Interactive Content Apps for Tablets, Smart Phones Create Revenue OpportunitiesApril 2014 By John Parsons
Printing industry executives often lament the loss of print business to new media. Digital content, from Websites and e-books to smartphones and tablets, has eroded public demand for traditional print, with no foreseeable change in sight. EP and inkjet digital printing has helped stem the tide, but many printing and graphic service companies are still seeking new ways to help their bottom line.
For printers that already offer layout and design services, an unexpected revenue source (or at least a way to retain customer loyalty) may be digital media itself, in the form of interactive apps for tablets and smartphones. Unlike Websites, apps can be created with the same tools used to produce printed pages. With a modest software investment, plus incremental training of existing staff, printers can offer their clients supplemental interactive collateral—to complement their printed products.
Some printers—especially those that serve the print needs of publishers—are already offering these services. Columbia, MD-based Cenveo Publisher Services recently added tablet and smartphone apps to their list of services. (See sidebar)
Program Apps vs. Content Apps
When most people talk about tablet or smartphone apps, they're usually thinking of programs like Angry Birds, Email, YouTube or mobile browsers. Such programs are the domain of software developers, however. A different class of app, focusing on content more than specialized computing tasks, is rapidly gaining the attention of book and magazine publishers. These content apps are more than just glorified print facsimiles. They offer an array of interactive media designed to engage the reader—ideally as an additional or supplemental experience for subscribers.
Content apps appeal to more than just magazine publishers. Businesses are beginning to experiment with digital brochures and catalogs designed for tablet devices. Rather than hire dedicated programmers, these businesses are looking to common desktop publishing environments—enhanced to produce tablet content.
Printers' unique window of opportunity is their understanding of how print pages are designed and produced, especially if they are already taking customers' page layout files and making them "print-ready." App creation from InDesign or QuarkXPress is a similar process, one that many customers would rather leave to a professional. Proactive printers, with the right adjustments, could offer that service, with the appeal of the "one-stop shop" for graphic communication.
A printer's page layout expertise is only one reason to offer content app services. If a service provider is currently involved in managing its customer's structured data (for variable print campaigns, e-marketing or document management), then creation of mobile apps from XML sources is a logical next step. In other words, apps can simply be an extension of an already broad range of communication services.
How It's Done
Content app creation is similar to ordinary print page creation, with the addition of interactive "overlays" for elements such as video, image galleries, live maps, 360° views and much more. It is usually better to start with a new document layout, but even existing print documents (everything converted to RGB, and high-res images replaced with low-res) can be adapted to tablet use. Creative thought and planning are essential. Just adding hyperlinks to a basically static page is unlikely to impress a tablet user. The designer's use of rich media must be at least as good as his use of color, layout and presentation in a printed piece. In other words, if you have skilled designers, they will need to up their game.
Fortunately, many of the familiar layout tools for print are also used to create interactive pages. Text can be imported and formatted to fit the space, just as it is for printed pages. You can use scrolling frames for longer text articles, but be cautious about using too much text overall. Import or place still images, and enhance them with pan and zoom, or combine them with other images to create a space-saving gallery. It is relatively easy to add special effects, and to import audio or video files. However, video files are typically very large, so it may be advisable to link to video footage from a hosted platform like Viddler.
An app page can also display Web content—in a fixed window on the page, in a browser-like pop-up, or by switching to an actual browser on the device. Use caution, however, because much Web content does not display well on mobile devices. The possibilities seem almost endless. Retail clients' apps could feature a Google Maps view of store locations; restaurants could display current menus or specials. If a customer's existing Web content is mobile-optimized, it can potentially be used in a tablet app.
Tools, Tactics and Training
At least six different companies offer content app creation environments. Adobe Systems' Digital Publishing Suite (DPS) is probably the most familiar, using Adobe InDesign as the primary design environment. Quark Software's App Studio is a robust alternative, allowing apps to be created in QuarkXPress or from XML files, in addition to InDesign. Other systems include Aquafadas, Hipzone, Mag+ and Twixl Media—all of which use free InDesign plugins to create interactive overlays. (See "No Coding Required" sidebar on next page.)
Although many of these services were created for magazine publishing, most of them can readily serve corporate customers—or their trusted service providers. Since printers usually already have current InDesign and QuarkXPress licenses, the addition of an app service is a logical step forward. Pricing is usually reasonable, and can be factored into the cost of each app created. Some services offer unique capabilities, so some careful research is recommended.
In most cases, the printing company must also become an official Apple and/or Android developer. This is not as scary as it might sound, since it mainly involves a small annual fee (for Apple) and the use of "provisioning" files, which are easy to create online. Testing and submitting apps for publication is a predictable but necessary process, so setting customer expectations is paramount.
While becoming an Apple developer is fairly easy, content app creators must be wise when submitting their clients' apps to the Apple App Store. The company publishes its app requirements, and is the sole judge of whether an app is accepted. With a reasonable amount of care and foresight, however, a truly interactive content app will usually be accepted.
Many in-house designers can easily adapt to the use of interactive media, but training is often a good idea. Sales staffs should also be brought up to speed, since it is the capabilities of rich media that they will be selling. The creation of a compelling tablet app requires the same attention to quality and detail as does a successful print brochure, catalog or annual report.
Enhancing the Bottom Line
Creating tablet apps will not generate gross revenues comparable to large press runs. However, their value as a profit center should not be marginalized. As a regular product offering—competitively priced and competently delivered—apps do represent a source of additional revenue. More importantly, they represent a full-service approach to graphic communication, giving customers a reason to keep their business with one supplier—or even increase it as the relationship grows.
Content apps may seem like a foreign concept to many, but they are not. A print service provider that is in the business of enhancing brand communication should seize this opportunity, and make the most of it. PI
About the Author
John Parsons (email@example.com) is is veteran advisor and writer for printers and graphic communications providers and developers. He has been helping companies cope with (and profit from) new technologies for more than 20 years, including his tenure at "The Seybold Report."