Magazine Go Wireless: Turning Portable Into Mobile

Putting a magazine brand on phones seems a bit redundant. Aren't magazines portable already? Back in the day (digital heyday, that is), publishing executives defended the eternal value of print with what came to be known as the "toilet argument." As Web proselytizers foretold the death of print, magazines chortled back that "you can't bring the Web into the john with you." Apparently, the magazine industry banked its survival on portability and America's renowned intestinal irregularity.

Years later, digital does threaten print as ad budgets move almost audibly to the Web. In just the last few weeks, Hachette's Premiere, IDG's InfoWorld, and Meredith's Child brands announced they would fold their pages and keep the titles alive in various online iterations. Digital finally seems to be defeating the toilet argument. Or perhaps all those high fiber, good carb diets are having a weird indirect effect on publishing.

Most magazines are still catching up to the Internet, so it is not surprising that few of them make a convincing case on mobile. The Web forced weekly and monthly brands to go real-time in order to compete on the same platform as endemic dot-coms, TV and newspapers. Magazine publishing rhythms never mapped as well against the Internet, and publishers continue to struggle with the disconnect. In most content categories, TV and Web portal brands handily outperform their print counterparts online. Nevertheless, many of the online mags maintain high CPMs relative to the field because advertisers continue to value their association with quality editorial, high demos, and the superior design sense many of these sites demonstrate.

It may not be clear to many magazine readers, however, why they would want or need their brands on a handset, since few magazine traffic in breaking news even on the Web. How pressing is my need for Vanity Fair "on the go?" More to the point, magazines have a special effect that really does work best in print. From layout to text style, lush imagery, voice, and content mix, great magazines work because they immerse us in an aspirational environment. This is a tall order for a short screen. Many magazine brands on mobile are just getting their toes moist with long story scrolls that feel like what they are, shrunken RSS feeds.

Which is not to say it is impossible to port the magazine experience to the phone. In order to do mobile well, however, these titles have to do a real gut check of their brand equity and then over-deliver on those core elements in order to sell their value proposition. Consumer Reports managed a good translation of its brand, but that was a no-brainer. Bringing CR guides to the point of purchase on a phone just replicated the common practice of tearing relevant pages from the magazine to carry into the store.

Car and Driver got it right by recognizing how much its enthusiast audience loves car images. Yes, the reviews are all here -- but so are the huge and fairly high-res images on every page. And C&D limits its TOC to a few key elements and then lets the user drill into the archive with excellent search tools.

Maxim takes the opposite tack by recreating much of its online and print content categories (girls, jokes, girls, found porn, and a few girls). But in this case it takes the mobile snack approach and gives users a new nibble of each every day. The lads who remain brand loyalists can cherry-pick the items they like most about Maxim and get satisfied daily. The Maxim WAP site has only been up since late last year and it already gets between 500,000 and 1 million monthly page views. The advertising is already there, and it can get pretty sophisticated. On my most recent visit, the site ran an ad for a mobile content firm that identified and mentioned my handset model in the text link itself.

Probably the best magazine execution I have seen yet on mobile is Time Inc.'s fee-based The magazine's very successful print content mix of celebrity news, fashion and shopping inspiration all get their place in one of the most magazine-like mobile experiences. The application updates daily with munchable style pics and gossip, party news and images. InStyle maintains its voice here with images that click through to informative and witty captions.

Make no mistake, though, magazines like InStyle are relatively uncritical boosters of the linked cults of celebrity and consumptions. The slide shows of stars and handbags are as relentless as they are well-tuned to the target audience. And the application lets users bring images and detailed descriptions of their favorite goods into the store for reference. InStyle Mobile carries house ads for now in the placeholders for eventual third-party clients. We have to imagine that the usual fashionista suspects would want to associate their brands with the kind of engaged user and in-store usage an app like this invites.

Whether and how advertisers fit into this content mix of mobilized magazines generally is less clear. After all, we still need to see whether users really care about having a magazine brand on a handset. Does every title need a mobile extension in the same way it needs a Web site? There is also a lot more room to screw it up on mobile. Some print books can get away with simple shovelware on the Web, but that may seem like risible laziness on mobile.

If a magazine mobilizes its brand equity wisely, then it should be creating miniature, portable media environments that may deserve more than a banner or simple interstitial. Branded entertainment, well-integrated promotions, or even sponsored mobile downloadables would make good sense here if the lush environment delivers the right audience in the right place. Surely it is preferable for a reader to see your ad when she is out and about at Macy's than while on the john. You have to wonder whether any of these self-assured magazine execs ever actually made the "toilet argument" to a client. Somehow that doesn't seem like hitting the reader at the right place and at the right time.

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