When tablet computers first arrived on the scene, they were slated as something of a saviour for the ailing magazine industry; a medium that offered the utility of digital technology but actually allowed publishers to make money from it. That certainly hasn't come to pass in New Zealand yet, and there have been a couple of false starts in that space already. But with impressive download figures and an endorsement from Apple in its best of list at the end of 2012, McHugh Media's Mindfood iPad app could just be a glimpse into the future.
The app, which was launched in August last year, is updated monthly with recipes, stories, photo galleries, radio interviews, videos and competitions, and gained a place on the App Store's best of 2012 list in the newsstand category alongside Donna Hay, Russh, Cosmos, Black and National Geographic, has been downloaded 34,000 times so far (a subscription sells for $30 and single issues sell for $6.49), something Michael McHugh, editor-in-chief and owner of McHugh Media, says is "a hell of a lot more than we expected".
McHugh says the company was approached by an app developer about about 18 months ago, but, at the time, he was indifferent to it. In the intervening months, however, as tablet computers started to become more popular, he started receiving requests from readers asking whether an app was in the wings. So, based on that consumer demand, he decided the company needed to invest what he now calls "the next big platform".
The team took its time and looked at a range of different apps and their different features because "we wanted to create a world-class app". And for McHugh, the major challenge was to use the medium effectively.
"We didn't just want to replicate the printed page. And I think that's where a lot of the publishers go wrong," he says.
With an ever-increasing array of media in its arsenal, the app has proved to be a good way to package its content, with print and online material, Mindfood radio (it launched in Australia recently and its content is now syndicated to over 50 stations) and Mindfood TV all playing a role. But it's not as simple as uploading a few pdfs, copying and pasting a few links and sending it to the App store. So appropriate training was brought in for the design staff and, after the magazine has been sent to print, he says it takes four days to design the app.
McHugh says tablets are "just another platform", but there is one major difference: apps are often a way to get readers to pay for digital content, whereas magazine websites, which generally offer a range of free content, are likely to be funded through advertising.
We're way, way ahead of budget. So it's a really nice surprise from a financial point of view."
The New Zealand market for tablet apps is obviously quite small, and he thinks the brand's international presence is one reason for those impressive download figures. Mindfood is now sold in Asia and the Middle East and he says traffic to its website has increased significantly from these regions (overall, it has increased online visits from 280,000 in November 2011 to 520,000 in Nov 2012, a 185 percent increase, and in the same period the number of e-newsletters it sends out has gone from 195,000 to 300,000, a 153 percent increase).
"We worked hard to deliver an app that is relevant for users across the globe but that still has the community feel for which Mindfood is known and loved," he says. "We are very proud that the App Store has recognised the Mindfood app as one of the best releases of 2012. It’s a huge accomplishment, especially considering the competition and the fact that we had been released for only three months at the time of judging."
In this market, Mindfood, which launched in New Zealand in 2008 and Australia in 2011, has also had significant increases in circulation (up to 30,000 average net paid from 10,000 in 2008), readership (up from 162,000 in late 2011 to 188,000 one year later) and online, so McHugh says it was wonderful to continue that trend with the acknowledgement for its iPad app, both from the users and from Apple.