If an App Is Your Content Strategy, You Are Doomed

When the iPad (AAPL) first arrived on the scene, many newspaper and magazine publishers seemed to see it as a digital savior that would restore their fortunes and allow them to withstand the whole "information wants to be free" aspect of the Internet. After an initial flurry of interest, however, the enthusiasm of readers seems to be waning, according to some recent numbers that show sales of many magazine apps have been slipping. Hopefully some publishers are starting to realize that simply having an iPad app doesn't qualify as a digital content strategy.

Venture capitalist Fred Wilson makes exactly this point in a blog post Thursday, in which he argues that the economics around mobile platforms, such as the iPhone and the iPad—and other tablets, presumably—will likely come to look a lot like the economics of the Web itself, in which closing off access to content via paywalls and walled gardens has not proven to be a very successful long-term approach (with a few notable exceptions, such as The Economist (PSO) and The Wall Street Journal) (NWS). As Wilson puts it:

"I don't understand why anyone would ever think that adding a presentation layer on top of Web-based content would make it something people would want to purchase when they are not willing to purchase the same content directly on the Web."

Weakness of Many iPad Apps

Simply wrapping your content in a shiny package designed by Adobe (ADBE) isn't going to persuade vast numbers of people to pay you every month for it, especially when it costs as much as, or more than, the print version. Having audio and video clips and other interactive doodads is nice, but it simply isn't worth the premium some publishers are charging. As we (and others) have pointed out, many iPad apps look an awful lot like the early days of CD-ROM editions—and they offer about as much in terms of real interactivity or sharing. Says Wilson:

"Restricting access to content doesn't work. Someone else's content will get filtered and curated instead of yours. Scarcity is not a viable business model on the Internet."

Apps are good for many things; they are great for games, for function-specific services such as Yelp or Instagram or Skype, and for social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. Is your newspaper or magazine as addictive and rewarding as a game? Is it as necessary or useful as a task-specific app such as Yelp or Google Maps (GOOG)? If not, why would you think people would want to pay you a monthly fee for the privilege of having your content? One of the best media apps, as Damon Kiesow notes at Poynter, is the one from National Public Radio—in part because it doesn't force you to stay in the app. Counterintuitive, but smart.

Sandbags Against the Flood

That's not to say some people won't subscribe to such publications as Vanity Fair or Wired on their iPads—clearly many people will, just as many still subscribe to the print versions of those magazines. But is that a major growth or revenue-generating strategy? Not really (a point Darrell makes in his post on the recent magazine app numbers). At most, it's just another sandbag stacked up against the digital flood of content the Web represents. I like a number of media apps—including the ones I mentioned in a recent post looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly—but too many simply repurpose the same content, while removing the ability to link or share it.

Better to focus, as Wilson suggests, on helping your readers by filtering and curating and making sense of things for them (and giving them tools to do that themselves), and building a relationship with them based on that, rather than nickel-and-diming them for every little thing and forcing them to stay inside your walled garden. Then maybe when you offer ways they can contribute monetarily, they will actually take you up on it.

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