How to create reader-centric digital magazines

I was asked to contribute a perspective to the Digital Magazine Summit on 11 Nov 2015 and chose to focus on the importance of creating truly reader centric digital magazines: here’s the text of my speech:

Digital magazines have evolved significantly in the last five years, but too many of them still seem to serve the false masters of technology and the publisher. Most still seem to be simply a catalogue of over clever digital animation and an expensive dumping ground for content originally created for a different purpose. Or possibly even worse, a slavish digital replica of pages designed for a completely different reading experience – a paper magazine.

But what truly makes a digital magazine different from a website – or a print magazine? Here’s my suggestion: a tailored, well-designed, finishable package that has a clear purpose for a specific audience, which uses a variety of media: video, animation, quizzes, audio… to tell a story in a different way to simply text and images. It permits the reader to tailor their experience, to find their own way through the content, and ideally to create a personalised plan, which will enhance their work life or leisure time.

But first I believe we must revisit some of the traditional values of the specialist print magazine; which provided inspiration, utility and community for clearly defined audiences.

The key question to consider is who is your reader? What’s important to their life and why do they need your magazine? Does it help them get more enjoyment out of their sport or hobby, enhance their daily life or their weekends away or provide them with the dinner table or pub ammo to make them appear an expert amid their friends or colleagues?

Next you need to look at designing a product that will really make a difference to your reader’s life, not just fill in some downtime. Ask yourself…

How well will your digital magazine inspire them – with stories of people they admire, jaw-dropping photo galleries and videos?

And how can you save them time or money? Can you help them create a shopping list, a training schedule, a personal plan, a tailored menu that will mean they achieve a personal (or work) project more quickly, at less cost or more enjoyably?

How does your reader want to explore a topic or get an answer to a question? They may be planning a celebration meal, looking for inspiration for a weekend away, trying to improve their PB for the next 10k, or working out which digital SLR to buy. They might want an overview of options, some personal stories from people like them, access to a data-set, or simply some luscious photography.

Allowing readers to skim and soak up the visuals, then delve into the data and the detail, is the essential proposition of a good digital magazine. And allowing them to note, comment, favourite or start to build up a shopping basket or to-do list as they research, is what takes a magazine into a different league.

Past DMA winners that understand this journey include EDGE games reviews, Computer Arts portfolios and the BBC Good Food shopping list.

How can you organise the content in your magazine so that it can be explored simply, in different ways, according to the reader’s interests? Too many digital magazines are still tied to the print flat-plan of news, then longer features and then practical information. Maybe there is something to be learned from those websites which direct visitors according to their interest and the questions they have today.

Where and when will your reader be spending their time with the magazine? Will they be on a train with dodgy wifi, on a phone on 4G on public transport, or lounging on their own sofa with fast internet? Beware of complex download procedures, as the disappointment of realising that your magazine got paused and the article you really wanted to read is missing can be highly frustrating.

Today you have that precious data on reader behaviour – which would have been a distant dream to the old print publisher – for goodness sake analyse it and act on it. If cover-lines drive traffic, make sure they work hard for your best content. If video is a draw, make more noise about it. If shorter, more frequent editions get read more thoroughly, ditch the monthly tomes. If readers like stories from others in their community, create more opportunities for interaction.

And if advertising is relevant, useful and tastefully designed, no magazine reader objects. Keep the commercial presence simple and classy, majoring on bespoke editorial content and interaction that adds value to the reader rather than just selling a product.

So how will you find new readers? With the right insight you can work out where your target readers might be spending time online. I believe it’s almost impossible these days to make a stand-alone digital magazine succeed without a strong content presence on the free and social web.

Building a community around great free and shareable content on your specialist subject will give you permission to promote the personalised, intimate, luscious experience of the full paid digital magazine. Work out how your free, web-based, promotional content will work symbiotically with the premium content on the magazine.

Run online and live reader events, ask for feedback, suggestions, contributions. Don’t wait a couple of months before incorporating them; find a way to share them instantly. This is where a free web presence can enhance the magazine, maybe even adding a real-time feed into the latest edition.

So it’s not a digital magazine marooned on the iPad, it’s a living ecosystem, dedicated to a dialogue with readers and finding new ways to enhance their lives and solve their problems. Just think of it as more of a service than a product.

If you’d like a copy of the slides for this talk, please get in touch

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events.  Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on the topic of digital publishing strategy for media sector publishers and events.