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iPad for Marketing App Review: AOL Editions

September 6, 2011

AOL’s 2011 first quarter earnings weren’t exactly impressive. Arguably, the sole bright spot was the 4 percent growth in online display advertising revenue. Reinventing itself as a content provider, AOL is struggling to find its feet, though Tim Armstrong, the company’s chief executive, insists that the company is on its way up. Buying the Huffington Post and TechCrunch may have been AOL’s first big move to burnish its content provider image. The launch of AOL Editions, the latest personalized news magazine for the iPad, may be the second.

Like Zite, Editions claims to be the magazine that “reads you” – learning what you like so that it can deliver personalized content (which can include content from AOL properties such as Huffington Post and nonaffiliated content). Like the other iPad news magazines, it’s easy to share articles via email, twitter, and Facebook.

It took me several attempts to set up the free app; it timed out the first time I tried to connect to Facebook. Editions claims that connecting to Facebook, Twitter, or AOL/AIM will improve customization. The second time I entered my Facebook credentials, it took – 30 seconds later.

After choosing a social network (or choosing not to connect to a social network) readers enter their zip code and select 10 sections from a list that includes topics such as Top News, Technology, Business, Entertainment, Sports, and Local News. Then, the app assembles the magazine – it took several minutes to build my first edition.

The “cover page” of the magazine resembles old-school magazines, complete with a mailing label and a lead article written large. [l1] The following page includes the date, local weather, cover article picture and title, and a calendar, presumably pulled from iCal. Next up is the table of contents, which allows readers to view and jump to each section.

After that, the reading experience doesn’t differ much from that of Zite and Flipboard. Readers can read the magazine “cover to cover” or navigate to articles in a few different ways. They can jump to a specific section by tapping it on the table of contents or chose the section from the Sections menu item at the bottom of the screen. To see all articles in the magazine, readers tap the Articles menu item, which launches a scrollable sidebar that lists each section and the articles in it.

When readers open a story, the app displays terms associated with it. For example, when I opened an article on Rick Perry’s presidential bid, the terms included Federal Reserve System, Texas, Prayer, Republican Party, and The Republican. Readers let the app know which terms they like and which they don’t by giving each a check or an X. They can also give a thumbs up or down to the content source, such as TheAtlantic.com

 

Readers can take a more active role in personalization by adding sources (none that require a paid subscription, such as New York Times) or interests. They can even choose to track products or companies. But if the product or company – say SimpleFeed – isn’t on the list of available sources, they’re out of luck.  

Editions may run into some real trouble with its “daily magazine” concept. Because the app refreshes content only once a day, articles may feel stale by the time they appear in Editions. Even in the 24-hour news cycle, traditional magazines can allure readers with in-depth stories. Readers don’t expect the New York Times to have New Yorker style articles. However, for all it claims to be a magazine, Editions pulls articles that are, for the most part, news-style articles. And everyone expects news-style articles to be fresh.

There’s also bad news for digital marketers that want to get their company’s content to Editions users. There’s no way for readers to add your company’s RSS feed to their Editions magazine. You can hope that by developing rich RSS content and creating lots of buzz around it, Editions’ algorithm will snag it. AOL doesn’t seem too concerned about catering to content publishers (ironic for a company trying hard to get ahead in the content game). I couldn’t find any information on the Editions website or AOL help for Editions tailored for publishers. Even so, it’s clear that iPad apps like Editions are changing the paradigm for content consumption – and that means that you need to deliver it in the RSS format they utilize.

The Final Verdict

The reader experience: B. Editions doesn’t offer anything truly different, other than a few old-style magazine design elements. And while the personalization is cool, it doesn’t match Zite’s for effortlessness.

The publisher experience: D. Like Zite, Editions need to give users a way to add specific RSS feeds. Right now, Editions holds all the cards in determining which content a user will see – and which companies and products they can follow. However, if you create buzz around your company blog, your content has a better chance of reaching Editions users.

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