What businesses can learn from Rolling Stone's iPad app launch

Credit: Photo by FontShop.

Last week, Rolling Stone Magazine, the venerable print publication devoted to music, politics, and popular culture, launched an iPad app. It was a long time coming, but they chose to take their time and tread carefully, rather than rushing into mobile. Even if you're not a publication, you could learn some valuable lessons from the process Rolling Stone went through.

Learn from the mistakes of others. Many companies today are trying to make the move to mobile, but it's hard to know when the time is right. Rolling Stone Publisher Jann Wenner, a dyed-in-the wool old school print publisher, is not terribly impressed with the new medium, as he made crystal clear in a March, 2011 interview in Ad Age in which he called the tablet business "a small additive, not a new business" and predicted it could be decades before it was significant. Sticking firmly to his print roots, Wenner criticized publishers who made a rush to the iPad: "So I think that they're prematurely rushing and showing little confidence and faith in what they've really got, their real asset, which is the magazine itself, which is still a great commodity."

Whether you agree with him or not, there is something to be said for moving slowly and watching how the platform develops, rather than rushing in before it has time to mature. 

Rolling Stone thinks they timed it right. Rolling Stone Design Director Joseph Hutchinson, who spearheaded the design and delivery of the new iPad app, pointed out that many who rushed to the iPad and chose to dazzle readers with expensive effects have since cut back. By sitting back and waiting, Rolling Stone was able to learn from the industry.

Test and prototype. The process really began when Rolling Stone released a special Beatles app in fall 2010. Hutchinson said they learned a lot from that process, but it wasn't until 2012 that they began looking at tools to deliver a full-fledged iPad version of the magazine.

They went with Adobe Digital Publishing Suite. It was a natural fit since Rolling Stone already publishes the magazine on Adobe's platform -- the staff was already comfortable using Adobe tools and didn't need to learn totallly new technology, and the new digital publishing tasks could be integrated into their existing workflows pretty easily.

Last summer, Hutchison assembled a team with another designer and a freelancer, and over the next several months they built a prototype in their spare time while they did their regular jobs putting together the print magazine.

Credit: Rolling Stone
Rolling Stone's iPad edition lets users listen to 30-second samples of songs being reviewed. If they like them, they can click through to buy them from iTunes.

A new medium requires new thinking. The team learned that it involved much more than just taking the print magazine and porting it to a new medium -- they had to do a lot of rethinking about how to package information. For starters, the iPad page is smaller, so the layout has to be different. Some things that work in print need to be reworked for the iPad to take advantage of that platform. And the iPad sometimes offers the ability to present content in an entirely different way.

For instance, some articles related to music have links to video content on YouTube or let readers listen to a 30-second clip and then tap through to iTunes to buy it, a natural connection for a magazine like Rolling Stone with such a rich tradition in music news. It took time to code that connection, and Rolling Stone had to involve a third-party developer and get an agreement from Apple to get it running.

Expect to hire extra staff. Moving forward, Hutchinson and his team will need to produce the print and digital versions in tandem on a weekly basis, and they're bringing on a regular freelancer on board to help with this process.

Remember what your core business is. Hutchinson offers this valuable bit of advice to any company trying to build a mobile app -- don't let technology seduce you into making choices that don't serve the overall business.

"The one thing is, you have to be true to what your business is about," he said. "Stay true to your mission. Don't be seduced by the bells and whistles and remember what your core values are, and then apply that thinking to the digital space to build your product for the iPad." 

That's advice any business should follow.

Credit: Rolling Stone
A feature like this makes a lot more sense when users can actually listen to the songs that the artist has chosen. Another example of how to rethink content for new media.
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