Developing Apps for Magazines

Are Apps a brand extension? Or Something More?

Currently, Magazine apps aren’t cutting into the profitability of their alter-ego printed forms but publishers should begin thinking about designing magazine apps as a brand extension, if they haven’t already begun to. According to an article in Campaign they “provide a different kind of experience and curated content.” That same article mentions that, “mobile apps might not have the longevity that a glossy [magazine] does, but they aren’t designed to. They serve a completely different purpose-as in fact do our websites- so the consumption depends on the platform.” Charles Lim, a writer for Sparksheet, said that, “Jim Meig, the editorial director for Popular Mechanics [recently] admitted that the science magazine’s iPad edition isn’t profitable, and that it accounts for about 0.2 percent of their circulation of 1.1 million.[1]

In the second half of 2011, Lim notes, “subsciptions to digital editions numbered only 3.1 million – less than 1 percent of total print circulation.” The article also mentioned that in some industries the extras did work. Video game magazine apps for example contain downloadable content such as extra levels and character skins. “For the most recent Call of Duty game, more than 2.3 million players purchased a premium account, which costs almost as much as the game itself.” Publishers can take notes from what this segment of the app market is doing well in order to create the same sort of successes with their own apps.

The article says this phenomenon exists because, “People don’t simply consume a video game, they are consumed by it.” Publishers should create content for apps in much the same way – we have to create content that consumes our consumers and becomes part of their lifestyle and move away from this static mentality that we’re creating content that is simply consumed (such as with printed magazine).

Lim argues that the power of words as far as magazine apps is more important, however. He argues that users want, “a bare-bones experience that’s fast and reliable.” Two apps that he mentions as successfully accomplishing this are: The Economist and The New Yorker. He believes these apps are successful because they provide users with “what they want and expect from these publicationsThey’re full of text.” He says, “These apps require minimal effort to make the jump from print to digital, keeping costs low. They do include some extras, but only the easy, natural ones, like The New Yorker’s cartoon compendiums. They don’t include any superfluous bells and whistles just because they can.”

Lim says that the reason for this success is that “readers like to read” and words translate well onto tablets, which, “explains why e-books are so successful, while magazine apps are not.”

As Neil Robinson, Digital Director for IPC Media points out, “the majority of the most successful apps are games, no publishers are making Angry Birds level of revenues. However, mobile apps are highly valuable to publishers as they enable us to engage with consumers on new platforms and therefore extend our brand reach.”[2]

Amy King agrees, “Apps are a brand extension, built with a different consumption in mind. This calls for publishers to have a deep understanding of consumers and when and where they access their brand.” But apps should not only be thought of as brand extensions. There are other considerations publishers have to make when stepping into the app market and several issues that they have to also work out in choosing their app solution.

Brenda Walker, of EndTap and Zumobi, said in a lecture at SFU that there is a certain amount of discovery that is currently occurring in the app marketplace as more and more apps arrive on the scene. She said publishers have to consider, “Where are the people? Who are they and where are they? And what do they want from me?”[3] She also said that, “there have been some mixed results with companies who are trying to sell the app as a product.”

Issues Facing Apps

Currently the biggest issue in app development for magazine publishing is whether or not to monetize the magazine once it has been developed.

There are a handful of models for monetization. Either the app is offered free to download but when the consumer wants to get additional things they have to pay, or the app is offered for a set cost. There can also be a free with ads model. The problem with this third model becomes that so many app publishers that use it are trying to act like traditional magazines, in the sense that they want to put advertising everywhere, but, according to Walker, “users don’t appreciate that.”

Amy King, Head of Press at MPG Media Contacts says, “Monetisation is definitely an issue. A very large majority of magazine revenue still comes from the print product, and the media cost attached to sponsoring or partnering with apps is not equivalent to the good old page yield. It’s here that publishers will have to get that balance right and come up with a consistent pricing structure that agencies recognize.”

Another issue with Apps is ‘shareability’. Currently, sharing is barely done on Apps.

A third issue that publishers need to pay attention to is the current state of interactivity. Brenda also mentioned that interactivity between consumers and app developers needs to be present because, “you have to make some choices that make rational sense, and actually ask the readers whether or not they actually care, because if they don’t care there’s no point to continue doing it.” Information can be gathered from comments on blogs. One example of where interaction can occur is on Apple’s Newstand. Readers who purchase Apps often leave comments or review the App and give specific information about whether or not the App has met their needs. App Developers could respond to the users, which in turn also reassures potential consumers who are looking at the comments that any issues with the Apps functionality or features have been addressed before purchasing. Magazine App Publishers can also refer to these comments to learn about potential problems with their Apps.

Another thing, Walker says to consider when designing for a mobile device is that, “People don’t read for long periods on mobile phones. Even if the content isn’t small it should be delivered in small enough chunks and if you can’t do that don’t bother.”

New devices are being developed to accommodate more of the features users are looking for in their apps. An example of this, Walkers says is, “Graphics have been blown through the roof with the retina devices.”

Content and packaging considerations for production

Lim explains that, “The future of magazines isn’t text. It’s hypertext. Digital readers expect more than just words. They expect to be able to do things with them: share, click through and sometimes even have a robot parse through them (for search or for screen readers). If content doesn’t contain metadata, then it’s not truly digital. It’s merely an image of text…” He says, “The key to digital content is defining what all those words mean to each other, not just to the larger story. Their findability, editability, relatability, and shareability are dependent on the editorial process of publishers…”

Apps can be developed in multiple ways. Brenda Walker describes one of those ways as through the use of, “HTML and CSS with a native wrapper around it.” Her company uses phonegap in order to engage with the native elements of the device. The nice thing about the way this is packaged according to Brenda is that, “you can take it and put it on the web or take it and put it in an ebook.”

It’s important when developing an app, just as publishers developed a magazine, that they differentiate themselves from their potential competitors if they can. The iPad App Development Guide suggests asking questions like, “What is missing? What can you improve? What added value can you offer?”

For each screen in the app there is a set of html code and a stylesheet that informs what the screen is going to look like and a datafeed (json). It’s also dynamically updated. Most of the publishers Brenda’s company works with are updating their apps frequently.

Key Features for a Great App

  • Functional programming, clean coding
  • High-quality graphics, smooth animation
  • Simple and straight-to-the-point intuitive interface
  • Social responsibility, positive contribution to users
  • Excellent customer service (fast, loving, helpful)
  • Ongoing care for users (requested updates and developments)[4]

Responsive Design

Responsive design is something to keep in mind when developing content for any device platform. Lim says, “Responsive web design allows publishers to be cross-platform without sacrificing content or redesigning from the ground up every time a new device comes out.”[5] This is becoming more of a standard as more devices are coming out, allowing users to get an, “experience appropriate for them,” according to Lim. “If your [app] isn’t mobile-friendly you risk losing traffic, visitors, and ultimately business,” according to Responsive Web Design[6]

When designing apps, it’s important to be aware of how users expect the apps to respond. Christian Apers, of TouchWonders, says, “On a desktop users are more willing wait, but on the iPad users expect something to happen instantly. It’s ironic that iPads have much less computing power than desktops, but users expect software on the iPad to run faster.”[7]

Distribution for Magazine Apps

The four most popular magazine distribution channels are Zinio, Amazon Kindle App, Apple’s Newsstand, and Google Play. While these distribution channels are relatively new and the audiences may not seem significant, they are important because of reader conversion. According to 2011 Texterity and BPA-certified research, “18% of app users say they are “new to the publisher’s brand,” having not previously interacted with the publisher through other media outside of the app, such as the print magazine or website. This represents an untapped audience ripe for conversion.”[8] So where does that leave you to publish your app?


According to Mark Crump, a writer for Gigaom, “Zinio is the oldest, most mature magazine platform on the iPad, and as a result has the largest selection. The music and photography sections are well stocked… Where Zinio’s selection truly shines is the large back issue catalog… The shopping experience is very unobtrusive. Since Zinio’s primary business is selling magazines, it’s very easy to browse the store and purchase magazines from either your browser or app. Zinio does a good job at organizing the magazines into sections, so you can browse just by Photography or Music sections. Zinio has the highest up-front cost of the three options because most subscriptions are for the year, and individual prices are close to newsstand prices.”[9]

Amazon Kindle App

Of the three options, Crump believes, “Amazon has the poorest digital selection with roughly 420 Kindle magazines available. Also the keywording isn’t implemented well; searching on Photography did not bring up Digital Camera World, but searching on Camera did. There are also no back issues available. This is a problem if you get into a new interest and want to get a backlog of magazines. Your magazines are, [however] well-integrated into the Kindle app, showing up in both the All Items view and the Newsstand tab.”

Apple’s Newstand

Newsstand is a collection of magazine apps that are grouped by Apple into their Newsstand folder in iOS 5. Newstand has over 1,500 Apps available. However searching through the apps becomes tedious. For the most part, reading a Newsstand magazine is on like reading a PDF of the magazine. Also, there is no bookmarking or text selecting. An obvious point that bears mentioning is that Newsstand is the only one of the these Apps that’s not cross-platform ,while Zinio and Amazon Kindle work on non-Apple devices.

In order to create a Newsstand or other app for iPad, you need to register as an Apple developer. Apple requires a fair amount of documentation and a review process. Apple has tougher standards for Apps. The Apps need to be operating with minimal errors. The cost is $99 per year.

Google Play

Google Play Magazines has hundreds of magazines, new issues and back issues, for purchase, as well as 14 or 30 day subscriptions, and you can customize your reading experience for your android tablet or phone. It requires an Android device.

To create an Android app, you will need to register as an Android developer. Google’s process is much simpler, and the cost is $25 per year.

Is it worth it to have an App for a Magazine?

When creating an app, publishers have to think about what purpose the app is serving the company. If it’s a brand extension is that really enough? Is it is worth it for a smaller company to have an app rather than just creating one really good online presence? Publishers also have to think about what users they will be creating the app for and the devices that those users are most likely using– it can mean several differences in what specifications are used to create the app–it can be the difference between designing a tablet app and a mobile app or an iPhone app and an Android app.

Anna Washenko, a writer for SproutInsights says, “It’s tempting for brand managers to think that creating an app will immediately boost their mobile performance. Like any trend, however, it’s best to consider your strategy before signing on. What would an app accomplish for your company or client? If most of the goals you have for an app — such as fostering customer engagement, offering deals, or improving brand recognition — align with your social media goals, you probably don’t need it. It won’t be worth the time for your brand to create and launch the program if you are already getting those particular needs met by a social media network.”[10]

EPUB format also supports video and embedded audio, so depending on what kind of functionality you want from the app, that great app idea might actually be a great EPUB idea.

Thinking About Opportunities for Developing Direct Distribution

Publishers getting into the App market need to also consider any developing opportunities where they can directly market and sell their app to their audience directly. There is potential to develop direct marketplaces alongside giants like Apple and Google in order to maximize revenues.

The other thing Robinson says publishers should be aware of is, “not to overestimate the capabilities of web technologies working on mobile plaforms – a good example is the limited effectiveness of mobile ad-serving solutions verses web right now.”

Adopting a Magazine App platform

In the article in Campaign, Robinson Neil gives an important piece of advise for publishers to heed, “don’t underestimate the speed of consumer adoption of new platforms – it is real, is happening now and is getting faster year after year.”

Walker encourages publishers to get an App onto the market as soon as possible and shape it to meet the consumer’s needs after launching it. She says that it’s important to not worry about whether you have the next big thing. “Just build something and release it and let the market start to tell you some things.” She also says, “It’s too late, you’re not going to stand out – everything that’s being done with a phone has been done already.”

Washenko also notes that, “Whether you decide to launch a mobile app or not, you should continue to brainstorm improvements to your mobile presence. Make sure your team is encouraged to be creative, because with an ever-changing mobile marketplace, a great new idea can generate quick success.” Whether you create a mobile app or not, the important thing to remember is to constantly be updating and adding to your presence and addressing your reader’s concerns. No matter how big you build your empire, you still have to maintain it.

[1] Lim, Charles. September 4, 2012. “Turning the Page on Magazine apps: The Future of Digital Content is on the Web.” Sparksheet. <Accessed: 02/04/12>

[2] Robinson, Neil. “Double Standards – How are magazine apps on mobile performing?” Section: Media; Pg. 12. Campaign. August 17, 2012. LexisNexis Academic

[3] Walker, Brenda. January 29, 2013. “Mobile & eCommerce: Marketing & Discovery for the App Era.” Lecture, Simon Fraser University – Vancouver for MPUB.

[4] iPad App Development – Create iPad Apps <Accessed: 02/03/13>

[5] Lim, Charles. October, 13, 2011. “Designing Responsively.” Sparksheet. <Accessed: 02/03/13>

[6] Responsive Web Design. <Accessed: 02/03/13>

[7] Apers, Christian. May 16, 2012. “How to make your apps feel responsive and fast? (Part 1).” TouchWonders. <Accessed: 02/03/13>

[8] Texterity. “Magazine Apps.” <Accessed: 02/03/13>

[9] Crump, Mark. “Comparing Zinio, Kindle and Newsstand apps for iPad magazine reading.” February 20, 2012. Gigaom. <Accessed: 02/03/2013>

[10] Washenko, Anna. Jan. 21, 2013. “Don’t Make an App: Use Social Media and a Responsive Website Instead.” Whether you decide to launch a mobile app or not, you should continue to brainstorm improvements to your mobile presence. Make sure your team is encouraged to be creative, because with an ever-changing mobile marketplace, a great new idea can generate quick success. <Accessed: 02/03/2013>

One comment:

  1. Hi Kimberly, nice overview of some of the considerations for magazine apps.

    It would be good to see some of these pro/con arguments broken down further.

    You mention that “Publishers can take notes from what this segment of the app market [video games] is doing well in order to create the same sort of successes with their own apps.” But it seems to me from the article you’re citing that Lim is saying nobody wants magazine extras so what notes would publishers be taking away from the video game industry?

    Gamers are spending an average of 14 hours a week with a game/app whereas readers are spending an average of an hour a month. Totally different scenarios.

    Instapaper and Flipboard would have been two interesting examples to explore here too as they are presenting possibilities for how magazine-style content can best be displayed.


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