The failure of the Encore weekly tablet app (and what we’ve learned from it)

Tim Burrowes headshot

For the last year, we’ve been publishing a weekly tablet app. Mumbrella and Encore content director Tim Burrowes explains why today’s will be the last.

The thing about failure is that people don’t usually like talking about it.

Indeed, I’m feeling somewhat rueful writing this.

But having shared the story of our journey with Encore so far, you’re entitled to hear about the bits that don’t work too.

encore editionsSo let me tell you about one of our failures. (We intend to keep trying new things, so if we do our job right, there may well be more to tell you about in the future.)

As you may know, for the last year, we’ve been publishing a weekly tablet magazine.

The edition of Encore that went live today – the joint publication with Mumbrella of our Annual – will be the last.

Proud as we are of the editorial product, it was a commercial failure.

It was a fun adventure and we learned a lot.

But before I give you the back story, and share some numbers, I want to be clear about one thing. Encore’s editor, Brooke Hemphill, did not fail. She put out a great product which I was always proud of. Earlier this month, she was deservedly a finalist for editor of the year at the Publishers Australia Excellence Awards.

encore on iTunesThe audience shared that view – more than half of the reviews Encore received on iTunes gave it five stars out of five.

The same goes for our technology partners Oomph and Reddo. This isn’t one of those “we fired our agency” pieces. I’d recommend working with them.

The failure came in the business and publishing strategy, and that’s something I take responsibility for.

In truth, we knew we were taking a calculated risk.

As a company, we’ve always had a policy of taking punts. Right now, we’ve got three experiments going on, and my guess is that we’re going to get a result on the other two (Mumbrella Asia and The Source).

Our experiment with tablet editions of Encore began almost two years ago. At the time we were publishing a monthly print edition. Initially we launched on the Oomph publishing platform, which specialises in iPads. Our first model was to charge either for individual editions at $4.49, or for a digital subscription at $19.99.

Here was our first major learning. We quickly found that although we were getting a decent number of downloads of the app itself, which was free, we were only selling in a couple of hundred downloads of each monthly edition. Any sort of cover price appeared to be a disproportionately high barrier.

So in January we decided to try making it free, based on the calculation that if we sold even one extra ad because of the greater download numbers, it would be worth more than that $800 or so a month we were pulling in.

Encore issue 1

And downloads did improve three or fourfold – to approaching 1,000 per monthly edition.

So at the end of last year, we decided to make a further leap – dropping the loss-making monthly print edition and instead putting all of our efforts into a free weekly tablet app.

We were keen to publish to tablets on Google’s Android operating system too, so we switched away from Oomph to Reddo, who could help us with both. (Oomph warned us that they were seeing 90 per cent of demand for tablet magazines on the superior iPad platform, advice we chose not to follow).

We estimated that we would probably need about 5,000 downloads per edition for advertisers to take us seriously. So we knew that we probably faced a long haul.

We kicked off 2013 with 872 iPad downloads of the first edition. And just 48 to Android.

After that initial number, things fell away slightly for the next few weeks, and we didn’t exceed that initial number for a further 16 editions. We delivered 877 iPad downloads for that 16th edition. (And 12 for Android).

By now, a further learning was dawning upon us. There wasn’t much demand for an Android edition. In the end, we never did improve on that initial 48 downloads. In our worst week, our 19th edition of the year, there were just six Android downloads. Which was a bit discouraging, to say the least.

We resolved to press on with both though. And indeed, our overall number steadily grew.

Our 24th edition of the year was the first to deliver more than 1,000 iPad edition downloads (and 25 to Android).

But our sales team was struggling. Those in the market would listen carefully, and, if they were familiar with Encore, they’d be very complimentary. And then they would look at sister title Mumbrella, where we sometimes have more than 1,000 users on the site at a single moment, and book their ads there instead. Encore was bringing in less than $4,000 per month.

Although the conversation about the engagement levels of an immersive iPad ad versus a website medium rec is worth having, we just weren’t getting the reach.

In some ways, it’s a similar issue to that faced by print publishers in the media and marketing space. Yaffa’s Australian Creative appears to be closing its doors and B&T, which was fortnightly just a few months ago, now seems set to publish just five or six times a year from next year. Yaffa’s AdNews has also shared its own distress signals this year.

For the editorial team (shared with Mumbrella), it was at times a frustrating process too. We’d work up a great exclusive news story (we broke the story of Mike Wilson heading Havas Media two months before the AFR caught up this week, for instance) or analysis piece or feature, and it would have little apparent impact until we published it on Mumbrella a few hours or days later. With in-app publishing, you lack the same ease of shareability on social media you do with other forms of digital media. That hurts an article’s trajectory more than you might think.

Another learning though was to force us to think about the type of content we create. The process of working on the weekly Encore was a great discipline for us as a team. It was a reason to step beyond writing articles to publish in a couple of hours, and to craft longer and more analytical pieces too that required a few days’ or weeks’ thought.

For instance, one of the items I’m still proudest of from this year was deputy editor Nic Christensen’s feature on the dirty secrets of media agencies. It was shortlisted for best single article at the Publishers Australia Excellence Awards. If Encore didn’t exist, I doubt we’d have ever written it. Once published on Mumbrella, it went gangbusters.

what your media agency

It’s also worth noting that while the number of downloads per edition has hovered at not much more than 1,000, the number of downloads of the app itself is significantly higher – nearly 9,000 so far this year. I’ll watch with some interest the debate on what counts as an audited circulation number when the audit body finally gets to grips with in-app publishing.

We did have one more lever to pull though. We were told that some publishers experienced a 40 per cent downloads growth when they launched an iPhone edition. So in September, although it added to the production workload, we gave it a shot.

Encore issue 39

Apple supported it by featuring it on the Newsstand, and downloads did increase. We estimate that it gave us a 20 per cent boost. Our best edition to date (The Encore Score) has seen 1,361 downloads. But it still wasn’t enough.

encore downloads

A few weeks ago we quietly stopped the Android tablet edition. Nobody noticed.

I’d have been interested to see what number an Android smartphone edition would have delivered if we’d had the production resources to do one (based on the number of users out there, my hunch now is that it would deliver better than the Android tablet edition).

Incidentally, another learning is that unlike web publishing, the design and production resources demanded are significant – at least the equivalent of person’s time per week. At the moment it’s a barrier to entry. Should that become simplified in the future, which I’m sure it will, the proposition changes somewhat.

But at some point we had to make a call. And with the possibility of facing some additional charges from the software company (Encore is built on Adobe Digital Publishing Suite), we had some tough conversations with the sales team. Their view remains the same – it’s a hard, hard sell until we get to at least 5,000 downloads per edition.

As you can see from the graph above, that’s at least a couple of years away, if we get there at all. So it’s time to call it.

We’re a relatively small publisher, and the resource and time that goes into the weekly Encore app will deliver a better return if we put it elsewhere.

TheEncoreScoreSo Encore as a brand will carry on online. The long-standing Production Report guide to TV shows and films currently in production will continue. Our celebrity report The Encore Score also has huge potential to build up as a research tool with a commercial model behind it. And we’ll spend the next few weeks making a plan for what else Encore can and should be.

And we remain committed to trying other new things next year instead.

Hemphill: Book deal

Hemphill: Book deal

We don’t plan on making anyone redundant, although it is likely we will be making less use of our regular freelancers who supplement our art director (who has plenty of other work for us to be getting on with). Encore’s editor Brooke is about to take a few weeks out to write a book, after signing a publishing deal. When she gets back we’ll attempt to persuade her to take on a new project instead.

For now, our tablet adventure is, if not entirely over, then certainly on hold.

The iPad in particular is a great device, and offers a fantastic magazine-like experience. But in the B2B space, the market just doesn’t seem to be big enough yet. Whether that’s just a question of time, we’ll have to see. But for now, the market has spoken.

Encore was an expensive lesson, but we learned a helluva lot. And we had some fun too.

I’ll let you know about our next failure (and hopefully a couple of successes too) when it happens.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella and Encore


  1. Stu
    28 Nov 13
    10:23 am

  2. Brave.


    Thanks Tim, good article.

    For me, well managed analytics tells the truth of a situation and provides the evidence for the next move.

  3. DK
    28 Nov 13
    10:43 am

  4. Thanks for the insight Tim. Really interesting to see how the experiment panned out. Do you think it’s just B2B titles that will struggle on tablet or is it consumer mags as well?

  5. Bill
    28 Nov 13
    10:55 am

  6. Terrific article, thanks so much for sharing, as a B2B print & web publisher I was approached a few years ago by one of those tablet app companies with a win win proposition. I give them $10,000 to tabletify my magazine and then sit back and watch the dollars roll in. I rang one of my client’s agencies and asked them how many special multimedia-enabled ads they had developed specifically for tablets. Ummm. None. Saved myself $10,000 by sticking with print & HTML. Oprah can afford a designer to spit out landscape and portrait versions of every graphic in the magazine, but not me who does the whole thing himself in CS. Also, as a former occasional Encore contributor from prehistory, glad to hear the brand will live on, but you must know by now the film & TV production industry in Oz is cactus. Give it up.

  7. Mark Juddery
    28 Nov 13
    11:05 am

  8. Much as I always liked Encore, as a long-time subscriber, I was unable to read it this year because my iPad was too old – and quite frankly, I had no other reason to upgrade it. (It’s becoming like Microsoft products back in the 1990s, when you had to spend hundreds updating your hardware simply to use the software.)

    I look forward to reading the website in future.

  9. JB
    28 Nov 13
    11:06 am

  10. Is the magazine app designed to go the way of other brief fads such as the segway and the Y2K bug? I love magazines, i own a ipad but have never downloaded a mag app. Even ACP (now Bauer) tried to convert its titles to apps and it all ended in utter failure. Surely if it were to ‘catch on’, it would have by now?

  11. Brent W
    28 Nov 13
    11:07 am

  12. This may be one of the few ‘marketing’ articles worth reading this year. Thanks for this Tim. You’ve guaranteed my readership for another 12 months at least

  13. Rob
    28 Nov 13
    11:10 am

  14. Free or freemium niche titles will continue to struggle on tablet until (1) a suitable marketing platform exists to drive downloads; and (2) an effective advertising business model is found.

    At present in a small market, in a niche industry, its difficult…

  15. gavin
    28 Nov 13
    11:13 am

  16. Thanks for the insights. I did download the magazine regularly in the early days, but once I worked out most of the interesting stuff appeared in Mumbrella eventually, I stopped. I assume you were doing that to encourage people to download and see what else was there, but for me it had the opposite effect. A bit like stopping buying the SMH because I can read it all more easily and for free online, I suppose.

    Good luck with the next adventures.

  17. Andrew Bolt & Gina Rineharts Lovechild
    28 Nov 13
    11:15 am

  18. This reminds me of an old fight I had on the mumbrella site years ago…..

    Wonder if I should be asking them again about those pesky things like business models…..

  19. Andrew Dent
    28 Nov 13
    11:26 am

  20. You took a punt, and had a go, sounds like you have loads of fun, did some cool stuff with words and technology, learnt a ton of real stuff that you will apply to other parts of your business…..

    No redundancies, seems like a mighty good operation….

  21. Publishers Australia
    28 Nov 13
    11:32 am

  22. Thanks for sharing this experience, Tim. It’s a shame, I regularly downloaded the editions and enjoyed reading the longer articles. Look forward to seeing Brooke back in action soon.

  23. Natas
    28 Nov 13
    11:40 am

  24. Another honest post Tim. Kudos for trying.

    It’s a pity it didn’t work out for you this time around, and as one of the few Android users (and initial subscribers too!) the reason I stopped downloading was the size of the App. Each week it was around 250 megabytes, which is just too big. I’d only download at home or the office, but hardly something I could quickly pull down to my tablet on the train or out and about when I needed to kill some time. Not sure if the iPad one was the same size or not.

    Otherwise, I can honestly say I found the information contained within informative, entertaining, and pertinent to myself and my industry and will be missed.

    In the meantime I’ll just keep visiting the Mumbrella homepage.

  25. Dov Kornits
    28 Nov 13
    1:05 pm

  26. Join the club! We just stopped our Adobe DPS subscription as it just doesn’t justify the expense. With FilmInk we’re now having a crack at distributing a folio of the magazine digitally directly to the consumer… Viva La Revolution!

  27. Lisa Messenger
    28 Nov 13
    1:41 pm

  28. LOVE your honesty and integrity. You’re an absolute legend in the industry and a true leader with loads of business acumen and smarts. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for continuing to have a go. Thanks for always being a true entrepreneur. Awesome lessons and a great honest account of whats really going on with tablet. It might calm some of the hype and let us focus on other more relevent engaging channels. Look forward to your next adventures and watching Mumbrella Asia and The Source fire on all cylinders. Catch up soon xx L

  29. Carolyn Doherty
    28 Nov 13
    1:46 pm

  30. I wonder how many people are like me, just never seem to have time to read it. There is so much on offer, so much to read, so much work to do.So,despite being interested I just stopped downloading.

  31. Nic Halley
    28 Nov 13
    2:28 pm

  32. great piece & well done for trying. Theres nothing wrong with failing

  33. Ash Long
    28 Nov 13
    2:38 pm

  34. Sadly, your focus seemed to be too much on the delivery technology … and you forgot about readers. I always use a desktop computer, but you refused to deliver Encore via the most straightforward method. You disqualified readers. Instead, you put your focus onto mobile devices ONLY. I don’t use one for work. Many others are in the same boat. The metaphor is that Encore was only available to left-handed people … you neglected most of your catchment potential. So I didn’t (couldn’t) read Encore, so I didn’t advertise either.

  35. Joanne
    28 Nov 13
    2:41 pm

  36. Thanks for your insight Tim. Having recently launched two magazines on the Apple Newsstand we been having more success with downloads and subscriptions in the US & UK markets rather than Australia. One mag is an industry mag and the other a lifestyle mag. It’s early days yet but the industry mag appears to be more popular. We were also thinking about Android editions so your experience is helpful.

  37. Wen
    28 Nov 13
    2:46 pm

  38. Hey Tim, it has been a great read and I thoroughly enjoy reading the magazine every week. I am a regular Mumbrella reader and love the insights that you provide.

  39. Simon Owens
    28 Nov 13
    2:55 pm

  40. Curses. I don’t have an iPad so was frustrated that I couldn’t access it when it launched. I therefore ignored anything that had the “Encore” name attached. I hadn’t realised the iPhone version was released. If I had, you would have had one more reader.

  41. Tracey
    28 Nov 13
    2:57 pm

  42. Good on you for your humility…..not enough of it around, especially in media! Being transparent and honest will go along way. And as they say ‘You’ll never know if you dont have a go’ – and you did….next!

  43. Simon McKeown
    28 Nov 13
    2:59 pm

  44. We have just circulated this article around our office. Searingly honest and fantastically valuable. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  45. Glenn Mabbott
    28 Nov 13
    3:05 pm

  46. Well done Tim for being a true innovator. Being willing to take a risk and fail places you one step closer to your next success. Your honesty and openness is appreciated by we fellow risk takers.

  47. Yasmin Khan
    28 Nov 13
    3:06 pm

  48. Hi Tim, don’t know you or what your claim to fame is – which means I have no preconceived ideas! – but your brutal honesty is a breath of fresh air. I do receive your daily emails, so I know that bit about you – but when you as a leader of a company write so honestly about – hey we stuffed up and it was all my fault – then I applaud you and laud you. Wishing you every success.

  49. James Travin
    28 Nov 13
    3:13 pm

  50. Tim

    Your maverick honesty is appreciated and highly visible. This industry is built on fear of failure, so thanks for being the brave guy.

  51. Mitchy
    28 Nov 13
    3:28 pm

  52. Thanks for your honesty Tim, an interesting read! I now feel guilty ……… Whilst I devour the Mumbrella email every day, I probably neglected to open the Encore app in the last 4 months, even though it’s more relevant to my industry (as a TV producer) & a really good read.

  53. Adam
    28 Nov 13
    3:49 pm

  54. A great read Tim, and really, in the end it’s a great expose about innovation, strategy, execution and the pitfalls we all have to grapple with as we try to find new markets, build better mousetraps or just understand how our existing markets are changing. It’s hard to find case studies, good or bad, that are first hand and authentic when it comes to building and selling new products, particularly in such a fast-changing landscape – so thank you for sharing. I think a lot of us will be sitting back and reviewing our own plans and strategies with your lessons in mind.

  55. Lorraine Murphy
    28 Nov 13
    4:00 pm

  56. Tim, I really appreciate your honesty with the successes and failures on your adventure. It reminds me as an entrepreneur that everyone else has ’em too! Too often failure is another f-word in the industry, and we forget that without it there would be no innovation. Ditto for your “stepping down” story – it’s fantastically refreshing to get to peep behind the curtains and hear your perspective. Bravo!

  57. Montague Tigg
    28 Nov 13
    5:43 pm

  58. Mumbrella’s semi-bite-sized e-goss and opinion gives us just what we want when we want to pretend to be working.

    Snackable media is exactly what works in the AD (attention deficit?) industry.

    Tim, nobody does media journalism in Australia better than Mumbrella. We’ll miss Encore, even if we didn’t actually read it. Thank you.

  59. Ads carrel
    28 Nov 13
    5:53 pm

  60. Next time I’ll download more often,sorry I got slac and forgot I had it.especially rembering to download at home and read offline on the road

  61. Andy
    28 Nov 13
    7:56 pm

  62. Another honest piece that I’m sure many will appreciate. I’m sure we’ll all enjoy reading about the next inevitable successes. RIP Encore, onwards and upwards Tim and the rest of the team.

  63. Russell Emmerson
    28 Nov 13
    8:00 pm

  64. Thank you for such a valuable contribution to the publishing industry. This gives an insight into current market structure, demand and thinking. It’s a shame that others aren’t more open in an attempt to develop a model that might work; the alternative is a lot of large-scale pain.

  65. adam f
    28 Nov 13
    8:35 pm

  66. inspiring stuff. seriously.

  67. Eric
    28 Nov 13
    8:44 pm

  68. Yet another example of why you guys are so well respected in this industry. Just look at these comments. It is so refreshing to see that honesty and openness is … so popular.

  69. ChrisP
    29 Nov 13
    1:12 am

  70. Wow what an honest assessment, great article and insight on the Challenges in the B2B. Learn by your mistakes and make it better next time around. Good Luck.

  71. AlischaW
    29 Nov 13
    1:55 pm

  72. Thanks for sharing your journey Tim. Your honesty and willingness to share is so valuable to the industry. Great insights into the challenges of digital publishing and the continuing hunt for sustainable business models. Encore was a fab product and great read. Unfortunately like others my initial enthusiasm waned when it took so long to download the editions. Just seems to emphasise that even when the technology is available – the user experience and business models are still tricky to get right for digital – particularly for small markets. Bravo for trying!

  73. schloog
    29 Nov 13
    2:00 pm

  74. I stopped looking at the Production Report when it was littered with out-of-date references. Had another look yesterday, only to discover that M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘After Earth’ is apparently still in post-production. ‘After Earth’ premiered in Japan in May 2013, six whole months ago….
    I care less about the platform and more about correct information.
    Was Encore pretty?Yes. Was it up to date and fact-checked? No.

    (If the response to this is going to be ‘we just wrote what the companies told us’, then we’re right to feel disrespected as an audience)

  75. Liza
    29 Nov 13
    4:29 pm

  76. Yep, limiting the content to devices meant that we couldn’t share stuff on social media.

    For example, the quiz in August ‘What kind of PR are you?’ – it was hilarious and I SO wished I had a link to it, so could share it (a number of so-called “PRs” I know of would NOT have been amused).

    You should have done a web site and an app. You would have got revenue from both then.

  77. Josh Rea
    29 Nov 13
    6:01 pm

  78. Must say, as an advertiser on Encore, creating the iPad ad was heaps of fun. The end product was amazing too.

    Great article Tim.

  79. J
    29 Nov 13
    6:18 pm

  80. Just take your site responsive.

  81. Jonathan Kerr
    29 Nov 13
    9:02 pm

  82. Hats off to you Tim. I think this type of write up is helpful for many leaders and would-be leaders. Reminds me of Rand Fiskin, CEO of (The Wizard of Moz) he is remarkably open about every aspect of the growth of his company and can teach many a lesson about how to grow a great business with an amazing culture

  83. Jan
    30 Nov 13
    11:33 pm

  84. Ditto to many comments above. Great, honest insights. Best of luck with the next venture and hope Brooke has fun writing the book.

  85. Kris
    2 Dec 13
    10:06 am

  86. You’d never see a media professional at the likes of Fairfax or News write something so open and honest – that’s why the media industry needs the likes of Mumbrella, Crikey, Adnews etc

  87. Hotdog
    2 Dec 13
    10:27 am

  88. The Android numbers may have had something to do with compatibility. I tried a few times to download the mag on both my Nexus 7 and 10, and in all cases (3-4 times I believe) I was told they were not compatible with my devices.

    I love Encore. Such a shame it didn’t work out how you had hoped.

  89. Scott Lewis
    2 Dec 13
    2:34 pm

  90. But the core question is: is Encore a good design? From the point of view of the limitations imposed, such as using Adobe systems, it’s not bad. From the point of view of going out and hiring an iOS developer to actually build a unique magazine, it’s not very good at all.

    Just think of it like this: if you did hire a developer and he/she gave you something with the poor interface of Encore, you would be very upset. So why accept something that poor, just because it is cheap? Would you print a magazine on newsprint just to save some money? And if you did, would you be so surprised if it failed?

    The “boss” move would have been not to have published the magazine under those constraints, and instead have kept your powder dry until about now. As an iOS developer I — and no doubt a lot of other developers — am currently working on new ways to publish iPad magazines, all made possible by technical changes in iOS 7.

    And all of us are going to face the same situation in the future: sitting down with publishers/editors who at least pretend to have little respect for technical people. Publishing on the iPad is high tech. You need tech people, every bit as much as you need designers on a print product.

    Yes, it is brave and welcome to be so upfront about a failure. But I’m not convinced you really get it yet, and understand why you have failed. No portrait view? Swipe to change article, scroll to read? Have to notate where people can scroll?


    Better things are coming.

  91. Ben#2
    2 Dec 13
    2:56 pm

  92. Publishers take note, the best way to appear honest is to be honest, great piece and a lot of respect.

  93. Shamma
    2 Dec 13
    3:08 pm

  94. Nice, refreshing honesty in an industry obsessed with the perception of killing it/crushing it/killcrushing it etc but rarely backing up statements with evidence.

    I think Encore was a success – it did what it said it would, tried to keep innovating and evolving, gave an outlet to many voices, and generated a lot of learning for the business.

  95. gavin
    2 Dec 13
    3:20 pm

  96. I went back to the comments trail referred to by “Andrew Bolt & Gina Rineharts Lovechild” (possibly not their real name or status) above. It dates from 2010, when the first generation of iPads had only just arrived on the market. (Was it really only three years ago?)

    That trail has many comments but they fall primarily in two camps: “iPad news apps are the future” and “What’s the business model to make them pay”?

    Three and a bit years later, and it seems that little has changed. I’m not convinced anyone is making money out of iPad news/magazine apps in Australia, yet still commenters are making claims that if we don’t join the headlong hurdle into the world of these Apps we’ll be left behind.

    Being left behind because you didn’t pour all your money down an open canyon is (slightly) preferable to pouring it all down there regardless and getting none of it back in revenue.

  97. Techtubbie
    2 Dec 13
    7:14 pm

  98. Oh…. I always WANTED to read Encore. As a tech-muggle I could never get the app to download / open or actually function. Would have loved to have read it on a desk pc at work (!) It was good that some of the articles made it to Mumbrella. Maybe it isn’t just me who is a muggle – could it be that not everyone was teck enough for Encore?

  99. WildWest indeed
    4 Dec 13
    10:25 pm

  100. There were some awesome ‘deep dive’ journalism features in Encore – refreshing in a world of increasingly thinner, emptier journalism. Thank you for trying.
    Agree that you should be v proud of Nic Christensen’s courageous feature on the dirty secrets of media agencies. I dined out on that piece with industry types for weeks. Thank God someone in media is still willing talk about the elephants in the room occasionally … hopefully that will continue under the Mumbrella brand.

  101. Heather
    7 Dec 13
    9:42 pm

  102. Ummmm……”device friendly” comes to mind. But then, hindsight mixed with Business Analyst brain tends to do that.

  103. DigitalDarryl
    21 Dec 13
    11:29 am

  104. Looks like you started a trend, Tim! There’s another article talking about lessons to be learned from the closure of Encore here:

    I wasn’t crazy about the app’s interface, but I’ll certainly miss Encore for its content. RIP