I was excited when The Daily iPad app launched; I think anyone who really cares about the tablet as a platform must have been. A daily tablet news magazine, created by "experts," with a no-expenses-spared budget of $30 million to get it started: sounds great! The big budget (rarely a good sign) gave me some early qualms, but I was willing to reserve judgment until I could see how the app matured over its first month in publication. My commentary, below, focuses on the user experience, what the landmark app means to advertisers - and how the darn thing won me over in spite of itself.
How It Feels to Use the Daily
The app centers on the "carousel," a Cover Flow-wannabe display of the publication's pages. Nice in theory, this particular carousel has some issues:
Performance: The carousel doesn't really…um…work that well. It's hard to stop when you find something you want to check out, and the carousel grinds sometimes, lacking the fluidity of Flipbook.
Menu weirdness: Below the carousel, there's a menu that you'd think would take you to an area of the carousel - but it doesn't. Instead, it briefly flashes to that area, then immediately takes you to an article that you didn't ask for, at which point the menu that used to be at the bottom of the page is now at the top. The overall experience: clumsy and disconcerting.
Why does the Web still have wet floors? What is it about mirrored reflection that's impossible for digital designers to resist? Make it stop!
Turn to see: Readers make a choice to hold the tablet at a certain aspect ratio - so why is it a good idea for them to have to rotate it to see content? When you're looking at a picture of Blake Griffin and are told to "Turn for Interactive Graphic" and then get the same picture of Blake Griffin with a couple of hotspots, it doesn't feel like much of a return on the effort.
On the Plus Side…
The Daily's article pages are generally quite good; the layout snaps nicely into place between portrait and landscape and is well-designed. The range of page templates is impressive, one of the traditional weak areas for IP-based content. This is incredibly important; it's one the first digital magazines that doesn't feel like I could have laid it out in Word. One could argue that an IP-based news magazine has no business having pages at all, on the grounds that the medium allows us to move beyond such "traditional" notions of physical space; that's valid criticism. For me, though, it's a smart nod to current user behavior and an easy way to transition users into a new medium.
The Daily's Advertising
For marketers, the advertising is really the most important part of the app. If tablets are going to save magazines, they aren't going to do it with subscriptions alone - they're going to have to provide the compelling ad model we're all so hungry for. So far, The Daily doesn't look like the savior the industry needs. For one thing, unlike the content pages, the ads all have a seconds-long loading delay. This is a very big problem. The app is effectively telling consumers: "See this black screen? That means an ad is coming! Quick, keep flipping!" As you gain fluency as a Daily user, that's exactly what you train yourself to do, avoiding even the quickest of brand impressions. I get that there's a delay because The Daily's ads are served, but I'm not quite sure why the ads can't be baked into The Daily - it's a daily, after all. If you're packaging up today's articles, why not lay the ads in as well and give readers a seamless experience - and a chance to interact with the ads?
On second thought, Daily: don't rush out and fix that whole ad serving thing until you can get the agencies to deliver better work, because what's there right now isn't cutting it. The magazine may have been tailored to the iPad, but the ads are definitely not; in fact, most do almost nothing. A Pepsi Max ad told me to "grab the new 16oz Pepsi Max bottle," so I did. I tried for 10 seconds to grab that bottle, expecting a cool experience - but no dice. The whole ad did shake a little bit when it loaded. Very exciting.
Even still image ads load slowly and have weak calls to action. For example, it wasn't until the third time I received the "Rango" ad that I noticed the tiny text instructing me to "tap to watch video."
Here's another example: the Verizon ad (viewed in portrait) invites you to "Turn to Feel the Power" of 4G LTE - and in landscape mode it actually served up the first interesting Daily ad I saw. It had informative copy, good branding, and some chances to interact, but there was nothing on the landscape screen that couldn't have been shown in portrait. In short, the "turn to see something different" command is totally gratuitous and designed only to say "Look! We designed this for the iPad; cool, huh?" How long before users get really tired of taking an extra step just to see an ad? Not long.
So why am I so concerned about the ads? Anytime a new ad-supported platform comes on the scene, most of the focus is on the content, but the long-term viability of the platform is dependent on the revenue model. Going back to my work on the ABC Full Episode Player, I've been a firm believer that most interactive ad models fall well-short of their potential. To this day, digital remains stuck in the TV model of "the viewer is trapped, let's message them as aggressively as possible while they are here." Instead, we need to drive engagement through a smarter, more platform-specific approach that incorporates the following elements:
You might think from everything that you've just read that I'm not going to be picking up The Daily any time soon. Not so: in spite of everything that needs rethinking and improvement, I'm actually a fan. For starters, The Daily crew gets enormous credit for trying. They're putting 100 pages of original content out there every day, just for the tablet, and they're pushing consumers past what my colleague Dale Herigstad calls "the wall of the new." This is the kind of pioneering effort from which we're all going to benefit as we figure out what works for the tablet, how to make content apps economically valuable, and how to use this format to present effective brand messaging.
But The Daily's not just important symbolically; it's oddly addictive. The mix of fluffy entertainment and sports content with world news and events totally works, and it's a curatorial and editorial voice that I've grown to appreciate and, yes, love.
And that's something I'll gladly plunk down $0.99 a week to get. Well done, Daily.
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Andrew Solmssen serves as managing director of Possible's Los Angeles office, leading the firm's West Coast client teams and determining best practices for engagement management.
He previously served as managing director at digital firm Schematic, where he played a key role in developing some of the earliest advertising models for delivering broadcast content via the Internet. Andrew was also responsible for providing strategic guidance to clients such as Comcast, ABC Television, and NBC Universal in the areas of digital strategy, content distribution, mobile entertainment, and Internet TV. Before Schematic, Andrew served as executive producer at Web design and consulting firm Kaufman Patricof Enterprises.
A frequent speaker at industry events such as Digital Hollywood and CES, Andrew is also regularly quoted by business and trade media on the topics of digital advertising and technology innovation. Prior to his involvement in digital media, Andrew lived in Namibia as part of the Harvard Institute for International Development.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @asolmssen.
December 12, 2013
1:00pm ET / 10:00am PT