Hearst Magazines Outlines Major App Rollout For Second Half Of 2010

Five days after releasing its iPad app version of Popular Mechanics, Hearst Magazine says iTunes users have downloaded more than 10,000 copies of its $1.99 “showcase issue.” While other mag publishers, like Condé Nast, focus on creating digital replicas around a few, high-profile titles, Hearst is taking a broader approach, planning to release another dozen apps by the end of 2010.

Currently, Hearst Magazines offers 22 apps. All 14 of its mag titles, including Esquire, Cosmopolitan and Seventeen, are available as paid digital replicas through the Zinio online storefront on the iPad since the Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) device was released in April. In addition to the electronic versions, Hearst has also been selling five other offshoots from its print pub, like Esquire’s Big Black Book and Harper’s Bazaar’s Runway Report, through Zinio.

O due in Q4: After being fairly quiet about its app strategy, Hearst execs now feel the time is right to talk about its plans for the next two quarters. Through the end of the year, Hearst will release an iPad app for Esquire in August, followed by Marie Claire in the fall. Later in the year, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Harpers Bazaar and Food Network will also get the iPad treatment.

One of its big releases is coming sometime in Q4, when O, The Oprah Magazine, debuts on the iPad with its own bookstore and e-book reader within the app. Beyond the e-commerce function, Hearst says its iPad app is more social than its rivals’ offerings. For example, most magazine apps contain little more than the ability to share a link on Facebook or Twitter. The Oprah mag app will allow readers to comment within the app’s articles, creating the opportunities for something similar to what Hearst envisions as a real-time chat among users.

Since Zinio produces the electronic versions of the magazines, Hearst feels an exact replica isn’t just unnecessary when it comes to an app, it would also turn off readers. It calls its forthcoming iPad apps “enhanced” versions of the magazine.

Although sales won’t count toward Audit Bureau of Circulations’ revised e-reader rules, John Loughlin, Hearst Magazines’ EVP/GM, says that it’s more important to get the consumer experience right first. “Once these magazine apps get traction with consumers, the *ABC* changes will follow; they’ll have to,” Loughlin told paidContent. “If we were to follow the restrictions set down by the *ABC*, the consumer experience would be limited. These are still the early days and at the moment, making these products attractive to readers is more important that having it meet a a set of standards that haven’t been fully formed yet.”

Cherry on top: Still, Loughlin does expect the apps to drive print subscriptions. In the 36 months since the company created its digital platform, he says Hearst has added 10 million net paid subscriptions via its mag websites. “The cherry on top of that is 90 percent of those subscriptions were from brand-new customers, ones who had no prior history as a print subscriber,” Loughlin said. “We think the tablet and mobile experience will do the same. We see it as completely additive.”

When it comes to the issue of how to make the apps different yet similar enough to its print pubs, as in the case of Popular Mechanics, focus groups with readers led Hearst to believe that sometimes, less is better.

“The consumers in the focus groups didn’t like any ‘unnecessary bells and whistles’ that didn’t help tell the story,” Chris Wilkes, VP, for Hearst Magazines digital media, told paidContent. “In other words, if something was in there just because it was cool but didn’t have a function beyond that, it didn’t work for consumers. Also, they didn’t want to have to read a page of complicated instructions on how to read the magazine. Instead, they wanted a clear direction on the interactive features, such as graphics telling them to ‘press here’ or ‘use two fingers to rotate’ an image.”

Utility apps: Hearst is also adding more “utility apps,” non-magazine downloads that provide a special function. The company has already begun producing “bookazines” and will turn one of them, House Beautiful: Favorite Colors, into a guide for matching paints for home improvement projects. It’s also putting the finishing touches on Esquire Genius Games, which will house a series of 40 interlocking puzzles that Hearst’s Wilkes says goes way beyond the usual Sudoku offering. It will be sold outside the Esquire mag app — the price hasn’t been determined — for the iPhone and iPad.

Next Issue Media: Despite the bigger app push this year, Loughlin concedes that the company doesn’t claim to have figured the digital tablet space. But he did say that Hearst has been learning from its own experience and from other publishers as well. He pointed to the high degree of collaboration among the parties involved in Next Issue Media, the digital magazine and newspaper storefront formed by Condé Nast, Meredith (NYSE: MDP), News Corporation (NSDQ: NWS) and Time Inc. (NYSE: TWX) “The joint venture is helping all of us move a little faster, a little smarter toward the goal of building up our digital businesses,” Loughlin said. “And we’re doing what we can both inside and outside that entity.”