M-Publishing Conference Raises Interesting Questions But Few Answers

On Monday I attended the M-Publishing conference in London. The event brought together decision-makers from the media and publishing industries to discuss how best to bring their services to mobile phones. Delegates debated the merits of apps and mobile Internet sites, and how to make money from mobile publishing.

If I’d been given a penny every time the iPad was mentioned at the event, I’d be a seriously rich man. I was amazed to see how much emphasis these industries are placing on Apple’s newly launched device. It might indeed be a game-changer in the way people consume content, but it isn’t cheap. The basic model will set you back £429, and you still have to pay for the content.

The event comes at an interesting time. Our survey of young adults in Europe’s top five markets found that e-publications show strong potential, with between 10 percent and 15 percent of those surveyed saying they already read them and up to 50 percent of respondents expressing an interest in doing so in the future.

For me, the main message at the event was that there’s a lot of uncertainty. Companies are still unclear what their strategy for mobile is — or should be. They all know they should have one, but most of them are worried about the development costs and whether they’ll see a return on their investment. As circulation and advertising revenue fall, budgets have been cut. Publishers are wary of pouring too much money into any digital platform and in most cases they have to hedge their bets to make sure they cover the one that will be successful. Even once they’ve decided to get into mobile, there’s the further headache of picking which devices to develop for.

To produce a good mobile app costs thousands, so pricing is very important. If the app’s priced too high, it’ll deter people from downloading it. But once a user has paid for an app, it usually fails to generate additional revenue. If it’s free, the download statistics might look impressive, but the publisher is relying solely on advertising. Some publishers are considering a monthly charge for access or in-app purchases as ways to bring in extra money. There’s no consensus on which approach to take. Sky’s range of free iPhone apps relies on advertising; the Guardian iPhone app is priced at £2.39 and has performed well, with more than 100,000 downloads.

It’s a similar story on the iPad. London newspaper Metro has made its app available for free on an ad-funded basis. The Times is available for a monthly subscription. Apps from the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal offer a mix of free and paid-for content.

Companies are still experimenting and are desperately looking at every avenue to generating revenue from mobile publishing. Given that relatively few people will buy these high-end devices, success isn’t certain. But how publishers measure “success” will vary according to their strategy. For some it could be the number of downloads, for others it’s the bottom line.

It’s apparent that when considering a strategy for mobile, companies must make the most of their existing assets. Mobile channels must be integrated into their existing operations rather than being treated as a separate “silo”. Broadcasters such as Sky are doing this and are reaping the dividends. In the short term companies must invest in creating apps. The average buyer’s now walking into a high-street shop and asking for a phone that can download apps, and people are showing off their latest downloads to friends. Apps can offer users a simple and optimised experience. Nevertheless, I believe a Web site should complement the app, providing users with more information and content.

I’d like to see publications charge monthly fees in return for unique IDs allowing subscribers to access the content on as many platforms as they want, with the content optimised for whichever screen they’re using. This would drive up usage and increase loyalty.

The debates at the M-Publishing event raised some interesting questions but few concrete answers. One thing’s for certain: people will access publications on more than one device if they don’t already, and they won’t want to pay more than once for the same content.