Managing Costs in a Multi-Platform World

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Article ImageToday's typical digital content customer moves across platforms -- from a desktop at work to a smartphone on the train to a tablet at home. These users have become accustomed to getting their content when they want it, on any number of devices, and they expect their content providers to deliver just the right type of content at just the right time.

According to IDC (International Data Corp.), the number of U.S. users accessing the internet via mobile devices will exceed those using wireline devices, such as PCs, by 2015. The research firm cites the use of smartphones and enthusiastic adoption of tablets as the force behind this trend. These statistics have long been a source of excitement for publishers looking for new revenue streams, but with the explosion of platforms comes the pressure to be all things to all people. From iPhones to Android devices, from the Kindle Fire to the iPad, from mobile-optimized sites to custom-designed apps, publishers struggle to find the right balance between fiscal responsibility and being on their readers' platforms of choice.

Finding Balance: Concentrate on Content

"Each and every year, there has been a push toward a new publication channel," says Aimee Roberts, a research analyst with the digital media group at Frost & Sullivan. "Just a few short years ago, publishers sought out technology that streamlined publishing of text and images for the web. Now, publishers must be able to agilely incorporate video, graphics, as well as syndicated content for not only the web, but also hundreds of mobile devices."

Because there are so many different operating systems in the marketplace being used by content consumers, "you actually need to format content for each of those," adds Roberts. "There has been a big push over the last 2 years to reuse content and more effectively get it out to those devices."

So what's a digital publisher to do? How can you determine the best way to invest your technology dollars to get the most out of your content? Well, there are more technological solutions available than there are delivery platforms. These products can help digital publishers cost-effectively manage the entire life cycle of content offerings: from creation to customization, from distribution to increased monetization of those assets.

But finding the right balance takes much effort.

Analysts say that digital publishers should focus less on all of the new channels and devices and more on their core resource, something these publishers can control -- their content. Making sure that content is accessible and ready for reuse is the most sound strategy.

"The core of it is still going to be content, no matter what the interface is," says Loren Johnson, industry analyst for Frost & Sullivan. "You still need to have a system that can retrieve content smoothly, [easily], with an easy user interface, to give you what you want when you want it."

Ensuring the content is properly tagged is also crucial to ensuring that the right content is being used for the right device. "As long as you keep that content really nicely managed in your content management system, it can be tagged in many different fashions," says Roberts. "If it's leveraged in XML, for example, then it can flexibly be used for a variety of different channels and basically it would create the forms or formats for each of those different channels. You would be able to repurpose the content and push it out to those channels on a need basis."

Roberts explains how companies can effectively tag their content down to a paragraph and make that small piece of content useable across many platforms. "You could essentially create an article or a product guide just from the same pieces of content if you provide the correct tags to it," she says. "You're able to search and retrieve that content component and that's where the search function of content management is so important-being able to search that content and monetize it through a dynamic publishing solution to push those pieces out to any channel."

Unleashing Creativity and Profitability

While digital publishers should focus on content creation and content management, many also want to have more control over the technologies that disseminate that content. But analysts suggest just focusing on the ones that exploit core capabilities.

"It's still tough to answer all channel requirements," says Bill Trippe, VP and lead analyst for Outsell, Inc.'s Gilbane Services. "Our recommendation is to typically focus internally on your core channels. If you decide that the iPad is the most important mobile device you need to be on, perhaps you do that development in-house and partner for the other channels."

In early 2011, Bonnier Corp., a publishing company that produces such popular consumer titles as Field & Stream, Parenting, and Popular Science, developed a publishing solution for the tablet that it used internally before making it available to the entire publishing industry. The solution, called Mag+, was the result of an internal R&D initiative to determine how publishers should best use the touchscreen capabilities of the tablet. "The challenge became how do you [re-create] the magazine experience -- those things people really like about magazines -- in this new environment?" says Mike Haney, U.S. director of Mag+. Haney worked on the R&D team as executive editor of Popular Science, which was the first magazine to be published using the new solution.

Mag+ enables content creators to use Adobe InDesign to create customized content for the iPad. "Instead of shrinking down what you've done for another format, like print, this allows you to design really optimized pages that take advantage of the touchscreen canvas," explains Haney.

The Mag+ design tools are available via a free download. "What we charge for is when you want to publish out to the world. Then, we sell an app that is essentially a reader for those files you created," says Haney. The app costs $2,500. In addition, publishers receive 5 months of free access to Mag+ Publish, an online administration tool that allows users to upload issues created with the Mag+ tool set. Mag+ has broadened its offerings and price points to include a $199 option that enables users to create a branded single-issue app.

"Our goal is to put a low barrier to entry," says Haney. "The value for people is it's cheap and easy to get into. You can publish as much as you want, and we only charge when you publish."

Tools such as Mag+ can effectively provide digital publishers with a "new" product and revenue stream; the platform can also provide valuable insights and analytics that can deepen the understanding of the customer experience by tracking customer behavior within the app. Such information can lead to increased sales going forward, as digital publishers use the feedback to develop products that meet the exact needs of their customers.

"One nice thing about the iPad and other mobile devices is you can get very detailed analytics about precisely how the users are accessing and using the content," says Trippe. If consumers seem drawn to one piece of content more than others, publishers would likely take notice and ensure they offer more of that in-demand content in the future. This knowledge certainly empowers digital publishers as they determine what to offer next to their customers.

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For content jockeys, of course, it is the dream: a single information store and automated delivery to multiple platforms in numerous configurations, all at the push of a button. And it is not a new ambition--it predates the tablet and smartphone outbreak by decades. The need for smart content management and the ability to automatically generate customized outputs, then, is greater than ever. Luckily, getting there is easy. All you need is intelligent content and cross-platform code development. (Okay, maybe getting there sounds easy.)