Even a small magazine can make a powerful impression with a well-designed mobile presence. In some ways, digital platforms can level the playing field for small publishers wanting to attract readers’ attention with innovative content and presentations.

But getting onto mobile platforms with apps and optimized websites can be a significant challenge for small publishers. While major magazine companies like Condé Nast and Time have resources for research and development and can dedicate employees to digital innovation, small magazines are often run on a shoestring by limited personnel. That’s why some small publishers have turned to external app development companies, hoping that outsourcing their apps will lead to better results at a lower cost.

App development companies — and some rising challengers — say their services can help small publishers save time and money, and also keep their apps in step with the latest technical developments.

In-House App Development Difficulties

The best-known magazine apps have set a standard that small publishers are eager to emulate, but aren’t equipped to create.

“When they look at Wired, they say, ‘I want a magazine like that,’” said Jon Maroney, senior vice president for mobile publishing at app developer Handmark. “We ask, ‘Are you going to dedicate five people every month?’ That’s when the rubber hits the road.”

App creation tools are available that integrate with popular magazine design software (for example, WoodWing combined with Adobe InDesign), which can make it easier to create a magazine app. Unfortunately, these tools are still rather expensive for small publishers, and they take time to learn.

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Handmark’s Android app for Newsweek.

“The magazine industry kind of breaks down … to rich magazines that have the money and ego to want their own custom solution, and they’re going to end up with Adobe and WoodWing,” said Martin Hensel, president of Texterity, an app developer that has worked with numerous magazines. “Then there are others who just want a great app and ROI (return on investment).”

App development also isn’t the forte of some publishers. Their strengths may be in editorial, design, and traditional print magazine business decisions, while the digital world remains somewhat more opaque. Dealing with hardware, software, and tech companies’ ever-changing policies adds layers of complexity.

“It’s a very hard set of problems, as the number of platforms proliferates and the requirements change, particularly at Apple and at Google,” said Hensel. “Keeping up to date with that stuff … is far beyond what most publishers do.”

Facing this set of challenges — especially at small magazines already strapped for cash and resources — also drives some publishers to seek outside app help, after giving up working on it independently.

“When people start thinking about mobile, they think themselves into a hole. The biggest roadblock is not moving because of thinking yourself into inertia,” Maroney said. He said that an outside developer is able to draw upon the publisher’s existing expertise and determine how to express it best using mobile platforms.

What External Developers Provide

External developers are also able to help small publishers develop advertising techniques for their mobile apps. Many magazine publishers have struggled to incorporate mobile ads into their overall advertising strategies. External app developers have experience with this issue, and build ad networks into their apps.

“We work with a number of mobile ad networks, and always put the highest value ads up [in the app],” said Maroney of Handmark. “We take the complexity out of it and make it very simple to generate revenues from mobile apps.”

Remembering to promote the app to magazine readers is also critical. “I encourage people to redefine what a subscription is. It’s not a print product. It’s a subscription to a brand,” said Texterity’s Hensel. “You get the content of that brand in all the media: web, app, print.”

Advertising and promotion are just part of the shift magazines make when they go digital. Publishers may be too overwhelmed by technical details in the app development process, and forget to think about its creative possibilities. External developers’ experience with multiple publications and projects can offer a fresh perspective in the design process.

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Hensel counsels publishers to think beyond what’s possible in print when developing their apps.

“It’s how to add dimensions to the flat magazine,” he said. “How could you make a director’s cut out of this magazine? What additional pictures could you put into this slideshow? Could you create a 360-degree panorama of this scene? Are there videos of interviews you can routinely include? Ultimately, what we’re trying to build is the amount of time that individuals on average spend with the magazine brand.”

Cheaper, Simpler In-House Possibilities Coming?

While publishers of all sizes have used the help of external app developers, new options could make it easier — particularly for smaller publications — to have a mobile presence as an app or in an HTML5 mobile format.

An intriguing possibility is OnSwipe, a startup launching June 21 with publishing partners “you have definitely, definitely heard of,” said Jason L. Baptiste, its CEO.

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OnSwipe is promising that publishers can integrate their existing content management systems, such as WordPress and others, in its system to produce an HTML5 mobile site that works on any platform and functions just as well as an app, including multimedia features. The startup claims this integration will take just three minutes and can be customized to suit the publishers’ preferences.

“Apps don’t make sense for publishers of any size, but especially small publishers,” Baptiste said, who feels apps are a poor way to deliver media content. “We direct all traffic to the web. If you ask people to start downloading apps, they’re not going to go to them so much, and it’s a really expensive proposition.”

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OnSwipe also expects to be more of a two-way social experience than most magazine apps have been so far. It will integrate social content from Instagram, YouTube, Quora and other social networking services into the mobile site based on publishers’ customization, while allowing users to send content out to social networks.

Baptiste said this social aspect will help construct what he calls the “content graph,” similar to Facebook’s so-called social graph, showing “how people are connected to content and what that says about them.”

In addition to generating a significant amount of data, OnSwipe will provide ads that it sells itself — with a cut going to publishers whose sites display them — or allow publishers to show their own advertisements.

Baptiste hopes that the ads included in OnSwipe sites will take full creative advantage of the mobile platform. “Online ads never really delighted anybody,” he said. “We can change that because these devices are going to let us change that.”

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Another option not yet fully demonstrated is PadCMS, from open-source software specialist Adyax, which promises an open-source platform for making Apple and Android apps. One magazine so far — the French-language Rue89 — has been released using PadCMS, and details are scarce. While a free tool for developing apps could be useful for small publishers, they would still have to contend with Apple’s submission process on their own, and would be responsible for all updates to the app. Still, publishers are apt to welcome any tools that ease the app creation process.

However they make it, having a mobile-accessible magazine seems more and more critical for publishers of all sizes who want to satisfy readers’ and advertisers’ demands.

“The engagement that we can get [for a magazine] as an application is usually 10 times the number of page views you can get from a website,” said Maroney of Handmark. “It becomes pretty clear. If you want to be a player in this space, you need to have an application.”

Susan Currie Sivek, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno. Her research focuses on magazines and media communities. She also blogs at sivekmedia.com, and is the magazine correspondent for MediaShift.

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