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Note to Content Creators: The Mobile Web Is Not Saving You from iTunes

The app markets are winning—it’s time to focus on working (and winning) within them.

As HTML5—along with responsive design sites and Web apps—began to make a splash across digital platforms in 2012, many of us were as quick to cheer the triumphant return of the mobile Web as we were to declare its demise in favor of apps just a couple of years previous. We saw in HTML5 a way for content providers to flank the iTunes garrison and march straight to the consumer with experiences that promised to be every bit as rich as what native apps could provide, and with none of their technologically and financially draining intermediation.

But have we been too quick to predict victory for the Web? Quite so, I believe. Thankfully, it’s early enough to recognize our folly and to retool our strategies for an environment in which iTunes and Google Play will continue to dominate the mobile consumer experience for the foreseeable future.

Now that HTML5 sites and Web apps have been going head-to-head with native apps for a while, I think we can draw some new conclusions (transient as any conclusions about any aspect of digital publishing may be) about the value of native apps and app markets to publishers and customers alike. Here are three in escalating order of significance.

1. Native apps can be easier and less costly to create than responsive design websites or Web apps. Native-app creation has become an increasingly democratized process, and it’s easier than ever to incorporate a device’s built-in features into native apps. Meanwhile, HTML5-driven websites and Web apps tend to be made from scratch, a more time-consuming and expensive process, often demanding greater access to specialized talent. This is certainly a debatable point.

2. Native apps are much easier to make money from than anything Web-based. iTunes—and Google Play to a lesser extent—have set up systems explicitly for publishers to generate revenue. Meanwhile, the problems that faced content creators seeking to make money on the Web before HTML5 exist in precisely the same dimensions today. Customer expectations, however quickly they may have been formed in the mid-1990s, are proving very stubborn to change. Users still want Web-based content to be free. The exceptions to this only prove the rule. It is just the strongest of brands, those with lifelong traditions of premium pricing for content that cannot be easily replaced, that have succeed in charging their customers directly on the mobile Web. Some, like the Wall Street Journal, that charged their customers for online access from the start, have largely avoided the traps of the app markets entirely. Others, like the Financial Times, have such deeply rooted relationships with such large volumes of customers that they have been able to pull their audience with them as they moved their primary mobile marketing and distribution channels to the Web. In the app markets, however, the expectation that customers would pay for high-value experiences has been built in from their launch. Smaller brands—even well-regarded ones—may struggle mightily in their attempts to retain and, more so, gain new paying mobile customers outside of the these markets.

3. Here is where my belief in the continued dominance of native apps and the app markets crystalizes. As we have seen rich HTML5 experiences emerge from the likes of the FT,, and most recently, the new, we may have finally empowered Web designers to create experiences that legitimately outpace the native app. But we haven’t solved the perhaps largest problem facing the Web as a publisher’s marketing platform: curation. The app markets’ biggest value to the customer is that they help people find what they are looking for. iTunes and Google Play each offer a single, attractive, well-organized, easily searchable database where users can effectively discover the products and experiences that suit their interests and pay for those products and experiences with a single click. Until there is a similarly facile solution on the Web, it will be very difficult for publishers to pull customers into their Web-based mobile experiences as efficiently as they can via the app stores.

The app markets’ biggest value to the customer is curation: they help people find what they are looking for.

This is not an argument against your mobile website or Web apps, but in favor of the multi-channel perspective. And where this leaves publishers is just where they’ve been all along: damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If you play in the app stores, it means creating three to six times the number of products and business relationships as you would if you served your customers directly via an HTML5 experience that adapted elegantly to whatever device your customer was using. It’s an understandable frustration. As head of new products at Harvard Business Review, I was one of those product executives who threw up his hands in frustration over and over with each new device that demanded a new app version, each with its 30 percent pound of flesh exacted by Apple, Amazon, and Google for the right to sell in their markets. But if you give into the alluring temptation to tell the intermediaries to take a hike and try to go straight to customers, what happens to your audience? Do you really believe you can port them over? More so, how confident are you that you can gain new customers outside the channels they traditionally use to find content? Did I mention those channels are continuing to grow rapidly?

Imagine you’re a consumer packaged goods manufacturer refusing to sell your product in all the major supermarket chains, instead choosing to rely exclusively on a mail-order operation. How likely are you to be able to scale that business? Yes, it can be done, but at what cost and effort, and to what end? As a veteran of the mobile product wars, let me offer some advice: Suck it up, and pursue every channel where your customers are. Stop fighting it, stop complaining about it, and embrace the idea of multi-platform distribution as your new reality. When you do that, it reframes the problem. It focuses you on finding the commonalities across product versions, platforms, and business relationships, not the differences. It tunes you in to potential business model innovations, process efficiencies, and a whole host of other gains you’ve been missing because you’ve been so caught up in fighting a disagreeable system. The system is winning; figure out how you can win within it.

Paul Michelman

Paul Michelman is editor-in-chief at Safari Books Online, and was formerly executive editor of strategy+business.

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