AP to pilot mobile advertising iCircular program in early 2011

The Associated Press will launch an initiative in early 2011 designed to reinvigorate one of the few remaining stalwarts of print newspaper revenue: the Sunday ad circulars.

Called “iCircular,” the program hopes to take the traditional daily and weekend print inserts and expand them into a mobile consumer experience.

I spoke by phone with Jane Seagrave, AP’s senior vice president and chief revenue officer, and Jeff Litvack, general manager of global product development who is leading the project. Litvack said he expects a pilot program to roll out among a limited number of publications early next year, with a potential wide release later in 2011.

Because the product is still being built, not every detail of the initiative is finalized, or ready to be shared publicly. But a few basics are clear:

  • The product is not a stand-alone app, but will be integrated within a newspaper’s native mobile app or mobile website.
  • It will be accessible on multiple platforms, including AP’s own white label mobile apps, created by Verve Wireless, and newspaper apps developed by other vendors.
  • iCircular will feature content similar to what appears in the typical advertising inserts of most newspapers. The early screen shots of the product include brand names such as Target, Kohl’s, Radio Shack and K-Mart.
  • Advertisers will be able to target their messaging down to the ZIP code level, and consumers will similarly be able to search for retail locations using the mapping capabilities in their phones.
  • Consumers will be able to search and browse the circulars and create personalized shopping lists within the app. Social media functions integrating Facebook, Twitter and e-mail will also be included.
  • The cost to member papers is not yet finalized. But, according to Litvack, the business model aims to maintain “a similar profit margin” for publishers using mobile inserts as they currently realize with their print inserts.

Making the jump from print circulars to digital circulars

iCircular was approved by the AP Board of Directors at its October 2010 meeting, Seagrave said, and has been in development since. She said AP’s interest in the program is part of its business plan to help members compete in the digital economy. She sees ad inserts as still being very popular with consumers and retailers, making it a natural for extension to mobile devices.

The challenge, as with all software development, is how best to make that jump from analog to digital. “Newspaper inserts are a serendipitous experience. They all fall out of the paper and something catches your eye,” she said. “How would you translate the best of that experience in print onto a mobile device?”

Litvack said the AP has spent a considerable amount of time focusing on the user experience and has already filed for a patent to cover some of the innovations they have developed. That patent, he said, would be the first the AP owned covering mobile technology.

Addressing the “app fatigue problem”

The retailers the AP has spoken with are so far positive about the iCircular project, Seagrave said. Many in the industry are early mobile adopters that are already pursuing an aggressive strategy. Target and Best Buy, for instance, have mobile apps.

Reaching out to customers via digital channels seemed easy to retailers, but it’s raised some challenges. Retailers, Litvack said, experience “the app fatigue problem.” Consumers may download an app, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to actually use it regularly.

That’s where newspapers and their readers come in. By including the retailer’s mobile circular within a newspaper context, the AP believes consumers will be reminded of, and utilize, the advertising on a more frequent basis.

And that, says Seagrave, is the intent of the project. The AP wants to “take what has been a fundamentally successful model in print and translate it to the mobile device.”

It is difficult to judge the potential for the product, without seeing it in the hands of consumers. But Litvack is confident it will be a hit with readers and retailers, calling the experience, “revolutionary.” And that is not a term often applied to the newspaper industry’s digital efforts in recent years.

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