October 22, 2014 Last Updated 9:29 am

Wednesday column: Using the iTunes Newsstand to promote digital subscriptions

Each Wednesday, Talking New Media invites digital publishing leaders to discuss industry topics, or explain and demonstrate the latest solutions involving digital media. This week’s columnist is Adam Hodgkin, Chairman and co-founder of Exact Editions.

There has been a quiet suggestion in recent weeks that the iTunes Newsstand is somehow letting publishers down. Glenn Fleishman is shuttering the innovative digital magazine The Magazine and whilst not blaming Apple for his decision, he says that Apple has “lost interest” in its Newsstand its digital news publishing hub and this didnt help (Cult of the Mac) and Vidya Gopel, National Geographic’s director of digital marketing and membership, says “The challenge is engagement. Readers are subscribing, but then they forget to come back.” (“Publishers want out of Apple’s newsstand jail” Digiday). There is an almost tangible air of disappointment: “Digital editions sales remain tiny compared with print” Press Gazette.

wscbuyinBut this pessimism about digital magazine apps and iOS should be called out. If you talk to any major magazine publisher they will tell you that at least 80% of their digital subscriptions are coming from iTunes. The iPad is by far the best platform for reading digital magazines. Magazines are probably doing about as well as can be expected on the iOS platform — and they would be doing a lot better if magazine publishers made sure that their apps were actually working well and are not rendered unusable by an iOS update. There will be no names here, but quite a few of the big magazines were completely caught out by the iOS upgrade to 8.0, and some big names are still struggling to get a decent version up and running.

Perhaps magazine publishers have been too complacent in thinking that they can get a magazine app into iTunes and it will then sell itself. This might even have been true, a few years ago when there were only a few hundred magazine apps in the iTunes store. But it is obviously not true now, when there are at least 5000 magazine and newspaper apps in iTunes.

paddingtonAt Exact Editions we are now rolling out a promotional tool which works with apps in iTunes newsstand and allows the user to read a magazine app for free in a specific zone. We think that this is a potential winner for magazines seeking to build subscriptions, because almost all special interest magazines have an affinity with particular places (fashion magazines with shops and hair salons, sports magazines with arenas, food titles with cafes and hotels, music magazines with concert halls etc).

An app with Exact Editions ByPlace functionality will prompt a user to opt-in to free access by location.

When a customer walks into a zone of free access ByPlace they will get a notification to access the magazine app for free. They dont need to be running the app, it just has to be on their device. Yes, there is still a need to persuade the customer to download the app so that its availability on the iPhone or iPad will prompt its owner to the free content nearby, but making the magazine app free or open by location gives the app a powerful promotional tool in its own right. From this perspective, that the iOS newsstand is somewhat ‘hidden’ from the user does not matter.

Publishers simply need to work round this by bringing a free trial subscription directly to a customer in the right place. Its the digital equivalent of putting dump-bins on Paddington Station (or outside Covent Garden for an Opera app) When the customer leaves that place they will no longer have free access, but they will be prompted to buy a subscription when the next issue appears. Publishers are no longer dependent on an ‘overcrowded’ iTunes newsstand to do the selling job, this can be triggered by promotions which build on readers’ associations of magazines with specific locations.

Promotion ByPlace feeds into a very traditional model for building subscriber awareness. We read magazines in waiting rooms, in hotels, on trains and in planes. Our customers now carry magazine reading devices with them all the time. The marketing challenge is to get the digital magazine reading experience to them as painlessly and as pleasurably as possible. They may not have experienced the newsstand app that we already publish and feed with new issues, but if they are in the right place with the appropriate context they can get access instantly.

The serial nature of magazine and newspaper publications gives them a great advantage in using time-based and location-based promotions to attract mobile customers. The publisher who gives away an episode, or an issue or two, of their app is in fact providing a full and free trial to a potential customer. With an app this can be done for zero cost.

Adam Hodgkin started his career as a book publisher (editing the philosophy list at Oxford University Press). He is now Chairman and co-founder of Exact Editions, the London-based company that works with publishers of magazines and newspapers to build apps for a range of platforms. Twitter @adamhodgkin

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