Are Tablet Editions Even More Engaging Than Print?

By Steve Smith

When the early metrics surrounding user engagement with digital magazines first came in nearly two years ago, they struck many of us as hard to believe. But there they were. After all, we had witnessed a decade and a half of digitized media fragmenting not focusing user attention. In many cases the early research was showing that readers of enhanced magazines in apps were spending almost as much time per issue as print readers spent with their analog copies. This was especially surprising given the notoriously short attention spans readers demonstrated with media brands online. In many cases print media had gotten used to having a loyal reader for a good hour or more a month with a given issue, while many branded media sites "bragged" of cumulative hang times of only 12 to 15 minutes a month from a user. Was it the natural clickiness of the Web, the LCD screen, the desktop setting? Who knew? But media companies were frustrated with digital fragmentation and once-loyal readers diffusing their media consumption across many sites.

And yet here on the tablet – still an LCD, still interactive, still connected to the Internet – we saw evidence of the return of user focus. The early stats I saw from publishers like Conde Nast showed per-issue engagement very close to print. Could it get any better than this? Digital interactivity, lower-cost distribution and long attention spans too?

It might get even better suggests Adobe, whose Digital Publishing Suite (DPS) drives many of these magazine apps from Conde Nast, Newsweek, and others. According to Lynly Schambers-Lenox, group product marketing manager, digital publishing, Adobe, the latest metrics across hundreds of magazine apps shows that tablet media may be edging out analog. “People are reading this content on tablets potentially more than they are in print,” she tells minonline. Across publishers, titles and content types Adobe has seen time spent in apps rise 70% in just the last 6 months. “56% of readers spend between 25 and 150 minutes per month consuming content in an application,” she says.
Actually if you drill into those broad stats a bit more you find a range of engagements on a per session basis. The largest share of app sessions (35%) are only 1-5 minutes, so people still are doing drive-bys. 27% are in the app for 5 to 10 minutes, Another 29% are lingering 10-30 minutes. But cumulatively over the course of the month we are seeing an impressive encounter with each monthly issue of digital magazines.

Applications made with the DPS platform now total over 1500, with between 10 and 20 coming online a week, the company says. Among the many DPS-based apps, most of them magazines, Adobe says the app is opened on average 5 times each month. In the last 10 months alone, Adobe reports, 16 million individual publication issues have been downloaded. Not surprisingly the growth curve of app escalated sharply after Apple introduced its Newsstand and subscription model in mid 2011. The Newsstand gave publishers a model that was more friendly to consumers and it segregated subscription content into a smaller zone in the App Store that made it easier for Apple to merchandise and consumers to discover.

Schambers-Lenox believes that interactivity in apps is one of the keys to engagement. According to their metrics of actual use, 48% of the interactive elements in media apps are being used at least once. Within that pool of nearly half of all elements being tapped, swiped pulled, 39% involved content that is being pulled from the Web, like Twitter feeds or Web pages. The second most used element (19% of interactions) involve video content. Another 12% involve 360-degree views (likely item manipulation or image pans), and 11% are slideshows. Hyperlinks account for 10% of interactivity.

Among the beneficiaries of interactivity are the advertisers who are early adopters of in-app placements. Adobe finds that one out of every 5 pages viewed in these apps is an ad. Moreover, 55% of app users say they saw or read an ad in these apps, which compares favorably Adobe says with print metrics.

Schambers-Lenox acknowledges that publishers are still in the early stages of making the case for tablet advertising to clients. She urges them to incorporate all the metrics tools they can like Omniture to capture actions that are most relevant to clients. “In general we need to partner with groups like ABC that do circulation so they can say that the numbers being captured are solid and real. We need to make sure the metrics are believable,” she says.

On the content sales front, the news is especially good for publishers, however. 68% of the content made and distributed via the Adobe DPS is paid content. While 27% of the issues are being consumed by authenticated print readers whose access to apps is bundled into their subscriptions, 26% of the content is being consumed by digital subscribers. 15% is going to single issue buyers. In all, Adobe says that 41% of content users for these digital editions represent net new customers.

Whether tablet media is marginally more or less engaging than print is probably a cocktail hour debate not really worth having at this point, unless of course someone is buying drinks for every use of the term "tactile." What is more to the point is the relative parity of engagement between the two media. Still challenging, however, is the battle to engage that tablet user in the first place. Perhaps even more than on the Web, the magazine app is fighting for mind share on a platform where people also browse the Web, play games, engage social media, and increasingly do real work. The actual open rates for magazines, the levels of interaction within each title, and the responsiveness to advertising within specific media brand experiences is what will matter to the ad industry that will help underwrite tablet expansion of periodicals. As we have seen this week with the introduction of regular tablet metrics reports from Conde Nast, that process is only beginning.