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August 01 2011

15:00

The Atlantic unifies its brand and diversifies its subscription strategy in its newly relaunched iPad app

When you’re The Atlantic, it takes a tricky bit of magic to cram everything you are into an app. You’re a magazine with a rich history, and a multifaceted web destination touching on policy, art and technology — and, oh, and you’re also a minute-to-minute feed of the day’s news. It’s a bit schizophrenic, but necessarily so, because The Atlantic, like so many media outlets today, has realized that it has an ability to be many things to many people.

And now all of that changes, if only slightly, in the updated Atlantic iPad app, which now encompasses the magazine, theatlantic.com, and The Atlantic Wire, all in one tidy package. The previous app, which was little more than a digital version of the magazine, is being replaced with a streamlined, unified look, where the breaking dispatches from the Wire, the breadth of voices from the website, and the depth of reporting in the magazine are all just, The Atlantic. And it’s free.

This isn’t the simple act of a branding agent’s dream; it’s an attempt to reconcile, and reintroduce, what The Atlantic is to its many audiences. The publication is aided in this by a new subscription strategy that bundles the app with the magazine while also allowing digital-only access to The Atlantic’s online product. Basically it’ll break down to three tiers: Nonpaying users, who’ll get all the web stories plus access to one magazine story a month; print subscribers (who are currently paying $24.50) with the app bundled in; and the digital-only subscription through the app, which gets you all the magazine content on The Atlantic’s site for $21.99 a year. (In our tradition of naming digital deals after columnists, can we call it the Alexis Madrigal discount?)

“We have a philosophy here where we like our readers to pay once and have access across multiple platforms,” said M. Scott Havens, vice president of digital strategy and operations for The Atlantic Media Company.

It’s a pretty good time to be The Atlantic. Circulation for the magazine was over 480,000 in 2010, an Atlantic communications staffer told me, and online traffic hit a record in May at 10 million uniques across theatlantic.com and theatlanticwire.com. Just last week, the company announced a 42-percent increase in digital advertising revenue from last year. All indications are good for The Atlantic, which is why, Havens told me, it wanted to push ahead with re-inventing the app. As he indicated in our interview about The Atlantic partnering with Pulse, one thing he and his staff are curious about is how people are consuming magazines and stories on tablets. The iPad app is a continuation of that, but folding in the many parts of The Atlantic empire. It’s a realization, he said, that the publication needs to take all the work it’s doing and put it in front of readers, no matter how they read it. “Look,” he said, “if people want to read The Atlantic on the iPad and don’t want print anymore — they don’t want the clutter, it’s for environment reasons, whatever the rationale — we need to be there.”

The app is a break from the compartmentalized strategy The Atlantic has relied on for its growing properties, where The Atlantic Wire has come to focus on breaking news and analysis, and the website — and, by extension, the magazine — is a collection of personalities and reporting. One of the few carry-overs from the website is the use of “channels” for navigation through the app, from politics and business to technology, entertainment, and more. The only branding that follows from other parts of The Atlantic universe gets prominent placement on the app’s homepage, Alan Taylor’s In Focus feature and a dedicated slot for magazine pieces. Everything else gets divvied up into channels, with In Focus effectively becoming its own channel, its photos blown out to take advantage of the iPad’s screen size.

Another interesting addition is the inclusion of Disqus comments, which will be synced from stories between the sites and the app. Which means that the next time I get into a nerd fight on a Ta-Nehisi Coates post, I can follow it from one screen to another.

The idea of putting everything back under one roof (or app, in this case), is interesting because it breaks with two assumptions: not only about how content is sorted online, but also the conventional wisdom that says seasonal and topical material should be spun into its own franchise. Think entertainment/nightlife, fashion or food apps, or even The Atlantic Wire’s app, which launched a few years ago. Bob Cohn, editorial director of Atlantic Digital, said that he and his staff wanted the focus to be on what they produce as one complete package.

“We thought the most useful thing we could do for readers is take all our sprawling content and create a unified app and put all The Atlantic content in one app,” Cohn said. From their own research, they know there is only minimal overlap in the audiences between the magazine, theatlantic.com and The Atlantic Wire. Which on its face looks like a big opportunity to literally upsell to people already familiar with your work: They’ll sell single issues for $4.99 within the app. So instead of trying to coax readers from one medium to another, the hope is to capture them all in one place.

What they’re shooting for is something of what you could call a “porridge zone,” something that fits just right for all the readers (as long as they have an iPad, of course). Cohn knows readers come to The Atlantic with different needs, as much for long-form stories as for quick hits and blog posts. “People love their iPads and want to experience journalism through the iPad,” he said. “If that’s the way they want it, we’re going to make it as seamless and wonderful as we can.”

July 28 2011

16:30

Why The Atlantic joined up with Pulse — and what the app’s usage stats can tell data-hungry publishers

Let’s face some facts: Media companies aren’t entirely sure what to do with the new crop of news reading apps that are springing up at the moment. Technology like Flipboard, Zite, or Pulse could either be a thief, a new revenue stream, or an inexpensive test bed for finding new ways to get your content in front of people. For the moment, these deals, if they are drawn up between a publisher and an app maker, typically get thrown into the category of “partnerships,” like the kind of reading app Pulse has been brokering with media companies like CNN, the Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair, Time, and MSNBC.

Just last week Pulse struck a new partnership agreement, adding The Atlantic, The Atlantic Wire, and The National Journal to its list of featured content providers. So far, the deals between Pulse and news organizations haven’t been monetary; if anything, they’re more exploratory in nature, determining whether a third party can deliver substantial traffic to news sites (and eyes to their ads). But it can also be instructive on how audiences’ appetites for reading has changed, and give us an idea why places like The Atlantic want in with Pulse.

M. Scott Havens, vice president of digital strategy and operations for The Atlantic, told me the new wave of display apps are offering experiments in how the reading experience has changed, which is of no small interest to publishers. “Hopefully people will find us, discover us on Pulse, and might actually become a subscriber to our brands,” Havens said. The Atlantic can reach new audiences while also studying how users read, Havens said.

Essentially it’s a win-win for the moment: “Since we don’t spend money on advertising and let the editorial be our branding arm, we’d like to get out to these applications where other readers are, who aren’t familiar with our brand,” he said.

This all works perfectly for Pulse, says Akshay Kothari, the company’s CEO, because their broad goal at the moment is gathering more content to spotlight within the app and developing fruitful relationships with publishers. One of the critical bits of information Pulse holds is data on usage patterns for readers within the app, both on the iPad and iPhone.

Though Kothari would not offer up specific data, he told me one clear trend is the difference in the reading patterns on the iPhone vs. the iPad. On any given week, Pulse users on smartphones open the app twice as often as people on the tablet version. But all told, tablet users spend more time on Pulse, and their sessions are twice as long as those of iPhone users. What’s also interesting is that in some cases one platform feeds into another: “If you look at usage patterns, [users] will come in small bursts to look at news, and if they like it — long-form articles or something from The Economist — they’ll save them and read them on other devices,” he said.

So in a typical day a Pulse reader may drop in more than 3 times to check the news, but only spend 5-10 minutes scanning, Kothari said. From what they’re seeing, a good chunk of Pulse’s audience falls somewhere into this category of heavy-ish users who subscribe to multiple sources, as opposed to those who scan stories and headlines on Pulse with less frequency.

It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that Pulse tracks with patterns we’ve been seeing emerge in the ways people read on new devices. In terms of the iPad, Pulse seems to mirror similar evidence we’ve seen suggesting that people look for a comfy spot to do serious reading on their tablets. “The consumption pattern on the tablet is slightly different, spending longer time,” Kothari said. “The use-case is kind of like sitting in home, maybe lounging with the iPad and consuming lots of time and news stories.”

Another trend they saw was an increase in delayed reading. Not long after launching, it became clear readers were using Pulse to dip into and out of the day’s news and emailing stories to themselves. “We realized that a good majority of people want something to save (stories) and go back to it later, simple functionality to save from Pulse and synch with other devices,” he said. (They’ve since added Instapaper and Read It Later buttons.)

Pulse uses all this information in refining its product, adding features when necessary and responding to feedback from users. But it’s clear that this is also intel that could be of interest to news organizations trying to reconcile their digital media plans with those of third-party app companies. As part of the partnership, news organizations will get their hands on data from Pulse on how many users subscribe to their content, as well as social sharing stats and click-through rates, Kothari said.

Pulse can be an app for news discovery as much as presentation, meaning it can be a gateway for introducing people to news sources they would otherwise not know. Which is one of the reasons they’re eager to buddy-up with media companies like The Atlantic, Kothari said. One of the things they learned early was that there’s no predicting what readers will find interesting. Of all the pre-loaded news sources they had at launch, which included RSS feeds from mainstream organizations, one that was apparently most interesting to readers was from Cool Hunting, the design and culture blog. One of Pulse’s goals going forward, Kothari said, is to create an opportunity for a “Cool Hunting moment” for more publishers.

“We’re very, very excited to work on this,” he said. “The team assembled are all great developers and designers, but also people who want to see great journalism survive.”

April 01 2011

18:00

“Trimming the Times”: The Atlantic Wire’s new feature wants you to make the most of your 20 clicks

Add another entry into the growing group of New York Times meter-beating strategies: The Atlantic Wire is now providing a daily summary of the best content in the paper. “Now that the New York Times pay wall is live, you only get 20 free clicks a month,” Adam Martin notes in his introduction to the new feature. “For those worried about hitting their limit, we’re taking a look through the paper each morning to find the stories that can make your clicks count.”

“Trimming the Times” isn’t — per its framing, at least — about gaming the Times’ meter, per se; it’s about helping readers navigate stories within an ecosystem that, to some extent, punishes aimless exploration. The inaugural edition of the feature is 400 words and change, with short graphs pointing to stories on the NYT’s front page and its various sections: Global, U.S., Business, Technology, Health, Sports, Opinion, and Arts.

So, essentially, The Atlantic Wire is curating and then summarizing the information the Times has curated and then summarized. Meta! (Double-meta!)

Here’s how Trimming sums up today’s front page:

Leading today’s paper: A report on the fallout of all those defections on the Libyan government, news that the U.S. will likely not arm the rebels there, and a House of Representatives committee is shocked, shocked! at the high salaries of officials at government-backed lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Our top pick for today: Mad Men is saved!

First, it should be said, Trimming’s wise selection of the salvation of Mad Men as the day’s top story demonstrates the supremity of its editorial judgment. It also, however, suggests Trimming’s emphasis on curation (service!) over pure aggregation (menace?) — think Today’s Papers, with only one Paper. Introductions of stories with notes like “a worthwhile report,” “you’ll want to read how,” “we’re fascinated by,” and the like add an editorial sensibility to the thing that makes the feature less like a simple repurposing of the NYT and more like a tribute to it.

Trimming’s a neat idea — a reminder of the editorial and business opportunities that a paywall at one outlet can represent for the others. It also suggests the cross-platform layering of editorial content that’s increasingly defining the news space: Single stories spread across outlets, their look and their length — though not necessarily their core information — changing in the stretch. And the value of this kind of meta-curated feature is, it’s worth noting, largely independent of the Times’ paywall. Though the meter thing makes for a nice hook — and though it adds a service-y and slightly cheeky element to Trimming as a feature — a cogent summary of the best content in the nation’s paper of record is a useful thing as a general rule, meter or no.

Still, though, it’ll be interesting to see whether monthly meter patterns affect monthly traffic for The Atlantic Wire’s newest feature. Today being the first of the month, users’ article-view meters, as of early this morning, have been rolled back to zero. Human nature being what it is, the budgeting mindset — the voice of reason that reminds you to use your clicks wisely — probably won’t kick in until at least Article 10 or 15 (or, more realistically, 19). But Trimming wants to be the superego to your web-wandering Id. “It’s the first of the month so your clicks have reset,” Martin acknowledges. But: “You still must budget.”

Image by James Bowe used under a Creative Commons license.

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