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Habit. The prize for first movers

The I Pad will save the publishing industry. Steve Jobs says so and he has found an ever growing band of publishers to follow him to the promised land of media that people will pay for, that advertisers will embrace and the tantalising propsect of minimal manufacturing and distribution costs for the former and unlimited creative and commerce opportunities for the latter. Truly, it does not get better than that.

Naturally in all good things there is the odd tiny wrinkle to overcome. Let’s ask ourselves a question; how many I Pads and their kin do there need to be in the market in order for them to be taken seriously as needle moving mass penetration media? For the fun of it let’s say 2o million. Sounds like a big number and one that will keep Apple’s stock price where the air is thin but still way less than 10% of the population. Anyway, assume that’s OK and given advertiser interest so far it will make for a lively market, but consider this. By the time 20 million tablets are in the market how many apps do we suppose there will be in the app store? I, of course, have no idea but guess it won’t be less than 500,000.

If that turns out to be true it will make the notion of 500 channel television with which we concerned ourselves not long ago a rather nostalgic and quaint thought. It might also be a source of learning. The 500 channel universe did not quite wreak the havoc on television that most of us predicted as it became evident that the paradox of choice applied and that individuals soon found a low double digit number of choices that consumed the vast majority of their viewing time. Outside of 20 or so channels the long tail of television is very long indeed.

For Mr Jobs to be right in his predictions of salvation the paradox of choice needs to apply again. Publishers, content developers (call them what you will) need to establish themselves as part of the short tail of media choice and hope that habit becomes the barrier to entry that maintains the size and the attention of their audience.

The big question is ‘how do you do that?’ In my mind this is a simultaneous equation of managing distribution and content. To succeed in distribution publishers need a combination of promotion and packaging. It helps that people know your app exists and it helps also if it’s seen as a value purchase. The former will require a willingness to spend money and to risk self cannibalization. The latter will require innovative pricing and bundling models as it seems likely to me that people will more likely buy content bundles than individual issue or single title subscription access. In such an environment certain titles will anchor packages and to those (as with ESPN on television) will go the richer share of revenue.

On the content side the solve is every bit as complex. Editors and publishers need to look at the purpose of their product and why it is valuable to its audience and to reimagine that purpose in the context of multimedia, immediacy, depth and interactivity. They need to ask the question as to the degree and the occasion in which each of these add value and apply them judicously. It must be tempting, for example for Sport Illustrated to get into the breaking news and live scores business but can it ever compete in that area with ESPN and or MLB ? I think not. SI to borrow a phrase, is, like Time, the first draft of history. They are providers of depth, analysis and context in a world increasingly distracted by generation blurt. The I Pad allows them to pursue that mission with more depth and more multimedia but there is little value in adding immediacy in their case. You get the idea.

When do I matter most? How can I matter more? Two questions that the content owner needs to focus on, the rest of us might think about that as well. Advertisers have a history of embracing media that matters to its audience, despite the increasing trend to separate audiences from context there will always be a market in reach, attention and influence. Publishers around the world know a lot about all three of those and those that execute have the opportunity to establish audience habit which is the ultimate first mover advantage.

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