Advertising on the iPad

By Felix Salmon
March 17, 2010
panel today on the iPad and the future of magazines, this one featuring my friends Rachel Sklar and Jacob Lewis. Jacob was pretty downbeat about the ability of the iPad to rescue the economics of the magazine industry, for two reasons; one, I think, is much better than the other. The good reason is that Apple jealously guards the demographic information of the people who download any given app from the iTunes music store, and publishers are hobbled if they don't have a lot of detail on the demographics of their readers.


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There was another panel today on the iPad and the future of magazines, this one featuring my friends Rachel Sklar and Jacob Lewis. Jacob was pretty downbeat about the ability of the iPad to rescue the economics of the magazine industry, for two reasons; one, I think, is much better than the other. The good reason is that Apple jealously guards the demographic information of the people who download any given app from the iTunes music store, and publishers are hobbled if they don’t have a lot of detail on the demographics of their readers.

The less good reason is that advertisers are going to want lots of very detailed information on how many people are viewing their ads on the iPad, how long they’re viewing the ads for, and so forth: information which is quite easy to obtain with a digital medium but which is happily impossible to obtain with a paper magazine. At the moment, said Jacob, publishers like Condé Nast hire fast-talking salesmen who essentially pull a fast one on advertisers, who would never pay $50,000 for a full page if they knew how few individuals actually paid any attention to that ad in reality.

But I’m not so sure. Yes, there’s undoubtedly a bit of overstretch going on in terms of what publishers tell advertisers about the quality of the audience they’re delivering. But at the same time, when you’re looking at a company like Condé, the advertisers don’t have a lot of choice but to buy space anyway, even if they know they’re being snowed. Luxury-goods advertisers have a reputation to protect, and brand advertising for luxury goods is a fragile and precious thing: you want lots of control of the immediate context, you want very high production values, and you’re petrified of anything which might serve to cheapen your brand.

Compare that with the kind of brand advertising we’re seeing all over the place at SXSW. Here’s a picture of Rachel and Jacob, on their panel, with a cheap vinyl banner behind them advertising Miller Lite and Chevy. That kind of branding is all well and good for some, but you’re never going to see Bottega Veneta in that kind of context.

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On the iPad, by contrast, the advertiser’s control of the content is total — they even know exactly what screen it’s going to be viewed on. It’s the first digital advertising medium which is intimate enough to be held in someone’s hands and admired at close range, and it also has abilities which print advertisers can only dream of: not only animations and movies and music, but also virtually limitless space to allow readers to flick through a whole range of clothes or watches or whatever.

After the panel ended, I got to talking to one attendee about bridal mags, and it struck me that the bridal category could be one of the first to be truly revolutionized by the iPad. After all, bridal mags are quite unashamedly bought for the advertising content, rather than any supposedly independent editorial: the idea is that brides-to-be will flick through them, looking carefully at pretty much every ad, searching for that idea which inspires them to spend thousands of dollars on something for their wedding.

On an iPad, that experience can become much more immersive and interactive: brides could spend days if not weeks flicking through the offerings of all the different advertisers, adding various products and ideas to their virtual scrapbooks, finding local retailers for anything they’re interested in, and firing off carefully-curated scrapbooks, in PDF form, to their wedding planners, parents, bridesmaids — even occasionally the fiancé too. I don’t know how much inclusion in that kind of an app would be worth to an advertiser, especially one who jumped in and created deep wells of content rather than simply repurposing their print ads. But clearly there’s an opportunity here for brands to really connect with readers in a new and very exciting way.

Jacob worries that luxury goods advertisers, once they realize how little time readers spend looking at ads, will be loath to continue to spend huge amounts of money shooting and buying enormous media campaigns. But the fact is that without those enormous media campaigns, those brands are nothing. And I suspect that many people on both the advertising and the editorial sides will be surprised by how much attention ads get in the iPad version of glossy magazines, especially the ones which are very well designed.

The thing to remember here is that while the editorial content on the iPad will for the foreseeable future just be a repurposed version of the stuff that was written and designed for the print version, the ad content can be completely different and utterly customized. And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some of the most innovative and compelling iPad content coming from advertisers with big production budgets, rather than from stretched editorial art departments who have to try to throw an iPad app together in whatever few hours they can grab around doing their print work. Ads have always been a hugely important part of magazines like Vogue, which invariably starts off with dozens of pages of glossy and expensive ad campaigns, while the editorial-side fashion stories always appear at the very back of the magazine. Likewise for the iPad: I suspect that top ads might well get much more attention than any given piece of editorial content.

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