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


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