Paid for mobile apps for publishers

There’s been a media feeding frenzy these last few months about mobile apps, specifically on the iphone, largely driven by the high numbers of free games and gimmicks.  But when the fuss has died down, and the number of smartphones owned by the general consumer grows, can mobile apps provide a new revenue source for more “serious” content publishers?  I’ve been collecting examples of paid for mobile apps that look like they might actually make money for publishers.  Very few can make the free-app/ ad-funded model work on mobile, so these are all paid-for.  They seem to fall into five separate categories:

1. News feeds

The value to the consumer is convenience on the move.  Most newspapers have up to now offered these free, but the Guardian is planning to charge for their forthcoming app, and Sky intends to offer video clips of football as a paid app.  Over in the US, Murdoch plans to start charging for the Wall St Journal’s iphone app.  The only problem is that most smartphones can access news websites for free, so newspapers will have to offer greater value to justify a fee.

2. Access to an online database

These make use of the iphone interface to present web content more easily.  A well-known example is Movie genie using the IMDB cinema reviews database; Radio Times also offers a paid app that features TV reviews.  Elle has launched a City Guide for £2.50 featuring its own content.  Great if you have a strong brand offering opinionated reviews.

3. Full price downloads

These are more popular with book publishers, as they have a great deal of content and can charge a high price.  Lonely Planet offers city guides and phrasebooks for £8-10, and claims 400,000 iphone downloads although I haven’t been able to discover how many of these were free.  Michelin restaurant guides are also available on mobile.

4. Branded utilities

These are big money to develop, but larger publishers or those who can find sponsors, are already experimenting.  US examples include Conde Nast’s Epicurious which offers a recipe finder and shopping list creator, which nicely uses the portability of mobile, or Style with its catwalk photobook.  In the UK Dennis’ Monkey magazine has an app in development – sure you can imagine the content… At the other end of the spectrum, the Economist has just announced a ranking tool for MBA courses, using its own database, but allowing users to tweak the weightings.

5. Subscriptions

Several publishers are experimenting with full magazine subscriptions on the iphone. GQ in the US is charging $2.99 for mobile subs, has signed up sponsors and will include weblinks.  In the UK, the Spectator is offering time-based subs – 59p a week, or £2.39 a month, for full access to latest issue and archive – provided by Exact Editions, who also power similar offers on niche mags Athletics Weekly and Opera. The snag for the user is that they lose access if they let the sub lapse.  The snag for the publisher is that they don’t have the name of the subscriber – Apple holds that, as well as their 30% cut.  But they can include web links and phone numbers for advertisers and clever use of competitions could create a database.  Another provider is Pixelmags, who will digitise publisher content on a revenue share basis, removing the upfront cost. It’s interesting to speculate whether mobile subscribers are likely to substitute print buyers, or whether they are a way to make revenue from more casual ex-web browsers…

I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface of how publishers are experimenting with paid for mobile apps, so if you know of any other examples, please let me know, either by commenting on this blog, or by joining the Specialist Media Network on Linked In.

Penmaen Media is a consultancy which creates practical digital media and marketing strategies.  We have particular expertise with media businesses.  If you would like advice on how to create a strategy for paid-for mobile apps in your market, please contact us for an initial discussion.