October 29, 2015 Last Updated 3:09 pm

Towards creating a successful tablet edition launch model

Unlike the magazine business, where there is a formula most publishers follow when launching a new title, no proven model yet exists for launching a new tablet publication

Whenever a high profile publication gets shuttered it usually means there will be those who ponder why the publication failed, is it a sign of something wrong overall? This is no less true with digital publications.

The-Daily-iPad-closed-400In 2012, Slate’s position on The Daily’s demise was clear: Why the World’s First iPad-Only Newspaper Should Be Its Last, though its author ended his column by admitting “I’ve never read it.”

Of course, The Daily was not the last tablet newspaper, nor was it the last one to launch and then be shuttered. The Orange County Register launched, then shuttered an afternoon daily called The Peel, and more recently the Canadian newspaper chain launched three afternoon tablet editions for their papers in Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal which they gave up on after just over a year of publishing.

There are lots of reasons why these tablet publications failed, but the biggest reason is simply that none of the launches were following any established pattern, one that had proven successful elsewhere.

Let’s face it, newspaper executives are not experts at launches. Name even one newspaper executive today who has experience successfully launching a new print daily newspaper? Newspaper launches are costly, risky, and rare.

ThePeel-iPad-update-300Recently, the Freedom Communications’ newish owner, Aaron Kushner, tried to launch print newspapers into the L.A. market, only to beat a retreat quickly.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that newspapers struggle with digital edition launches.

A better guide for apps, tablet editions in particular, would be found in the magazine business where launches are more frequent.

What makes a magazine launch so different from launching a tablet edition is that the publisher launching a print magazine knows who will be reading that very first issue. The publisher sets a number, gets their database in order, well before launching. Sometimes a title, such as Allrecipes, already has a built-in audience, already has readers willing to subscribe before launch.

But just as often the publisher develops a list of readers, sends out the first issue, then works to build subscriptions from that point on. This is especially true in B2B, where the two most important factors in a success launch involve the quality of the database: having a good database of potential readers inside the industry, and having a good database of advertising prospects.

But in the app game, publishers know who they would like to have subscribe (free or paid) to their new digital publication only in the most general of way.

MG-lastissue-280Postmedia, for instance, surely hoped English speaking Quebecers would download Montreal Gazette for iPad and begin reading the daily issues. But who exactly were these potential readers? Instead, any new app is released into the App Store and from day one the publisher begins to track downloads, hoping tablet owners will discover the app inside the Newsstand (now simply the App Store).

If you think about what it would take to launch a success tablet publication, then work backwards you understand how hard it is.

Assume Postmedia said they had attained 100,000 in circulation for Montreal Gazette for iPad, how would they do that? Is it even possible, especially considering that the daily newspaper only has a Monday through Friday circulation of just over 57K now?

Several things would have to be known before hand in order to creative a criteria for judging success for a project such as this: how many people in the Montreal area own iPads? How many are English speakers? How many are likely to download a digital publication app, as opposed to only games and movies?

Here are some numbers to contemplate: the total population of Quebec is around 8 million, of which about 600,000 are English speakers. For there you can start to speculation about how many of these reader are adults or young adults, how many might own a tablet (Pew says that in the US 45 percent of adults own a tablet of some kind), etc.

Having this information would certainly be helpful, but it still not enough.

Print publisher want to have the names and addresses of those that will receive the launch issue before even thinking about printing that first issue of a new magazine.

Tablet publishers would like this information, too, of course – and there is someone who actually has this valuable information: Apple.

Every iPad purchased has to be registered, and an Apple ID is needed to begin downloading even free apps. When creating this ID Apple asks for all this information and more. For instance, to make in-app purchases or to buy a paid app Apple will need a credit card unless the buyer is using a gift card or promo code.

When Apple first launched the App Store publishers complained when Apple would not share customer information with them. For Apple this was all about protecting the privacy of their customers. But publishers are used to buying databases of names and addresses, they are used to working with third parties on subscription mailers and the like. It must remain terribly frustrating to know that the data so essential to a good publication launch exists, but is locked away.

I have launched several new print magazines during my career, and worked at a newspaper company contemplating a major newspaper launched (we chickened out), so I know what goes into a risky new publishing venture. Because of this, I know just what the odds are that any new digital publication launch that is app based has of success. For every La Presse+, which next year will be tablet-only on weekdays, there are others have have launched, then were shuttered.

Barring the unlikely chance that Apple will completely reverse its customer information policies and suddenly start sharing customer data with publishers, what can be done to improve the chances a new digital publication such as those launched by Postmedia and others might succeed?

First, make sure the effort produces a well-design, easy to read digital publication. I think Postmedia did this, their team should be proud. But that won’t be enough, at least one of the next two things must also occur…

Second, have a well-funded, well-thought out marketing plan. (Newspapers executives are great at arguing that local businesses need to market themselves, they are just not that eager to do it themselves.)

Third, have a patience.

Dr. Mario R. García, CEO and founder of García Media, who worked with Postmedia on the tablet afternoon editions, thinks the publishing company needed to give the new publications more time. Any new product needs time to evolve, find its audience, Garcia believes.

Garcia said that tablet newspapers need to combine both the lean-back features of an afternoon newspaper, with the lean-forward features of the web, saying that “if I were doing it all over again with a client, I would suggest a tablet edition that is a combination of the best features of the day, constant link to news and, definitely, an e-paper with tomorrow’s printed newspaper.”

Of course, it might be hard for a company that recently reported that it lost $263.4 million in the year that concluded August 31 to show patience. That’s understandable. But they needed to know that it would take time for their new tablet editions to find an audience – especially since, as we’ve discussed, that potential audience was probably pretty small.

Information, quality product, marketing money, patience. These things will help, but they are no guarantee, and while there are those who would argue that the tablet magazine or newspaper platform might be a dead-end. But I know many others who remain enthusiastic about the possibilities of tablet publishing.

We could just use some more success stories.

Note: Dr. Mario R. García, CEO and founder of Garcia Media, Anthony Ha, writer at TechCrunch, Andrew Lih, Associate Professor School of Communication at American University, and myself, were guests on this week’s MediaShift podcast, hosted by Mark Glaser, where tablets and tablet publications such as those of Postmedia were discussed. An archive of the podcast will be available on the MediaShift.org website.

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