Do I need HTML5 and a digital magazine app for my digital publishing?


Many publishers I speak to are still confused about what the difference is between a digital magazine that is online and a digital magazine app. And naturally the question is, do I need one or the other, or both?

The answer really depends on the type of digital publication you have, your target audience and their reading habits.

Firstly, lets describe what the difference is between an online or browser based digital magazine replica and a digital magazine app. I will talk in the context of a digital replica magazine as there are many ways the term digital magazine is used by publishers and vendors, so for the purpose of this discussion we will be talking about getting your publication online, as it was printed – a digital replica; although the fundamental differences between a HTML version and an app are the same regardless of how your digital publication is presented.

HTML5 Flipbook

A HTML version of your digital publication is one that can be read in a standard web browser – Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, Firefox. Sometimes called flip book, PDF replica, online edition or e-book, the browser version requires no special software or plugins and your digital publication has actually been converted into a website, but it looks like a replica of your print product. In the past a lot of digital publishing platforms used Flash to create flash flip books (and still do!), but with the advent of the iPad (the iPad does not support flash), HTML5 is a better option. HTML5 is just the latest version of HTML, the language that browsers understand.

One great advantages of using HTML for your digital publication is that it is instantly available to anyone who wants to view your publication, as it is displayed right in the browser; the same program as they used to browse your website and click on the link to your digital publication.

The disadvantages of HTML is that you need to be online when viewing a publication as HTML, and you need to be mindful of the size and complexity of your digital publication as readers don’t expect to wait too long for content to download when online. Also each different browser (Firefox, IE etc) works slightly differently across versions and devices, so it can be difficult to get the exact same reader experience across all of them (although your digital publishing software or service should handle this for you).

So let’s summarize the HTML digital version, before talking about an app:

  • Instantly available in the same program used to browse the web (browser).
  • No downloads or special software needed.
  • Can be read on any device with a browser (tablets and phones included)
  • You need to be online to view.
  • Limited to the functions supported in the  browser.

Digital publishing app

So what exactly is an app? App is short for application – a program that runs on a particular device and is designed to perform a specific function such as play a game, track your fitness or give you directions . A digital magazine app is no different, just that its function is to display your magazine. Unlike the HTML version, you don’t need to be online all the time to view your digital publication, as the publication, including interactivity such as image galleries and video is downloaded and stored inside the app so you can view it anytime. And because apps are custom written for a specific purpose, often the reading experience is better than a browser version.

The disadvantage of an app is that you need to have the app installed on your device to use it, and you need different apps for different platforms – Apple, Google, Amazon etc. When a reader finds your website and wants to view your digital publication and you only have it as an app, they will have to go to the ‘app store’ for their device, download your app, then download the magazine or digital publication they were looking for. Sometimes this can be a frustrating and time consuming process, particularly if the reader just wanted to glance at your publication to gauge their interest, or they want to quickly read an article that was shared with them.

Summary of apps:

  • Need to download the app to read the digital publication.
  • Different apps for different platforms.
  • Can read the publication when offline.
  • Better reading experience as apps are custom.
  • Publishers don’t know who their readers are.

Audience and reading habits

The key to determining whether you offer an online (HTML) version and or an app, is in the type of content you have, who your readers are, how and when they consume your content, as well as how often.

Readers who are not familiar with your brand or offering will be able to quickly view and read your online publications as HTML.  The easiest way to explain this is to go through some examples.

Digital Catalogs

If you simply wanted to get a brochure of this weeks specials in a digital format, then you would likely just opt for an online version. You want to make it as easy as possible for your readers to see and read about your specials as soon as they come across them or linked from an email you have sent out.

If you had a two hundred page catalogue of all of your products then you may consider having both; a HTML5 catalogue online for instant access, and an app. Potential buyers can read your catalogue online instantly, and your customers and sales reps could have a complete reference of all of your products on their tablet or phone that they can access anytime, anywhere.

Digital Magazine

There are a lot of different types of magazines; consumer, B2B, custom to name a few – and many factors to consider when deciding whether a HTML and or app strategy is best.

If you intend on selling your digital magazine, then an app offers an easy in-app purchase for your readers (a one click purchase once they are in the app), but you need to factor in the commission you will have to pay to the ‘app store’, and you don’t generally get access to the purchasers details. A subscription that your reader purchases directly from your website for an online version has many benefits as well both for you and the reader. You know who the subscriber is, and can directly market to them with other offers, and you don’t pay the app store commission (around 30%). The reader has the benefit of getting an account that they can use to login on any device to read your magazine. A good digital publishing platform will also allow the subscriber to login to the app and download the magazine even if they purchased the subscription online.

On the other hand, if your magazine is free and more about B2B, then you should think about your audience and how and when they may consume your content. It would be a mistake to think that because you have a magazine, you should have an app. If most of your readers are at work at their computer when your content is most likely to be consumed, then a HTML version would be the best option.

Newsletter / Journal

If you have a newsletter or journal that you are trying to build an audience through email and inbound marketing, then you don’t want readers to have to download an app before they can read your material so a browser version is probably best. Having said that, once your readers have been receiving your newsletter for a while, it can’t hurt to offer an app for those readers are really engaged with your material as they will not mind downloading an app in order to have the content handy and available offline.


You can see that both online and apps have a place in your publishing strategy, you simply need to put some thought into your reader habits and where and how they are most likely to consume your material. Do you have interesting results from publishing online and or an app?