Conde Nast’s iOS 5 Subscriber Bump: Trend Or Blip?

There’s been some chatter about how Conde Nast’s tablet editions of its popular magazines, which have enjoyed a large increase in subscribers since the release of Apple’s Newsstand feature. It must be a pleasant surprise to the company, which as late as April was easing back on tablet content production after a less-than-stellar debut period. A lot can happen in six months, though: for example, 20 million iPads were sold. That’s a big increase in the demographic. And of course the designated channel for magazine-type content helps as well.

As pleasant as this news is (I’m all in favor of bringing print-quality content to digital devices), I think this portion of the tablet experience is still very much an early-adopter, minority share situation. They’re probably patting each other’s backs at Conde Nast, but the champagne is still in the fridge.

The question is whether the growth is a continuing trend, or a one-time bump owing entirely to the fanfare around the new feature and iOS 5. If there are around 50 million iPads out there (just for ease of calculation), and Conde Nast had a 268% increase month-over-month of its <500,000-user base, that puts total subscribers at somewhere just over 1.2 million, with around 2% of iPad users having a subscription, or what is more likely, 1% with more than one apiece. Sure, it's just napkin calculations, but that's not quite the fabulous new playground for magazines that's indicated when you just look at the increase by itself.

Will the novelty wear off? The Newsstand is something that costs people money, which turns off a lot of people from the start. They'd rather use the 90% of the device's functionality that they already bought. The early adopters of the iPad are also the most likely to shell out for magazines and pay apps, so the market isn't growing as fast as people think: the first million sold probably account for a disproportionate amount of in-app and on-device purchases.

Magazines and "print" on tablets is certainly an inevitability, but I don't think we're looking at the breakout moment here. The erosion of the print infrastructure, and the millions of paper-based subscriptions so easy to renew, so high quality (in their way), and so familiar, will take more than a fancy storefront in iOS and more than a year or two of modest increases in sales. Luckily the players involved (especially Conde Nast, which was developing for the iPad before it’s existence was confirmed) are willing to shell out so they'll be in pole position when that breakout moment comes.