The Future is Past – Fast

by Steve McKee

The Future is Past - FastRecently I attended a conference on new media at which one of the speakers cited the Men’s Health iPad app as “the future of publishing.” Everybody (including me) nodded, recognizing how well the magazine has adapted itself to the tablet platform. The app offers not only the ability to view the magazine as it appears in print, but additional features like videos, snap polls, customizable fonts, extra photos, live links, and built-in social media sharing options. Pretty cool stuff.

But then I got to thinking. Is the app really the future, or is it just a step in that direction? And when we look back in a few years, will it have been not such a big step after all?

Consider how magazines came about. The economics of printing and mailing dictated that publishers aggregate bundles of content so they could efficiently deliver them to readers, who in turn unpacked them over the course of a week or a month. There has never been a reader imperative that the subject matter be compiled weekly or monthly; it has simply been the most efficient way to deliver content.

But the economics of digital delivery are different. In a world of tablets and apps there is no longer a financial imperative to bundle content, so why can’t it be delivered daily, hourly, or even according to an individually customized schedule? It can. And it will.

Instead of “supermarket publishing”, asking readers to load up on supplies and ingest them as the week or month unfolds, the new model will look more like a farmer’s market, conveniently located along everyone’s individual daily route so they can enjoy the content they want, when they want it, at peak freshness. In the case of Men’s Health it might be a new breakfast recipe at 6 a.m., breaking medical news as it happens, weekend workouts on Saturday morning – all delivered in the formats most helpful and on the platforms most convenient to the subscriber in the moment.

The coming model will offer fresh content when subscribers are most open to it, and those moments will differ for each individual. This will happen not only because it’s technologically possible but because the new economics of publishing will dictate it. If magazine apps give people too much at once – more than they can ingest in a single sitting – a lot of it may go to waste (especially without a visual reminder laying on a coffee table). If readers don’t believe they’re getting their money’s worth, they’ll stop purchasing. Give them just the right amount at the moment they’re “hungry” for it, however, and they’ll enjoy every bite.

The latest magazine apps are terrific, but nothing like they’re going to be. The exciting thing about living in the digital age is that the future becomes the past in a heartbeat. A good thing to keep in mind as you ponder your own corporate growth strategy.


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Steve McKeeSteve McKee is a BusinessWeek.com columnist, marketing consultant, and author of “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What To Do About It.” Learn more about him at www.WhenGrowthStalls.com and at https://twitter.com/stevemckee.

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  1. Time will tell. There’s far from a proven sustainable demand for the magazine app medium so far, even with iPads flying off the shelves. Personally I’m not convinced that the “benefits” the platform provides offer a better reading experience than print, and early revenue numbers don’t look that impressive. It’ll be fascinating to see if the push toward tablets catches on or fizzles out as more titles enter the marketplace. Either way, magazine publishers have a lot of work to do to improve the digital experience before readers will adopt the new medium en masse.

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