|Hearst in the USA has just released stats about mobile traffic across its web properties which can act as a good pointer as to where mobile fits into your digital-first strategy? Many technology executives believe mobile should lead, not follow.
• Traffic to Hearst Digital Media websites from mobile devices has increased nearly 2,000 per cent year over year
• 19 per cent of all web traffic came from mobile devices in April, up from 5 per cent in April 2011. Cosmopolitan has the highest percentage of mobile device traffic: 33 per cent of its pageviews are from mobile devices
• Across 10 sites, Hearst has seen an average increase in pageviews of 74 per cent in the first month after launching a smartphone-optimised version of the site. Three brands - Seventeen, Redbook and Popular Mechanics - doubled pageviews in the first month.
• 14 per cent of all subscriptions purchased from Hearst's websites in April came from mobile devices.
• 42 per cent of House Beautiful's mobile traffic is from iPads
Unlike social media, mobile is more than just a content delivery/distribution channel; it's becoming a platform in its own right. That means publishers need to be thinking about building new business models and new content models that are designed from the ground up for smartphones and tablets.
These new models will require a re-imagining of how magazines are designed - and sold. The tablet has enabled the industry to evolve from PDF replicas to digital editions enhanced with audio, video and interactive graphics. But most magazine apps still very much look and feel like magazines.
A short-term view
Transferring the magazine experience to the tablet makes sense for the short term, because it allows publishers to establish a presence in the app stores and test new subscription models. But over the long term, sticking too closely to traditional magazine conventions will limit publishers' growth opportunities.
Which makes the Huffington Post's new iPad magazine so curious. HuffPo was one of the "digital upstarts" that helped to disrupt online publishing with its aggregation model. But its new Huffington iPad app - launched to showcase its long-form journalism - looks very much like a magazine.
Nieman's Justin Ellis writes: "As a magazine, Huffington doesn't break any new ground; it's still got the requisite short diversions in the front and back of the ‘book,' along with photo essays, a graphics blowout, and three long features."
Ellis notes that the higher-quality journalism delivered through the app will allow HuffPo to go after premium advertising and paid content - two revenue streams that it can't get through its current Web-based page view model.
But this type of me-tooism, even for upstarts like Huffington Post, can backfire in the fast-changing world of mobile. Innovative publishers should be looking for ways to break traditional magazine conventions, not perpetuate them. For now, tablet editions still feel like a somewhat modernized version of the magazine: traditional layouts augmented with interactive design elements. Chalk it up to the learning curve of a new medium - and hope that publishers aggressively explore new ways to innovate for the medium.
"Most of the people we sell to are used to telling stories with text and images," said Zeke Koch, senior director of product management for digital publishing at Adobe, whose Digital Publishing Suite fuels more than 1,700 apps from publishers including Condé Nast. "We're encouraging them to tell stories that flow in a linear fashion."
Koch said he's beginning to see publishers stretch a bit, adding more quizzes, games, how-to animations and other interactivity as standalone elements, not just to complement existing features. Support for Adobe Edge in DPS could prime the pump further by allowing publishers to more easily port HTML5 animations created with Edge into their digital editions.
"I think we'll see more types of experimentation, and at some point there will be an explosion of creativity - like when Flash first came out," Koch said in a phone interview.
Koch also expects to see more innovation around navigation as publishers better understand how tablet users consume content compared with print readers. The differences will have an impact on both editorial and advertising in mobile environments.
Koch offered one example: "In print, you tend to start at the front, leaf through a series of ads to get to the TOC, then jump to an article. But with digital editions, users might look at the cover, tap a heading and jump directly to the article. So the notion of front-loading ads before the TOC goes away."
These decisions, of course, will be driven by analytics - which tablet editions offer in plentiful supply. For the most part, publishers initially are tracking key metrics such as downloads, types of purchases (subscription vs. single copy), and some basic engagement measures such as time spent per issue, per article and per ad. "Those are the core metrics you need to drive your business," Koch said.
Navigation metrics - such as pathing or orientation - are secondary for now, but will play a larger role in future design as publishers learn more about how tablet users consume content, within and across issues. Tracking navigation across multiple issues could open up potentially lucrative avenues for selling back issues, Koch noted.
Mobile web metrics
Metrics will play an increasingly important role in influencing mobile web strategies as well as native app models. Many publishers have struggled to develop mobile websites that adapt well to smaller screens and touchscreen navigation.
"We have spent a lot of time perfecting the user experience on the desktop," said Shmuli Goldberg, senior technology evangelist with ClickTale, a web analytics developer. "But then we took something that works for the web, dumped it into mobile and expected it to work in a completely different environment."
ClickTale on Monday announced a mobile version of its "customer experience" analytics that will enable publishers to view and analyse mobile browser activity. The software, now in beta and due for commercial release by year's end, "brings the usability process that's proven on the desktop to the mobile environment," Goldberg said in a phone interview.
A different experience
The analytics will provide important insights for both editorial and advertising content, possibly shedding light on mobile user experiences that are dramatically different than the desktop, Goldberg said.
"We definitely expect to find that reading experience on mobile will be different," he said. For example, a mobile user can't read while scrolling or swiping through an article - because their hand is in the way. That's a very different behavior than on the desktop, where most people read or at least skim while scrolling.
"These insights could completely shift the way publishers build articles," Goldberg said. "We're excited about what our customers will be able to discover about how the mobile web is so drastically different."
A better grasp of how mobile users consume content - via app or the mobile web - should help publishers define more precise mobile revenue models. There's plenty of work that needs to be done to reduce complexity and improve efficiencies across the entire mobile ecosystem. But publishers that are already thinking beyond digital replicas and stripped-down mobile websites will be better positioned to create better mobile experiences - and build profitable mobile businesses.