We were not able to go to this year’s PPA Conference. We had better go next year. We have not gone in previous years, because it was two days and (to speak frankly) seemed to be over-full of over-complacent industry, grandees and non-experts. To judge by the tweets emerging from this year’s shorter, one day conference, it was a more realistic and a more grounded get-together. I am also judging, perhaps unfairly from some short reports on the goings-on at Mediaweek. The reports suggest that timely and pressing issues were being addressed.

Here are some good signs: the industry grandees included Tim Brooks (Guardian ex-IPC), Stevie Spring (Future), and Evelyn Webster (IPC) and although these are all genuine magazine grandees, part of the good and the great of the sector, I would put them at the ‘grounded’ end of the ‘waffle/’hands-on’ spectrum. Their reported remarks show this: Stevie Spring “some things are much, much, much better done digitally than they are in print”. Tim Brooks noted that the industry’s ad share had slipped by17% since 2007. He predicts: “in future there will be fewer magazines” and the brands that survive will be multi-platform.

Three more good signs from the conference: (1) there was a good stream of active tweeting; (2) timely and important issues were being discussed in the technology streams, especially the iPad and User-Generated Content furthermore a senior Facebook executive had been invited to join a panel; (3) the overall tenor of the proceedings seems to have been that the industry knows that it faces plenty of challenges.

There was clearly some discussion of the iPad, but perhaps with insufficient enthusiasm. Juan Senor gave the opening introductory session on “Inspiration and Innovation”, but the Mediaweek report makes him sound at best lukewarm:

He admitted the iPad was a “fascinating and revolutionary product” but warned the way it is approaching publishers in these embyronic days should sound alarm bells.

“Apple will keep pricing control and consumer data, which is the basis of marketing,” he said.

He told publishers to negotiate strongly with Apple to make expanding onto the iPad platform viable. Mediaweek

Perhaps Mr Senor is being inaccurately reported by Mediaweek, but these do not seem to be particularly insightful comments (and the headline taken from his remarks is particularly inane ‘Apple expect to make money off our backs’ — Apple’s distribution arrangements are not unreasonable and of course Apple expects to make money from iTunes!). There is no doubt that Apple is doing a lot to maintain pricing control and to retain all consumer data, but keep it in mind that the Apple system allows publishers to distribute stuff for free to Apple customers, there is no charge for that. This is a service which costs Apple something. Also, remember that for all its ‘control’ Apple is not telling magazine publishers at what price they must sell their magazine apps (the app regime is less controlling than the music store in iTunes). The control extends to setting pricing levels and ‘regions’ in the global market. Not unreasonable matters for Apple to regulate. Furthermore publishers who care about getting customer data are much better advised to look for ways in which they can even so participate in the Apple eco-system to develop their own products and services than to spend time ‘negotiating’ with Apple to change course. Apple will change its course when publishers can demonstrate that there are better ways of serving the customers. Futhermore there is a lot that can be done with the Apple solutions which enables publishers to extend and develop their existing relationship with their customers and to retain and collect their own data. Publishers should not be encouraged to bleat but to experiment and offer solutions.

Another speaker (Gavin Dutch) is reported as being bearish on the prospects of publishers making significant revenues from paid for apps and in-app purchasing. To this I would respond, that very few (pitifully few) magazine publishers have yet developed or experimented with in-app purchasing. A few of the publishers who partner with Exact Editions have done so, and all the magazines that we have launched with in-app purchasing have had a promising start. Of course, the revenues collected in the first month or two are small, but they are highly encouraging. Users are trialling magazines with our freemium apps and a proportion are upgrading to the full subscription. Readers are finding the free apps. Consumers who have tried the samples provided are willing to purchase full magazine subscriptions with in-app purchasing. The system really works. It now needs to be grown with a lot more magazines. The iPad really is changing the digital landscape for magazine publishers and they need to get moving if they want to benefit from the shift in consumer attention.

There is a change afoot, the iPad and Facebook are at the cutting edge of the changes affecting the industry and it is very exciting…. Stevie Smith is quoted as noting: “all of the changes that are driven by technology are feeding back into changes in consumer behaviour at a speed that we’ve never seen before……..The good news is that the next three years are going to be better than the last three.”