The rush by media owners to embrace tablets borders on the unseemly. And who can blame them given the continued decline of print revenue and resistance by folk to pay for content on the internet. Tablets, we are told, are much closer to print magazines than to the free-for-all interwebs.
Publishers like tablets because they bring people back into “closed” environments through apps. Closing the circle and getting people to “stick” around on one media property was also the purpose of the mega-portals from the 90s.
Pull people in, monopolize their attention, and revenue must follow; the argument went. Of course people didn’t stay — their reading habits had already evolved to include multiple resources. Portals meanwhile could not offer the specialised content niche sites could, while stiff competition meant inventory could not be fully utilised and ad rates stagnated.
Publishers also like tablets because they bring technology back into the magazine comfort zone — we are able to design content to look like it does in magazine form — from pages you can flip, right down to breaking a screen into two to fit two “pages” next to one another. Preferably with a full “page” ad on at least one of them.
Finally, the argument goes, if a tablet magazine looks like a print magazine people will react to it as they do to print publications — like be prepared to pay for the content they use.
It is understandable that publishers want to take what works in one medium and replicate it as closely as possible on another and then hope to duplicate the business model minus a good chunk of the costs.
But it is a strategy unlikely to be successful because it takes an antiquated view of our reading behaviour, namely insisting the magazine formatted reading experience is as relevant as it was 15 years ago when clearly it is not.
Take the research coming out of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, a collaboration with The Economist Group, which shows that while 77% of tablet owners use their tablet daily, and 53% read news on their tablet every day, only 14% have paid for content on their tablet.
And here is the crunch number for publishers — 78% of tablet owners said that content accessed from a tablet is worth exactly the same as it is elsewhere — and on the web that is free. Only 17% felt it was worth more. Ouch.
And the closed environment publishers have been hoping for? The Pew research shows that 36% of tablet owners don’t even have any news apps loaded — 40% still prefer accessing their news via web browsers, 31% makes use of web browsers and apps equally and only around 21% prefers using apps.
People also prefer accessing their news from reliable sources — i.e. a brand they already like the NY Times or CNN. Even so 65% of tablet users access up top three different news resources via their tablet on any given day.
Finally, while the use of social media is rising on the Web, and 39% of tablet users use social media daily on these devices, social sharing via tablets is disappointing, with 16% of tablet users regularly sharing news on social networks (up only 3% to 19% with the younger 18-29 year old set). Couple the disappointing social sharing rate with indications that people download apps from news brands they trust and this environment becomes closed to publishers rather than to consumers.
A positive for publishers seems to be that people are enjoying the reading experience more on tablets than on either the web or in print. This might well serve as incentive to spend on content in the future as news use on tablets mature and people get used to the reading experience they offer. App stores are in themselves doing a great job in schooling people to shop via their tablet devices. But on balance the Pew research suggest tablets, at this stage at least, isn’t the panacea publishers hoped would rid them of financial decline.
Digital replicas of print products have their place but unless media companies decide to explore the potential of tablets beyond the flip magazine products and gimmicky “interactive” page design we see today they will, like with the web in its early days, leave the space for innovative start-ups to grab the attention and the audiences.
Editorial Note: There is a contrary view which says that online publishers need to think like Magazines.