Four Mistakes Publishers Make When Bringing Content to Tablets

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Editor’s note: Mitch Lazar is the CEO of news reader startup Taptu. He was the co-founder CNN.com and the founder of CNN Mobile and Cartoon Network Mobile.

Many revolutions have been televised, but the publishing revolution has already become digitized, and now, mobilized.

There’s no doubt that the second half of 2011 was a difficult period for newspaper and magazine publishers. An Audit Bureau of Circulations report revealed that single-copy sales of consumer magazines dropped by nearly 10 percent in a year, while the five magazines with the highest newsstand sales all reported sharp declines as well. Most importantly, the fall in sales has hit revenues, making it more important than ever for publishing businesses to rapidly modernize their trade.

As readers move toward tablets and mobile phones, there’s no question that these new reading devices will dictate the success and failure of the media industry. Successful publishers will be able to reincarnate their digital content onto these gadgets. So why are so many publishers stumbling in their mobile strategy? From over committing to a multitude of mobile platforms, to underwhelming app experiences, we’re seeing a lot of mistakes that should not be repeated:

1. Trying and failing to reinvent the wheel.

Many big and small publishers have top-notch tech teams and significant resources, but often fall into the trap of believing that only the teams inside their own building can create the best platforms and experiences. Not true.

Partnerships are the prime way big and small media companies can succeed in building their audiences in the new media world. Small startups are creating amazing technology that can help publishers grow their distribution plans. By tapping into these talented, focused teams, the publishing world can quickly distribute content in a compelling and engaging way using tomorrow’s trends, not yesterday’s opportunities.

Don’t reinvent the wheel, because by the time you do, a new wheel will already be in motion.

2. Getting left out of the mix.

If you think about it, listening to music on the radio or going clubbing exposes you to great new tunes you may not have discovered. Thanks to DJs, and discovery services, we all find new music we love and want to share. This curation and sharing experience has now come to the world of digital publishing. Modern social news aggregators are essentially content DJs that deliver awesome content to consumers through a fun and easy experience, whether that be via flicking, tapping or flipping a device screen. Publishers that are getting this right are experiencing booms in their digital readership solely due to the fact that new discovery tools and networks like Facebook and Twitter turn on new readers to great recommended content.

News needs distribution. In the old days, publishers put their newspapers under the door of every hotel room, at the front door of many homes or at the street corner. Today success is determined by how well publishers join and participate in social media and the news revolution. Discovery services like news readers can help.

Sadly, some publishers have avoided these discovery tools. They’ve wanted their content to only live in their controlled spaces, or have channels that include only their sourced and created content. But consumers are demanding more. Through news readers, they are browsing and uncovering new content and sources they never knew existed by taking advantage of search technologies that create serendipity for discovery, sharing and recommendations.

News reader users are building streams of curated topics across genres and receiving a plethora of content from editors across publications. Take the Super Bowl, for example. In days gone by, you had to hunt and peck your way through each editorial version of ESPN, CNNSI or Yahoo Sports. Now, you can DJ your own news mix to see what sports editors and the social crowd are saying about every aspect of the Super Bowl, making the user experience engaging, time saving, and far and away supreme to traditional news searches. When users like what they see, they share stories with their friends, families and followers—proving themselves a key ingredient for successful distribution. In the end, news readers and other discovery services drive more people back to media destinations where the cash register rings.

3. Ignoring brand potential.

Big branded publishers have an amazing treasure trove of content at their fingertips from many different brands or labels. They create enormous amounts of content every day. In fact, some of the largest media companies have several amazing newspapers or magazines in their stable, but many have not ventured into mixing and mashing content from their various publications into a new and exciting branded experience.

In this fast changing digital landscape, the time is ripe to test the waters for launching new aggregated services. The cost is not great and the upside can be very rewarding. It puts a spin on traditional distribution, and focusing on one deep vertical with existing brands lets publishers try new distribution strategies without cannibalizing their existing audiences and revenue.

Take Glo from MSN, for example. In collaboration with Hachette Filipacci Media and BermanBraun, they built a top lifestyle destination for women with a brilliant mix of aggregated media from across their stables of content. Using existing content from their print worlds, they created a new avenue for digital audiences to consume their great content, while taking advantage of an opportunity to build a new business at a relatively low cost.

4. Searching in the wrong places.

Distribution and discovery of publisher content used to take place primarily in traditional search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and Bing with traditional investments in search engine optimization (SEO) techniques that led users seeking one particular query to discover content from another related outlet. Content tagged a certain way shows higher up in the algorithmic search results, prompting users to click on it and publishers to receive the benefit of picking up greater share of audiences when SEO is done right. It’s a type of free advertising publishers and media owners have used in their distribution plans. However, news readers like Taptu, Flipboard, Pulse and Zite are demonstrating the modern form of SEO, where users discover and share stories that have the perfect context and relevance to each user.

While reading a stream of content, people are exposed to related stories or served up other similar stories from a variety of publishers, leading users to share, tweet or follow links back to large media and publishers. So, for example, if a user searches ‘NFL mock draft 2012,’ they will instantly find a variety of new sources that have become experts on the topic like Walter Football. Walter who? Yes, Walter Football. Welcome to the new world of mobile search.

In speaking with more than 100 digital publishers across the world, the consistent thing we hear is, “We know mobile is critical, but going mobile is easier said than done.” Hopefully the publishing industry can learn from what I see every day and take simple, cost-effective steps towards winning in mobile without letting history repeat itself.