though not itself a web resource. There is no Flipboard web service, of course the company has a web site, of course Flipboard uses the web very intelligently. I can link you to stuff that I am seeing and reading on Flipboard, but Flipboard is not itself a source of content. I can’t even ‘Flip’ you the page of Tweets that I am looking at right now…. (OK so here is a screen shot)

Flipboard works, and in my view it works very well, because it builds on mechanisms which were well established well before the iPad arrived. Publications, especially magazines and newspapers have been struggling to adapt to the web by developing their own ‘dependent’ web services which complement their existing and hard to monetise independent web sites. RSS feeds were an obvious example of this urge to match the daily, weekly, periodical content to the circumstances of users. But blogs and comment functions are equally significant as mechanisms through which ‘content’ resources have been trying to match their publications to the various ways in which their audience can engage with a publication through the web. What Flipboard brilliantly shows us is that the magazine (or the newspaper) itself can be pulled through to the iPad environment and appreciated or enjoyed as a quasi-magazine on the iPad. The RSS feed hauls the pictures and comments and some of the layout through into the iPad app environment.

Whether Flipboard will itself become a commercially important channel for magazine publishers is another matter. But it certainly shows the industry that it is possible to deliver magazine content to the iPad environment in a form which is both attractive and enjoyable. For magazine publishers the real challenge is now to find out how to deliver the whole magazine in various forms and via a plethora of reading devices and reading environments to readers in a consistent and self-contained way. This is why the publication “as an app” has strong appeal for publishers and the existing audience. The big challenge for the publisher is to see if the magazine or newspaper app, whether on third generation iPad or a second generation Android tablet, can be a satisfactory way of presenting a full publication better than it could ever have been in print. So that in 2015 you know that what your sister is reading on the Samsung Squiggle, or the Amazon Kindle Mk5, is the same thing as the you are reading on the iPad iNfinite…. The challenge is to make publications as dependent as they can be on the whims, devices, preferences and circumstances of the reader but as independant and as reliably referenceable as web pages and print publications. InterDependence is the goal.

Magazine Publishers and Horse Dentistry

It seems that every other day brings a new bout of moaning about the limitations of the Apple iPad system as a digital magazine platform.

But are these complaints justified, or is it really an indication that magazine publishers are both missing the bus and looking a gift horse in the mouth? The latest piece of mis-guided bleating comes in an otherwise sensible article from Damon Kiesow in Poynter Online. He says:

What publishers and consumers need from Apple is a real digital newsstand, which would allow:

  1. One-stop shopping for multiple publications
  2. The ability to buy a single issue or subscribe
  3. Capability to connect print and tablet subscriptions, including any package discounts
  4. A central location to access purchased or downloaded publications
  5. Sales via iTunes or a publisher’s own circulation system, with royalties adjusted appropriately

Damon Kiesow 3 strategies emerge for charging for iPad publications

These sound like reasonable requirements. But the plain fact is that iTunes and the app store pretty much does all that right now. Let us take them one at a time: (1) iTunes is a one stop shop for lots of publications, it is hardly Apple’s fault if plenty of magazines have not ventured in there yet. Even so, the iTunes news stand is better stocked with newspapers and magazines than any other digital news stand. And getting stronger. (2) (the ability to buy single issues or subscriptions) as Kiesow acknowledges earlier in the article Apple through the iTunes app store allows publishers to sell single issues or subscriptions (at Exact Editions we enable publishers to sell 30 day subscriptions to their magazines which is not the same as selling single issues; but there are plenty of publishers and platforms selling single issues through iTunes) (3) (connecting print subscribers to apps) but as Kiesow recognises there is no obstacle to a magazine publisher connecting its existing paid subscribers for free to the app which is being sold by Apple in iTunes (he cites the experience of People magazine, but at Exact Editions we are encouraging all magazine publishers to do this: connect your existing subscribers for free through the branded app which you are offering in iTunes. This is completely within the letter and spirit of Apple’s rules and guidance). (4) is completely baffling, because iTunes so obviously just is that; iTunes is a central location for e-commerce, for storing magazine issues and for providing users with access to archives. How would or could an Apple kiosk do that better? (5) (a system for ‘sharing royalties’) is already in place and Apple has the rather marvellous adjustment that a publisher can choose how to play the game, the publisher can either sell via iTunes in which case he will find that Apple have taken a 30% commission from the sale, or he can choose to give the magazine away, or indeed provide free access to subscribers from whom the publisher has charged an annual or monthly subscription (outside the Apple system). Not only can publishers connect customers who they have acquired via the iTunes system to their existing deals and print-based offers and incentives, but they can do that without paying Apple a cent for the business which is happening outside iTunes. Apple is being a lot more ‘open’ about this than will be some of the competing digital news-stands that are coming along.

All this should be known to the complainers in the magazine industry and I think that the real source of the griping, grumbling and equine mouth inspections is elsewhere. Perhaps these are the real problems:

  1. iTunes is not a complete digital back-end system for magazines. Publishers are used to having a specialist distribution house handle all complications to do with physical distribution and maybe they are hoping that Apple would be able to do this in the digital sphere and look after the magazine publishers special interests in the way that fulfillment houses have done. Once this is formally stated the idea is ludicrous, but some magazine experts talk as though its Apple’s job to deliver, in full working order, the digital back-end of their industry. This is perhaps the burden of Kiesow’s request that the putative Apple kiosk should ‘connect’ the print and tablet subscription (‘including any packet discounts’ — I like that requirement: consider the extreme complications that could arise from blending infinite varieties of print/digital discount packages the magazine publishers will dream up; that modest requirement will keep Apple’s engineers busy for years). But Apple is not in the magazine or newspaper business and it is not their job to build a system which solves the transitional dislocations of those industries.
  2. iTunes does not have an exclusive magazines-only zone. Like the iBooks store. This is true, but it may be a good thing for the magazine industry that Apple does not have a required format and delivery solution for magazines. The jury is still out on the iBooks solution, and perhaps Apple is being very wise in waiting to see how digital magazine delivery evolves. Why should they plump for a possibly half-baked digital standard when we still don’t know what the right digital format for magazines is? Certainly Apple has not solved all the problems of digital magazine production, the result is that there is a rather interesting ferment of development and innovation. If Apple had developed a pre-packaged solution (cf Amazon and their so far half-hearted and not very good magazine delivery) we would not be witnessing these exciting experiments within iTunes.
  3. Apple is not being friendly enough to the existing magazine business. There have been a chorus of complaints about Apple not providing sufficient information on app usage to developers, or to magazine publishers who produce apps. The magazine industry is used to having its own tame auditing service (ABC and BPA being two of the biggest industry consortia providing such information), specifically geared to the magazine industry and its advertising customers. Apple has shown no signs of opening up its books to ABC or the BPA and is frankly unlikely to do so. Why should Apple be unmovable in this respect? Primarily because the business of auditing advertisements has moved on, and there is now no conceivable rationale for having an advertising metric which is exclusively tailored to the magazine industry. Google, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook etc will be the advertising networks that count in the future and they will all be trans-media (web, TV, film, digital publishing, social networking all in a big mix). Since 2005, the boom in digital advertising has shown that measurement and auditing is so closely tied to implementation and operations that it is naive to seek to recreate a magazine-specific analysis or distribution solution. Digital magazines will need advertising but they will need to work with digital solutions and digital metrics which are not narrowly specific to one industry or one media type. It certainly is not in Apple’s game-plan or in their interest to gerrymander a magazine specific solution for reporting and measuring usage on magazine apps.
  4. It is hard to sell magazine subscriptions through iTunes. Kiesow correctly points out that Apple enables publishers to sell subscriptions, and there has never been a problem about doing this (we have been doing so at Exact Editions since the iPad launched). In contrast to Android, Apple in iOS 4 and iTunes actually has a rather effective way of providing in-app purchases of subscriptions. The problem for the magazine industry is rather different: iTunes customers are hugely biased towards buying stuff that is at the low end of the iTunes price matrix. It is very hard to sell annual subscriptions to magazines through iTunes at the prices that magazine publishers would like to charge (and perhaps need to charge). This is a real problem but it really is not Apple’s fault, and they can hardly blamed for this supposed shortcoming. iTunes works very well for low-priced transactions. But it is hard to see annual magazine subscriptions through iTunes flowing off the digital shelves at prices of £20/$30 and upwards. So it will be interesting to see how Newsweek fares with its experiment of selling 6 months subscriptions through iTunes at $14.99. iTunes apps are pretty ‘frictionless’ when priced at $0.99 or $1.99. But it is much harder to sell subscriptions at $9.99 or $19.99. Perhaps Newsweek will start a trend, or maybe magazine publishers should stick with the scheme of using iTunes for customer acquisition and then upselling them to an annual subscription purchased via a credit card direct from the publisher (where consumers are happier to spend $9.99 or $29.99, for a publication they really value).

The conclusion that one should draw from all these niggling gripes about Apple is this: publishers do not realise how lucky they are, magazine gurus should stop complaining and use the Apple service for the tasks it performs so well, and get on and sell or freely provide (in the case of existing subscribers) access to the magazines that they can now deliver digitally or in print. When you think about it, it clearly would not be a good idea for the magazine industry if Apple did provide a complete and end-to-end solution for digital magazine distribution. Magazine publishers need Android, and Windows 7 and pure web distribution to preserve their independence and choice. They need alternative channels for magazine distribution not just an iTunes route to market. Magazines, not Apple need to control and manage their own digital distribution, and if Apple were suddenly to produce a comprehensive digital magazine service, this would be dangerously sedative if it stopped innovative publishers from looking to alternative digital distribution routes and technologies.

Adobe’s Magazine Solution for the iPad

Here is an informative video podcast from the Adobe evangelist Terry White: “Adobe Digital Publishing to the iPad: A First Look”

It is a 15 minute overview of the solution for building iPad apps that Adobe is building for magazine publishers. As you might expect there are some neat software solutions in the package, especially notable are tools for placing video in a document page, for interactive/panoramic 3D photos and model rotation, and for full integration of a web page in the document. Cool stuff.

But the thing that really struck me with this overview is that Adobe is taking a big, and surely quite a risky bet on the way that we are going to read and interact with digital magazines. Adobe have decided that the information architecture for the digital magazine will be very different from the conventional paginated, linear, sequence of the printed magazine. The Adobe solution is entirely built on the proposition that digital magazines should have a matrix style of layout, with pages arrayed left/right in the horizontal plane, and also up/down in vertical ‘stacks’. This concept seems quite natural for a ‘story’, or a set of photos, or a collection of cartoons, which can be read in the vertical ‘drop’ whilst the ordered contents of the magazine move along in the horizontal mode. This sounds like a logical way of planning a magazine issue and there is apparently no reason why a digital magazine should not be so arranged. We have seen quite a few early magazine apps already employing this, washing-line, information layout, by no means all of them from Adobe’s developers. I am not convinced that users really want to read magazines in this way; but if they do, Adobe will be in a very strong position because they now have a direct set of tools for bridging magazine publishers from the InDesign package with which most high-end magazines are now produced, directly to a file format and an information architecture for the iPad to which Adobe are building an extensive and complementary set of tools.

On the other hand, there are several reasons for thinking that this big bet on the next stage for magazine architecture could be the wrong way for magazines to go digital. Here are some:

  1. Each magazine issue has to be precisely designed for the iPad, perhaps page by page, with adjustments and tweaks. The automatic layout tools in the package cannot guarantee a 100% result. This means more work in the publishing/design stage.
  2. Twice over. The magazine on the iPad should really have two sets of pages adjusted for the different aspect ratios of the landscape and the portrait mode of viewing the device. Terry White suggests in the video that the digital magazine could be designed for presentation in only one orientation, but that really is not a good option for the iPad. Magazine apps, or even ordinary documents, that can only be read in landscape or portrait mode on the iPad feel very lame.
  3. And then the magazine has to be re-engineered again for the iPhone (if that is supported) which has different proportions to the iPad.
  4. Redesigned, or re-tweaked, many times more (it is probably much worse than you think) since magazine publishers will need to review and tweak the magazine layouts again (twice) for as many alternative devices as will require magazine apps with different aspect ratios.
  5. Multi-page, multi-column, layouts work better in the horizontal plane than when read in vertical scroll mode. What do we do about that if the whole of the magazine is being matricised?
  6. This bi-valent, matrix, layout is arguably not a good solution for magazine users, because the arrangement of a digital magazine not only changes in potentially confusing ways as one switches a device between landscape and portrait mode, but it also confuses the reader as one transitions between different devices, or from print to digital. The overhead imposed on a publisher in needing to refine designs for different versions on different screens, is bad enough, but it is outweighed by the cognitive ‘overhead’ for users who need to relearn how to navigate and understand a magazine which is being presented in different ways on different devices.
  7. Are readers going to be happy with a reading style for magazines which is completely different from that used in reading newspapers or books? Are digital books meant to work as well in matrix mode as magazines? What about newspapers?
  8. Will this matrix layout work efficiently when you have magazine apps, book apps and newspaper apps on the same screen; for there will soon be bigger touch screens? Or when we wish to consult two issues of the one magazine? Matrices hog space in both dimensions.

Adobe need to have an app-building solution for the magazine industry where their software is an essential and highly regarded creative tool, but there are reasons for doubting the generality and flexibility of their current approach. If there are a score or more Android hardware devices in the next year — three, four, or five of which achieve some level of consumer acceptance — Adobe’s decision to couple the design of a digital magazine so closely to the screen size and the hardware spec. will be sorely tested.

Khoi Vinh’s Indigestion and the iPad

Khoi Vinh published, last week, a damning and severe critique of the current state of magazine iPad apps. Here are a couple of extracts:

My opinion about iPad-based magazines is that they run counter to how people use tablets today and, unless something changes, will remain at odds with the way people will use tablets as the medium matures. They’re bloated, user-unfriendly and map to a tired pattern of mass media brands trying vainly to establish beachheads on new platforms without really understanding the platforms at all…..

Take the recent release of the iPad app version of The New Yorker. Please. I downloaded an issue a few weeks ago and greatly enjoyed every single word of every article that I read (whatever the product experience, the journalism remains a notch above). But I hated everything else about it: it took way too long to download, cost me US$4.99 over and above the annual subscription fee that I already pay for the print edition and, as a content experience, was an impediment to my normal content consumption habits. I couldn’t email, blog, tweet or quote from the app, to say nothing of linking away to other sources — for magazine apps like these, the world outside is just a rumor to be denied. (My iPad Magazine Stand Khoi Vinh)

In fact Khoi is pretty gloomy about the prospects for the magazine industry:

The fact of the matter is that the mode of reading that a magazine represents is a mode that people are decreasingly interested in, that is making less and less sense as we forge further into this century, and that makes almost no sense on a tablet. As usual, these publishers require users to dive into environments that only negligibly acknowledge the world outside of their brand, if at all — a problem that’s abetted and exacerbated by the full-screen, single-window posture of all iPad software. (My iPad Magazine Stand Khoi Vinh)

There are some excellent responses to Khoi’s depressing account of the magazine industry prospects in the comments which his blog has attracted. The best full-out response that I have seen comes from Mike Turro.

Without a doubt the future of magazines–both as an industry and a publishing framework–is uncertain. However, to write off the reading experience provided by a good magazine as a relic of the print world is extremely shortsighted. When Khoi offhandedly and anecdotally declares “that the mode of reading that a magazine represents is a mode that people are decreasingly interested in” he is assuming (though he does give a slight nod to the contrary) that the current use patterns of the web’s most emphatic users (also iPad’s early adopters) are an indication of the eventual use patterns of the population of tablet users as a whole. Khoi is certainly a smart guy, but it may be a bit early to make that call. (@Khoi Vinh’s Beautiful Mistake Mike Turro)

Mike Turro calls Khoi Vinh’s mistake, “beautiful”. I am not so sure about that — it could be a blunder, attributable to his indigestion through consuming too many unripe apps. It seems to me that ‘magazine designers’ are particularly excited and in many cases particularly disappointed by the possibilities of the iPad, because they have been thinking of the iPad as a new medium and a new design challenge for their typographic and layout skills, as though magazine publishers could own or control the device the way they control paper stocks and printed colour choices. But the iPad is not the medium but a digital device. Magazines will grow and change as they work out the potential of digital media, but they start this adventure the way they are. That is nothing to be ashamed or worried about. The excellence and remarkable quality of the iPad is that it is really a very ‘neutral’ digital enabler and any virtual, digital, media object should be able to thrive in its embrace. We should not be designing magazines (newspapers, books, films) for the iPad but for their audience, an audience that is increasingly digital and which will now have Galaxies and Droids as well as iPhones and iPads, and this means we should now be designing digital resources which can gracefully leap into different devices and across various media platforms. So if there is a reason for sticking to proven formats (pages, paragraphs, layouts, inserts, wrap-arounds, even belly bands and overlays, indices, cartoons, charts and tables) this is not because these formats are inherently digital, they are not, the reason for sticking with them is that the users/readers understand and enjoy this traditional ‘grammar’ of type. Too many of the magazine apps that we have seen for the iPad have been designed and engineered precisely for the iPad in a way that will make them impossible to deliver for the iPhone or the successful Android tablet which will surely appear in the next 6/9 months. A publisher or designer who crafts their magazine app specifically for the iPad is building in obsolescence and writing in tablets of stone a message that should be digital, transferable and evolving. The challenge which the iPad and other digital manifestations of the magazine will present to the publisher is this: how can we make a magazine that works well in print and in a range virtual manifestation on tablets, games consols and many other digital gadgets that we have not even considered yet? As Khoi Vinh and Mike Turro both recognise, this is very early days for the iPad and for tablet apps.

The requirement that a magazine should be consistent across a variety of print and digital manifestations certainly does not mean that it should be the same in those ‘editions’; if, to take a specific and local example, you look at Exact Editions apps you will find that there is stuff that you can do with them on the web that you cannot do with them on the iPad, there is stuff that you can do with them on the iPhone that you cannot do on the iPad and there is plenty that you can do with them on the iPad that you cannot do on the web versions. The various digital forms of a magazine will be different from each other but they should have a common core; and a clever designer will make sure that a 21st Century magazine not only looks good in print, but also in its many digital variants where additional layers of interactivity and sociability will certainly accrue. I have been struck by the insistence with which the readers who subscribe to the magazine we support with apps and digital editions want the app to reflect and to represent the magazine that they know. They expect it to be on the iPad and they do not expect it to be something completely different from the magazine they may have been loyally reading for a decade and more.