A recent news article describes how both Future Publishing and Dennis are exploring "beyond digital editions" (Breaking out of the newsstand: Why Dennis and Future are looking beyond digital editions, The Media Briefing, 4 Feb 2014). What do they mean by going beyond digital editions?
As Mike Goldsmith, head of strategy for mobile at Dennis, explained it,
we've got lots of valuable review content, and there will be lots of valuable tuition content, you can see there could be some valuable solutions around that. That will be the starting gambit and absolutely it will be more about the utility, the functionality.
This all sounds very sensible, but what emerged from their thinking? Dennis Publishing had a brainstorm session at which the theme was: "If Google bought Dennis, what mobile products would it launch from our brands for a mobile audience?" But surely that is the wrong place to start. It's not surprising that the brainstorm resulted in ideas such as "a lite version of The Week with a revolving selection of news stories designed to bring in a new generation of subscribers".
That isn't providing utility and functionality - it's keeping changing the packaging and keeping your fingers crossed, hoping there is a new market just around the corner.
Instead, it seems to me the place to start is via a user journey. Users go to a PC magazine for (among other things) reviews of hardware. Now, a magazine is not the best place to hold reviews. A purchaser wants to see all the relevant reviews alongside each other, and this is difficult to manage clutching a stack of the last year's issues, across which reviews have appeared. Hence PC Pro (as others do) creates something called The A-List. This excellent feature lists the top-rated products in each category, and currently that list is available free of charge at the PCPro website, with links in each case to the full original review (in other words, the Web is giving you more than the print can, unless you have remembered to file all your print copies in the correct order). I subscribe to the print magazine, but I probably access the A-list far more online than I do the print version. I read the print version, then throw the magazine away - and I'm sure I'm typical.
But simply accessing the list of recommended items is only part of the user journey. In this case, surely the use case here is to understand what consumers are looking for when they buy a specific product, and to provide targeted answers to the specific customer needs? For example, if the user is buying a PC, they may, depending on the business need, want a PC that is easily expandable, easy to maintain, quiet in operation, or has good graphics performance? Once this journey has been understood, it is a simple matter to build an app that presented the best buying choices given those criteria, via whatever mobile device they use. But the important thing to establish first is by talking to the users to learn what they are goingn to do with the information the print magazine has given them, and only think about building solutions after that. It may even be that the answer the customers want in this case is to be taken to a site where they can buy the relevant recommended product.
Trying to guess what Google would do is simply not the right place to start - Google has other priorities. And asking the editorial staff what product to create is not the right starting point either - print publishers have complacently believed they knew what their readers wanted for so long that the readers went off and got the answers they needed from elsewhere, often a new publisher who delivers via a new technological platform. It seems to me that until publishers rethink fundamentally their position in the delivery of answers to users, then digital publishing will never get "beyond digital editions", but will remain a cosmetic makeover of a print-based mindset.