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K9 Magazine: A Lesson in Doing Magazines Backwards

For some former print titles, the switch to digital edition is a step into the unknown, is not always done for the right reasons, and is done with little imagination. For K9 Magazine, a print title from an overwhelmingly digital stable, it was like coming home. Ryan O’Meara explains why they ditched their flagship print magazine and what they hope to achieve from its digital rebirth.

Ryan O'Meara

Posted on: 01 September 2009

I think we've done absolutely everything back to front in publishing. From day one, we did things the wrong way round, always have.

K9 Media, the publisher behind K9 Magazine and a portfolio of some 40+ digital properties (that's the fancy term for websites so I have learned) was started back in 1999.

We were / are a digital media company. But in 2001, K9 Magazine was launched. I have never denied the fact that K9 Magazine was born of the result of advertisers telling us how much they "loved what we're doing, we just don't really have an online marketing strategy at present. Do you have any print media?"

It took us seven issues to get K9 Magazine right and we even had to go out and get additional investment to sustain the company after this hungry new inky addition ate all of our cash in a way that our digital children never did. When we did get the magazine right though, we really got it right. It grew fast. TV coverage, major, world-exclusive celebrity interviews, brand recognition, we made a magazine that I became very proud of. Despite this, I still couldn't get as passionate about print as I was about pixels.

In business meetings, I can evangelise about digital media in a way that I can't about print. When pitching new business ideas, I never think about print first, I always think about the web. The thing is, I adore magazines. I adore everything about them. I love what they stand for, what they do, what they say about you as a reader. So when I got my first glimpse of what I consider to be 'true' digital magazines, I was hooked.

To me, a true digital magazine is not some like-for-like replication of a print magazine, served up by way of page-flip technology pulled straight from the same PDFs that were used on the print edition. Not only is this cheating, it's pretty much pointless in my view. I mean, you wouldn't print your web pages out, staple them together and serve it up as a magazine, so why do the opposite and pretend it's a digital magazine?

No, to me a true digital magazine was something like Monkey from Dennis Publishing. I signed up for the first edition and I crossed my fingers that this was going to be the brand that showed what a digital magazine could do. It did. It does.

This digital magazine is - without wishing to sound too grandiose - my vision of the perfect media mix.

A digital double-pager can showcase the written word (that won't be going out of fashion), great photography / imagery (that's not going anywhere either), video enabling the reader / viewer to delve deeper in to the feature almost as if they are watching TV, followed by the opportunity to buy things with a single click of the mouse - perfect. Read, admire, watch, engage, buy. This is genuine multi-media.

The K9 Magazine jump to digital

Around the back end of 2008, I got a very sudden cold sweat. What, I thought, would I do if one day I received a press release from some up-start publisher announcing that they were going to be launching the world's first truly all-singing, all-dancing digital magazine for dog lovers? The thought terrified me. This was our game. We did digital. Yet here we were, so invested in a printed product it felt like being shackled to a tanker that couldn't be turned, stopped or directed on even a slightly different course. Compared to digital, print was cumbersome and lacking in options (as well as a bright future) in my view. Over Christmas I made the decision. I was certain about it too. I was going to commit infanticide. The magazine we had all worked so hard to build up, I was going to take it to the vet and have it put to sleep. Well, not quite.

There was no need to kill the magazine. I realised that K9 Magazine was - like most quality publications - much more than just ink on paper. It was a brand. It stood for something, represented something, meant something. Why couldn't it be the first all-singing, all-dancing digital magazine for dog lovers? This was a no brainer. Well, not quite.

The small task of convincing the team, the board, the advertisers and the readers that this was a smart move lay in wait.

* The team. This was the first challenge. I took care of it by sitting the team down and showcasing what I believed to be the pick of the very best 'truly' digital magazines. I showed them pages with creativity bursting off the screen and tried to get people to envisage how such items would work with K9. I explained what we could do with digital that we couldn't do with print and, alternatively, challenged anyone to come up with things that couldn't be done with digital that could only be done with print. The team was sold.

* The board. Same sales process with one slight change. K9 Magazine was / is profitable so suggesting the slaughter of a money-maker that had cost a lot of money to build up was a big risk. Fortunately, K9 Media has a board that believes in digital. The question we had to ask is quite straightforward: which industry has the brighter future, print or digital. I think the answer is becoming all the more obvious with each passing day.

* The advertisers. We're still in the process of selling the concept to new and existing advertisers. So far the reception has been good. We reach more readers for less cost, our ability to personalise advertising packages is greater with digital than it was with print. The sales pitch is therefore: More readers, less spend. What advertiser wouldn't prick their ears up at that?

* The readers. This has been the most surprising finding so far. We are getting more subscribers month on month for our digital title than we ever did for the print version. Our previous reader acquisition model was one dimensional and certainly limited by the constraints of wasteful, large scale distribution. It'd go something like this: I'd appear on GMTV or BBC Breakfast to discuss the dog related news story of the day - superb brand exposure. Then people would Google K9 Magazine. Once they found our website, they simply read the articles. Maybe 1 in 1,000 would actually subscribe. So we'd change the strategy and instead of having a content website, we'd have just a subscription page; that bombed too. Those people who loved the brand (and subscribed to the magazine) wanted to know what we were playing at, where their dog news had gone, where were their articles, advice and columns?

Since adopting a digital-only strategy, we set up a simple, benefit-rich membership package for dog lovers. We brought K9 Magazine's archive in to play and produced a package that could be enjoyed and accessed by any dog lover in any (English speaking) country who would not only receive K9 Magazine (monthly) but could also access all archive material and a host of other member-only features such as product reviews and video specials. We have not even begun to properly market K9 Magazine in its new, improved digital format as aggressively as we marketed it as a printed product but our month on month subscriber / membership figures are up some 39% - a figure that has pleased and, I'll admit, surprised me. Of course, being a back-to-front media company, our online audience has always been larger than our print audience, so this is something to bear in mind. We started from a position of strength digitally, all we're doing now is getting better leverage from it with regard to the magazine.

Production

We had to source a platform upon which to publish the magazine. We opted for Yudu as they made such a huge effort to provide us with the hand holding we needed in terms of helping us transition our production team who were used to print, to digital. As we are producing exclusively for digital, issues such as font size can all be focused toward the screen rather than the paper page. The cost savings on the production side are attractive. Distribution is easily the biggest. No longer will we have to endure the word 'unsolds'. Distribution is basically a web link delivered by email. We can scale up by the power of ten without seeing an increase in costs. That is literally impossible in print. If we added an additional 300k readers to K9 Magazine, the cost implications are negligible.

The benefits

We have spent nearly ten years breaking down barriers with advertisers who saw us as a new title and eventually trusted us enough to spend with us. We built a great print magazine and now we are a launch again. For the bigger advertising clients, the sell is actually much more simple. We just start talking to their digital agency rather than their print one. And here is where we expect our decision to really pay off. Our brand recognition will also help.

As a means to attract more spend from the SMEs in our client base, we have started to offer video adverts. This is another huge growth area and, whilst initially a difficult sell due to its newness, we are confident that for more and more companies who have previously been unable to afford TV-style advertising due to high production costs and only really having TV as an outlet to use the content, we can offer both low production and an outlet that is affordable. In order to fulfil this, we tied up a deal with a company called Spectrecom, who are able to physically attend a client's place of business, record a 90 second TV-style promotional film and all for under £1k. We believe that more advertisers will be attracted to this higher impact advertising strategy and the cost of doing it will surprise them. Of course, if we're the only genuinely digital dog magazine in town, we believe that we will have created a blue ocean in which to do business. No longer will we have to hear, "But so and so is offering their back page at £300". Being new is a challenge, but if it's a challenge you succeed with, the revenue opportunities are more plentiful and the competition is automatically negated.

Digital Magazines: The Pros & Cons

What's good about it?

* Cleaner

* Far less waste

* Lower production costs

* More scalable, at speed

* More flexible

* Multi-media

* More accountability to advertisers

* More advertising options

* Potential to distribute on eReaders

What's not so good?

* Intangible

* Less familiar to readers

* Big brand advertisers only just starting to adopt

* Training required for production teams

* New technology, slower adoption rates

About Ryan O'Meara
(Details last updated: 24 September 2009)

Ryan O'Meara is the editor-in-chief of K9 Magazine and managing director of K9 Media and founder of digital media consultancy firm Independent Digital Media Ltd.

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