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Tablet magazines aren't sinking, they're just setting sail

The pessimists are out in force again. If you believe their doomsday predictions this week, the nascent tablet magazine opportunity, about which there had been much excitement when iPad launched, is already sinking to a watery grave.

Arjun Narayan: chief executive of Picsean Media

Arjun Narayan: chief executive of Picsean Media

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But are reports of tablet magazines' death greatly exaggerated? Let's look at the evidence.

Actual data shows digital downloads are growing, with magazines powered by Adobe’s software moving 50 million copies in the last six months, monthly unique readers trebling year on year and engagement times of 50 minutes per month. That hardly points to a dead medium.

At Picsean, too, our experience of tablet magazines points to a robust adoption of the format from publishers, readers and advertisers.

Yes, Apple’s Newsstand now poses greater discovery challenges to publishers since undergoing changes in iOS 7. But these problems are not exclusive to magazine apps. All App Store apps face the same quest for visibility and relevance. But even within crowded App Store categories like Weather, new developers routinely managed to break through by offering something of value to end users.

Here’s how the tablet magazine dream cannot just stay afloat but power ahead.

Go sexy or go home 

If weather apps can stand out from the crowd, why not publications? The key challenge with which publishers must grapple, then, is not to cry over the spilled milk of Newsstand’s recent changes, but to knuckle down on making engaging, sticky magazines – product that tablet users really want to download.

The answer is to abandon the lazy replica editions that are shovelled from printing press to App Store and instead, to make use of interactive features offered by smartphones and tablets. It is only these compelling, digitally-native magazine experiences that will stand out in the online marketplace.  

Forget ‘magazine’,  think  ‘app 

On an ocean of free web content, what uniqueness do magazines bring to the table? A magazine that, in its print heyday, published cocktail recipes, once enjoyed near exclusivity in its domain. Now millions of websites do the same as print once did, continuing to publish the same old pages in a digital wrapper just won’t cut it.

Magazine publishers have to offer value-added experiences. And that means thinking "utility", not just  "content". What is the optimum modern manifestation for a recipe magazine brand? Is it a tablet publication with a front and back cover, or is it a cooking-timer app, grocery list or video guidebook?

These are the experiences publishers must provide to stand out from the crowd. The end result may be a magazine app, which goes beyond what both print and web can provide. 

The message is not the medium 

The original content of television was radio – so miniscule was our vision for that new medium, we could only conceive of it carrying audio with visual accompaniments. This is where digital magazines are today.

The digital magazine opportunity is far from over. Indeed, most of the potential remains in place. Go ahead and proclaim the death of the tablet magazine as we know it – but only when the industry has created experiences that really take advantage of the new form.

Constantly harping on the death of the digital magazines is not going to give its print counterpart an additional lifeline. However, focusing on the positive aspects of digital publishing and making the most of its potential can pull the industry of the misplaced "doom and gloom" sentiment. The feedback that we are getting from our digital magazines reflects the changing consumer tastes. 

A boom in downloads will not happen merely by putting the magazine on the newsstand. It is a new medium and calls for a new approach.    

Arjun Narayan is chief executive of Picsean Media

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