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Why digital magazines must embrace a borderless future

Digital magazines have travelled a long way in the last few years – from print-replica page-turners to interactive, rich, visual resources. However, some publishers have struggled to translate these improvements into significant new revenue streams. Carolyn Morgan looks at the challenges and offers up some solutions.

Carolyn Morgan

Posted on: 03 February 2016

Economist Espresso: “a way to sample the quality of their content without buying a full subscription.”
Many traditional publishers have built respectable paid digital circulations, and customer publishers have developed impressive free digital titles.

Digital publishers still face many challenges around marketing, content, production and advertising, and the might of Apple as the core platform, but at the International Digital Magazine Summit in November 2015, there were plenty of smart ideas and innovative thinking to show the way forward for this young medium.

I have summarised the myriad challenges in turning digital magazines into a strong, sustainable business, and the possible solutions on offer to achieve that aim. Part of this is rethinking what a digital magazine is, and shifting away from the print-derived norms.

The complex environment for digital magazines

Digital magazines have a marketing mountain to scale and a long slog winning over advertisers, plus they face an increasingly demanding audience and have some very powerful platforms to contend with.


* Discoverability challenge: As digital titles have proliferated, optimising for search has become harder, and without a strong parent brand, it’s easy to get lost in the noise.

* Powerful platforms: Newsstand RIP, Hello Apple News. Apple is still the dominant platform, especially for paid publications. Newsstand always felt like a bit of a ghetto, so maybe its demise allows magazines to exist on the home screen if they can first attract an audience’s attention. Some publishers are experimenting with Apple News, but its focus on free web published content is slightly at odds with a paid digital magazine.

* Social sharing vs walled garden: Early digital magazines were subscription or single copy sales only, but in a world where social sharing is the best form of marketing, a walled garden of subscriber content is not really compatible with the need to sample free content.


* Interaction vs story telling: Audiences still like a strong narrative, and digital magazines, with their focus on good design and use of audio and video, are adept at telling a story. But to encourage readers to engage and interact, a magazine needs to build in more opportunities for reader contributions, comment and sharing.

* Smartphone dominance: Busy commuters and socially addicted Millennials now default to their smartphone rather than tablet for spare reading time. So digital magazines need to consider how to adapt design for a smaller, portrait screen – and intermittent 4G rather than domestic Wi-Fi.

* Real time & relevant: The monthly (or even less frequent) print production cycle feels too leisurely and dated for today’s impatient, urgent audiences. So publishers have to find ways to make content in digital magazines feel more up to date, with real-time news feeds or social comments.

* Production nightmares: Running a digital and print edition of an established title concurrently can induce a production migraine, as print-imagined layouts have to be reverse engineered into a digital template.


* Advertising scepticism: Many advertisers unfortunately compare digital circulation unfavourably with larger established print, rather than looking at the brand benefits of deeper engagement and lead generation.

* Ad blocking: Web based digital magazines may well suffer from the growth in ad blockers, reducing the potential audience for display advertising.


* Growth of branded and free mags: Big brands from retailers to airlines have eagerly adopted digital magazines as a flexible and low cost alternative to traditional print customer mags. But the proliferation of high quality free content makes it harder for paid-for titles to gain attention and circulation revenue. Online retailer Net-a-Porter has launched a free mag The Edit and a paid mag, Porter, which charges for subscriptions, wins awards for its content, and is rattling the advertising cage of established titles like Vogue.

* Web vs app: A growing number of digital magazines have gone for HTML5 web format rather than native apps. This makes them far more lightweight and easier to promote online rather than just in the app store, but they do suffer when the reader is offline.

Smart publishers need to look beyond their own editorial teams. Embrace popular bloggers and encourage user content.

Possible solutions: the future of digital magazines

So how can the next generation of digital publishers navigate this complex maze of restrictions? Well, there are still plenty of reasons to be cheerful as the speakers at the Digital Magazine Summit showed.


* ‘Template’ production: Condé Nast is taking a fresh approach to the print plus digital production conundrum. They create a suite of digital ‘templates’ for each title that work on smartphone and tablet, create all content (web, print mag and digital mag) on a single CMS, and then output the articles to all platforms at once. This has slimmed down the workflow and also allows better indexing of articles, plus streaming and free content.

* Atomise content – spread across social channels: The Economist is taking an approach of spreading some of its top quality content across multiple social and free web platforms, from Twitter to Facebook Instants to Apple News to Google+. This content then funnels into specially created content hubs that showcase premium articles on key topics – that are only viewable by readers who have registered. Then they nurture these prospects over the long term to become paid subscribers. Their calculation is that the benefits of widening their reach by allowing people to sample premium content far outweighs the risk of cannibalisation of paid subscriptions. So far, they have built up a prospect database of 4m and acquired 3,000 new paid subscribers.

* Embrace bloggers / contributors / user content: Smart publishers need to look beyond their own editorial teams. Embracing popular bloggers and encouraging user content not only refreshes the editorial package, it also builds a marketing benefit from bloggers who are active on social media. sisterMAG in Germany works closely with the blogging community, making the title feel more relevant and connected to its audience.

* Continuous, more open publishing: Breaking away from the print-derived monthly production cycle allows digital magazines to feel more relevant and topical. Computer Arts from Future has a news feed section from their sister website. Magazines can also curate and repackage content from third party sources.

* Visual storytelling: Narrative still has formidable power, argued Alan Rutter from Clever Boxer, and digital magazines have a wide range of tools to tell powerful stories, from audio to video, animation and strong design. Simply investigating a story in a unique way can justify a premium price.

* Engage – don’t just entertain: Magazines work best when they help the reader research a purchase, pursue a project or hone a skill. Pure content or entertainment is less likely to engage and retain an audience. So careful targeting and thinking of a magazine as a service not just a product is the key to involving readers more intensively.

* Love your analytics: Digital magazines provide a wealth of information on how stuff actually gets read, so publishers must take notice and act on the trends. If video works, do more of it. If cover-lines drive views, make sure they promote your best content.

* Web-based magazines: Magazines like Qantas cleverly bridge the gap between traditional native app magazines and websites, with the design values of print and the lightweight flexibility of the web. Need to think carefully about the offline experience, but a trend worth monitoring.


* Spread risk and hedge by trying all platforms: The Economist takes a broad view of all social platforms – they use Google+, Apple News, Facebook Instant, Snapchat Discover and Twitter to maximise reach and avoid dependence on one platform in case they change the rules. Cosmopolitan in the US creates a new daily audio story on Snapchat Discover. Condé Nast are testing five free articles a day on Apple News and trying to drive users to their website.

* Build magazine ecosystem: Sticking to a paid content only strategy means missing out on the marketing potential of the free and social web. Better to build a separate free content hub that can be used for social sharing, and develop ways to entice engaged visitors towards the premium paid content, maybe using reward schemes or peer to peer recommendations as incentives.

* Sample selectively: encourage trial & build prospect pool: This is the marketing approach of The Economist (see above) – using quality content to establish a large group of interested potential readers and nurturing them gradually to convert to paid subs.

* Offer intermediate steps: If a full subscription is too much of a commitment, consider creating a lighter option. The Economist Espresso app is a way to sample the quality of their content without buying a full subscription.


* Creative commercial relationships: Standard ads aren’t using the digital magazine medium in the best way, better to build in interaction; eg. Netflix ad in Spanish magazine Revista Don asks you to dial a number then listen to audio. sisterMAG weaves commercial opportunities into the magazine in an original way, earning affiliate income from transactions. Condé Nast persuaded Burberry to sponsor their free content on Apple News.

* Ad KPIs: engagement and actions: Talk to advertisers about their business objectives – eg. test drives for a car manufacturer – and design a campaign that encourages engagement and prompts actions.

Embracing the borderless future

So the next generation of digital magazines will need to be more of a hybrid between print magazines and websites, retaining the visual sumptuousness and deft storytelling of print and adding the topical immediacy and interaction of web, while still being a contained, finishable product.

And the boundary between the walled garden of the app store and the open environment of the web will also be blurred. For without some sort of free content that can be socially shared, and a way to engage readers and the wider community in the content, the growth of a digital magazine will be stunted and it won’t reach its potential audience.

Publishers also need to soften the boundary between editorial and advertising, providing commercial partners with more bespoke packages that generate engagement and action, without ever compromising the integrity of the editorial itself and the trust of the reader.

For a glimpse of the future in all its glorious diversity, do take a look at the winners of the 2015 Digital Magazine Awards here.

About Carolyn Morgan
(Details last updated: 26 January 2018)

Carolyn Morgan has launched, acquired, grown and sold media businesses across print, digital and live events. A co-founder of the Specialist Media Show, which was sold to SIIA in 2013, she has wide experience of niche publishing businesses, and advises many independent media owners on all aspects of their digital strategy, from new product development to subscription propositions and advertising.

Tel: 07887 625229

Email: Send a message to this author


Twitter: @carolynrmorgan

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