As we approach the expected launch of an iPad 3 next week, it struck me at last week’s Tablet Revolution event in New York (our second in this series) just how far ahead of the curve Apple’s technology and even its user base remain two years after the device’s launch.
As our keynoter Jon Haber of OMD reflected, Apple gave us a gadget we really didn’t think we needed. Now, those of us who have embraced the platform on a day-to-day basis might find it hard to live without it. As Haber pointed out, the interface and mode of use the tablet offers may well kill the Web site as we know it, since its tree-like structure of links and layers evolved from a mouse and keyboard mentality. Touch engages us in spatial relationships among objects that could lead to reorganizing our typical modes of ordering digital data.
And yet the experiences rendered by the gadget are struggling to keep up. Most Web sites are woefully unprepared for 10-inch screens and fat fingers. App-ified versions of magazines have been stumbling through phases of excessive interactivity and navigational pyrotechnics, only to find we really didn’t want our periodicals to spin and flip, especially if it took hours for them to download. And while some games are leveraging the touch interface, we haven’t really thought through yet the possibilities for this screen and interface on storytelling.
And it was clear from the discussions among media buyers at last week’s show that tens of millions of tablet owners (still mostly iPad) and even media companies are ahead of advertisers. One of the most spirited panel discussions I have seen in recent years revolved around the challenges that print brands are facing on the platform.
TargetCast’s Audrey Siegel said: “It has been a very long and a very short two years and particularly trying for the print industry.” She was with fellow buy-sider Robin Steinberg of MediaVest and publishers John Cantarella of Time Inc., Todd Haskell of The New York Times and Gael Towey of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. Steinberg echoed Siegel's lament that for the time being, executing tablet ad campaigns is simply too complicated and difficult. There are interesting “one-offs,” she said -- but not even close to the point where they are an integral part of the plan. While tablet advertising can have a purpose “for a specific reason, for a specialized audience,” Steinberg said, “there is nothing compelling about it that makes me tell a client ‘you need to do it.’”
The publishers contend they are moving toward the kind of scale and reach that will be more impressive to buyers. Towey said MSLO has been seeing surprising traction even on tablet editions that are barely enhanced from the print version. “We are at about 5% of circulation using the digital magazine -– a combination of authenticated users and new subscribers.” The company is well ahead of its planned trajectory, which was to have 8% of readers using digital editions by the end of 2012.
In fact, throughout the day many media companies suggested they have discovered less is more on the tablet. The initial impulse was to make everything spin and move -– make it tappable because you can. But many users are just as happy with modest interactivity. Echoing sentiments I have heard in recent months across the value chain, the tablet appears to occupy a user mode that is somewhere between the leanback of TV and the lean-in of the Web.
Cantarella says that while all of the Time Inc. titles now are on tablets, some -- like Money magazine -- might have less interactivity than a People. The content and audience in some sense help determine levels of design complexity. But he is a big believer in leveraging the exceptional nature of the platform. Layout and immersion are the strong suits of magazines that companies like Time want to recreate. “These tablets allow a very high design intent in a very tactile experience,” he said.
Media buyers were generally chanting the same tunes throughout the day: They need greater transparency from publishers than they are seeing now, and they need some standards to buy and plan against. Neither element is where it needs to be for considerable media buying to take place. Getting on the same page with metrics is critical -- not just to ease the buy process, but to help everyone understand what kind of creative and campaign work best here. “It is important to standardize the business models,” said Steinberg. “Now it is about rate bases. But as the market scales and there are more subscribers, we might move to a more impression-based [approach], which might support top-of-the-funnel engagement metrics.”
Siegel warned that tablets run the risk of being persistent outliers to the ad economy if some order is not imposed. “It is incumbent on the MPA and publishers to bring together the ad community and agencies to explore and understand the value of the different ad units. If we don’t arrive at standardization, the cost of this will make this more and more challenging and less likely to become part of the vernacular as it should be.”
Both Steinberg and Siegel complained that publishers have been promising transparency for nearly a year now. “When will you open the kimono?” Steinberg asked Cantarella. He responded that the metrics “will be coming,” but that it is still “not ready for prime time.” Siegel and Steinberg said the parties need to agree that the numbers from tablet usage will be rough -- and perhaps even disappointing and misleading -- when viewed in the raw, but that buyers and sellers need to work together to understand what they mean.
Well, from the publisher's perspective, many of them are facing a kind of statistical specificity that may be daunting. The difference between a newspaper on tablets and magazines is considerable. As Todd Haskell pointed out, the Times developed its app with the Web site in mind, not the print publication. It worked from templates into which breaking news and items from the Web could flow automatically. And its audience is daily and persistent, whereas magazine audiences come in bursts with new issues. Haskell and the Times have been more transparent in sharing audience, usage and ad performance data than magazines.
But monthlies and weeklies on the tablet have a whole different prospect of facing metrics that actually show how many of their subscribers are opening and reading issues. This is a level of detail that makes publishers blanch. It reminds me of the pre-tablet days when digital editions were read on laptops and Web screens as email reminders prompted users of new issues. For the first time, many publishers actually had a metric reflecting how many subscribers were reading each issue. Oops. I had more than one magazine executive tell me over the years that this was not always a pretty picture.
To reiterate Siegel’s point, it has been both a long and short two years for the tablet platform. It may seem unreasonable for business models and an ecosystem to take shape around a gadget that was dropped on us with little warning only two years ago. But the tablet is exceptional because it is the enjoying the fastest adoption curve we have seen yet from a media platform. And among those who own them, the device has come to occupy an important -- literally “prime time” -- place in everyday media routines, often at the expense of much more established platforms.
There is not a lot of time to dither here. Before it spins off into its own permanent galaxy of one-offs and perennial test campaigns, doesn’t this extraordinary technology demand extraordinary measures by the major stakeholders to get on the same digital page and swipe it forward?