A new commercial model for digital magazines?

Digital Magazines are gradually evolving from their origins as indie art project, agency showcase, PDF shovelware or vanity publishing to become a viable commercial publishing business.

Accepted, the challenges are still substantial …

  • the high cost of adapting print content to digital
  • the overcrowded and badly indexed App Store
  • the growth of smartphones and fragmentation of platforms and standards
  • the difficulty of persuading advertisers to invest in a complex medium with limited reach….

But there are some pockets of innovation and isolated stories of commercial success, which are worth exploring to identify strategies that could just help the medium to take off.

At the Digital Magazine Summit in London on 25 Nov, a range of speakers from editorial, design, marketing, publishing and advertising disciplines, provoked broad discussion on how digital magazines need to change to become a viable part of the publishing ecosystem.  And the Unconference in the afternoon allowed delegates to swap anecdotes and ideas on growing the reach and revenue for digital magazines.  Here’s my pick of the day, organised around the three biggest headaches…

1. How to engage readers

While PDF replicas still have their place in some specialist and niche markets, and text-only Kindle editions can do surprisingly well, most publishers expect that readers will in future demand more interaction and device-optimised content.  As far as enhanced PDFs go, readers value video, web links, social sharing and direct links from content pages.  But some publishers are really pushing the boundaries with interaction with games, puzzles, user content and live updates.  Read more in this article.

Alan Rutter of Guardian Masterclases recommended watching indie publishers for new ideas based on their close knowledge of audiences, and a speaker from Adobe advised publishers to embark on a continuous process of experimentation.

Ken Olling of Katachi, who is definitely on the “high interaction” end of the scale, advised watching analytics carefully to discover which elements draw attention and extend dwell time.

Two interconnected shifts are the growth of smartphones as a distinct content platform and a breakdown of the print-derived monthly magazine frequency.  Content for smartphones, according to Michael Kowalski of Contentment, needs a simple user flow, doing one thing at a time, and making user journeys visible: overall a good discipline for rethinking magazine content.  Users spend more time on smartphone apps that update daily, so magazines that only update once a month are less visible to their audience.  Kowalski recommends releasing extra content at least weekly to prompt regular returns to an issue.

The good news is that digital magazines have a lifespan way beyond the traditional four week on-sale period, so content that is not time-sensitive can be re-promoted and appeal to new readers for years to come.

2. How to promote digital magazines

The AppStore is increasingly frustrating for the majority of publishers who aren’t large enough to build a relationship with Apple.  On balance it still makes sense to put magazine apps in Newsstand, but publishers must realise that it is largely down to them to promote their magazine to its audience using their own channels.  Immediate Media and Conde Nast use magazine websites, social media, email marketing and house ads across their portfolio to push their digital magazines.  Top Gear segments customers who have signed up for notifications and sends them targeted offers and promotions.

Price promotions, for example around bank holidays, can create additional sales spikes.  Several publishers believed that the high cover prices set by print magazines are a barrier to growing paid sales, and it’s worth experimenting with more attractive price points.

Evo from Dennis adds more frequent content to encourage audience to visit their app more often.  Independent publishers have developed partnerships to encourage sampling: eg Songlines worked with the Guardian to offer a free monthly digital magazine, collected 15,000 emails and achieved a good conversion rate to paid.  Immediate Media are experimenting with a metered system allowing users to browse a set number of pages for free before being asked to subscribe.

Plus it is worth investing time in careful app store optimisation of titles and description – this can be most effective for niche magazines where audiences use obvious keywords when searching. Robert Nisbet of Apazine advised referring to additional content available only in the digital edition.  And Magvault are developing an independent “search engine” for digital magazines, that already has over 6,000 publications indexed.

Not all markets require highly interactive digital magazines.  BBC History does very well on Kindle with a text-only edition, and Lonely Planet traveller is just a PDF replica. In very niche markets this can be sufficient to tap into strong demand from international markets.

The answer to promotion seems to lie in developing other online assets, either in-house or in partnership, and using these to drive audiences to a container app, which should have some free content to sample before demanding payment.

3. How to grow ad revenue

While sales volumes are limited, advertisers are cautious about making an investment in digital editions.  But sampler issues in container apps are a more appealing proposition, and many publishers are generating revenue by publishing advertiser catalogues within their container app.  Robert Nisbet of Apazine suggests exploring affiliate deals, where a publisher is paid a commission on links to partner websites.

A growing number of publishers are developing advertorial/native advertising in partnership with advertisers: e.g. Sister Mag in Germany.  Some advertisers co-create a sponsored edition, and then require an email address and profile data from people who want to download it.

And some publishers can find a long term sponsor, for example Intelligent Life from the Economist is paid-for in print, but free to download on the App Store thanks to sponsorship from Credit Suisse.  Niche Dutch B2B publisher Food Inspiration found a long term sponsor for both their digital magazine and their live events.  With a three-year deal, they were able to jointly develop new content that met their sponsors’ objectives and appealed to the audience.

Charlotte Day-Lewin of Mindshare spoke frankly about the challenge for the digital magazine community in attracting advertising from luxury brands.  Whilst the appeal of digital magazines is the ease of telling brand stories in an interactive medium, the high cost of producing quality, interactive ads isn’t yet balanced by the reach and the analytics available.  Simply lifting ads designed for print into digital doesn’t represent the brand in the best way, and results are hard to monitor.  Again, the answer perhaps is in developing bespoke long term sponsorship programmes with measurable results – the Rolex partnership with The Week being a strong example.

So maybe publishers need to develop a new commercial model for digital magazines, rather than simply exporting the display pages approach of print magazines to the new medium.

I left the Digital Magazine Awards feeling a good deal more optimistic about the commercial viability of digital magazines.  Publishers need to let go of some of their assumptions from print publications, and allow digital magazines to diverge, to create a more interactive, less time-bound reading experience, and to experiment with new marketing techniques and different commercial models.

About the author:  Carolyn Morgan has launched, grown, acquired and sold media businesses across print, digital and events.  She has programmed several highly regarded conferences on digital publishing and advises publishers on their digital strategy.

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