There has been a noticeable retrenchment in magazine publishers’ expectations of what an app should do. Mashable carries a quotation from David Carey, President of Hearst Media in the US, one of the industry’s biggest hitters:

When Hearst first launched digital editions for the iPad, it loaded its titles with interactive features — features, Hearst President David Carey said, readers don’t necessarily want.

“We had to find out whether people wanted something all-new and interactive, or if they just wanted the magazine in mobile mode,” Carey recounted onstage at Mashable‘s Media Summit in New York City Friday. “The industry overshot the interactivity early on. What we discovered is that most people just want the product itself,”  Tablet Readers Dont Want Interactivity Says Hearst President

I don’t see why magazines need to abandon the very idea of introducing interactivity and multimedia through their apps, but its refreshing to hear a leading publisher admit that they started off on the wrong footing.

However, I still have a problem with the way in which Mr Carey is framing his proposition. Surely he should be thinking of his audience as buying a service not a product? Because the magazine industry has not only been learning that digital magazines need to be a reasonably simple and straightforward proposition on the iPad, the other big lesson that has been learnt in the last two years is that the digital magazine is a subscription service, not a product at all. Selling subscriptions through iTunes is good news, and publishers are confusing themselves, and more important they are confusing their audience by trying to sell magazine “issues” (ie products) when what the iPad really helps them to do is to sell subscriptions (ie a service). Newsstand does allow a publisher to sell single issues, as well as subscriptions, but does the punter really want a single issue which does not seamlessly transition to a subscription? And how should a publisher price a single issue, when its also possible and almost certainly more attractive to sell a 30 day subscription? Magazine publishers are finding that 30 day subscriptions work very well for them in iTunes, because they have a low price threshold and are highly renewable. But we then find the rather nonsensical situation that a single monthly issue is being priced at a higher price than a monthly subscription, and yet the monthly subscription is likely to bring the user access to two issues, each of which can be synced to the device.

If a publisher ducks this problem by only selling quarterly subs, they have to put the quarterly price to a higher level in iTunes than the sweet-spot low subscription that can be offered with a 30 day sub. Furthermore the 30 day subs are not only easy to buy they have very strong renewability. Once the publisher is thinking solidly of the ‘service’ aspect of their proposition, everything falls in place: sell subscriptions, make sure that they are available through Apple iTunes newsstand with its default easy-renewal option, provide as much archival access as you can through the app, since the service is a service make sure that support is efficient, prompt, efficient and polite; and make sure that forthcoming issues are as vital and vivid as possible. That way customers will be glad to renew and circulations will continue to climb.