Prior to the launch of the iPad, many magazine publishers hoped that the
iPad might do for them what the iPod and iTunes did for digital music:
provided a viable marketplace for them to sell their wares. Operative
word: sell.

Getting consumers to pay for content has, of course, proven challenging
for many magazine publishers. And despite the warm reception the iPad
has received from consumers, it hasn’t exactly meant overnight success
for publishers that have rushed to develop iPad versions of their
magazines.

According to GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram, one reason for this is that most magazine apps are “walled gardens.” In critiquing Esquire’s new iPad app, for instance, he writes:

The new Esquire app also has plenty of “interactivity,” if by that you mean the ability to click and watch an ad for a new Lexus, or listen to cover boy Javier Bardem recite a Spanish poem, or swipe your finger and watch a timeline of the construction of the new World Trade Center. All of those are very cool — but if you are looking for the kind of interactivity that allows you to post a comment on a story, or to share a link via Twitter, or to post anything to a blog and then link back to the magazine, you are out of luck. In fact, if you like the app or any of the stories within it, your only option is to close the app completely and then email someone to tell them that you liked it.

While he finds flaws with the app’s design as well, he concludes:

…the biggest flaw for me is the total lack of acknowledgment that the device this content appears on is part of the Internet, and therefore it is possible to connect the content to other places with more information about a topic, or related material of any kind, let alone any kind of social features that allow readers to share the content with their friends.

Ingram has a point. Many iPad apps do sort of, as he writes, resemble “an interactive CD-ROM from the 1990s.

But is that really a problem? Let’s be honest here: it’s quite questionable as to whether being able to comment on a story, or post a link to Twitter, is going to induce consumers to spend money on an app. After all, how many consumers are going to say, for instance, “I would have paid for Esquire’s new iPad app if it had a Share on Twitter button“?

Can some of the features Ingram would like to see help create betters apps? In some cases, perhaps. But publishers shouldn’t just assume that the ‘interactivity‘ techies want to see is the ‘interactivity‘ consumers in their target markets really want and most importantly, value. Most internet users don’t comment on articles, and of those signed up for Twitter, most don’t tweet. From this perspective, it’s quite presumptuous to assume that making iPad apps more social will help publishers sell more downloads of them.

Instead, publishers should focus on four things:

The content and experience.
Whether you’re selling a magazine in paper form or on an iPad, the quality of the content and the experience created by how it’s presented determines the perceived value.

The platform. Thoughtlessly repurposing content for different platforms is rarely a strategy for success. If publishers want to succeed with emerging platforms like the iPad, they need to focus on the platform’s capabilities, the expectations of the platform’s users and how best their content can take advantage of the platform’s capabilities to deliver experiences that fit in with those expectations.

The price. Price matters. Period. When the price of a product exceeds the perceived value of the product, selling is virtually impossible. Unfortunately for publishers, the perceived value of even the highest quality content is often quite low.

The business model.
Viable business models don’t just magically appear, and many publishers are struggling to find viable digital models. One questionable aspect of the business models employed by publishers with iPad apps in particular is the presence of advertising. While consumers are used to paying for magazines that contain advertising, in the digital realm, consumers often have the expectation that paid content will be ad-free content.

In considering these four things, some publishers may find that some of Ingram’s criticisms are spot on. However, in many cases, publishers will find that success demands more than just new features or deeper integration with the internet at large — it demands an entirely new product.

Photo credit: Yutaka Tsutano via Flickr.