What next for digital magazines?


Six years ago the iPad launched and was hailed as the answer to falling print magazine circulation, enabling a digital edition to be available anywhere in the world. Publishers rushed to set up magazine apps, principally PDF replicas, although some invested in bespoke interactive editions. But many have struggled since to grow digital sales, be discovered on the app store and to develop advertising revenue.

Some former print publishers have been successful, with The Economist and The Week both enjoying strong digital subscription sales. And brand publishers are finding that digital editions provide them with international reach and greater customer loyalty. But digital only magazine launches are finding profits elusive, and many established print magazines are seeing sliding digital circulations.

Among the finalists in the 2016 Digital Magazine Awards are plenty of innovative publishers finding a large audience, but many digital magazines are still struggling. What has changed since the optimism of 2010 and how can we learn from the winners? There were plenty of alternative viewpoints shared at the Future of Magazine Media conference, from The Economist, John Brown, National Theatre and others.

Changing reader behaviour

People are overwhelmingly using smartphones to access the web and their favourite social media platforms, accepting smaller screens in return for portability and convenience. Translating print magazine design directly to a 10” tablet is acceptable, but on a 5” screen it has to be completely rethought. And with the growth of social media, people are used to being able to share individual pieces of content with their friends, and to discovering new content through their network. In this universe, a walled garden style package of content feels inaccessible.

Even the idea of a monthly magazine feels a bit of a print and newstrade hangover: these days people want a continuous feed of interesting, relevant, up to date content, not to wait 30 days for a large package of features. A magazine editor can still add great value curating, filtering and adapting articles, video, images and data for a specific audience – it’s just being delivered in a different format.

Listening hard to the audience

Successful magazine editors in the past were truly close to their readers, whether that was meeting them at events or simply reading their letters. The real value of a magazine is the relationship it has with its readers, and digital publishing and social media allow so much more feedback and interaction. Analytics are great, but tend not to uncover radical new directions, which is where a little editorial insight powered by reader feedback is invaluable.

Rethinking the role of print

Digital magazines are slowly diverging from their print version. Publishers have been tempted into replicas partly by the pressure of magazine audits (especially the ABC in the UK) where for digital sales to be added to sliding print circulation, the two editions need to be practically identical. But as readers move to smartphone sized screens and want more frequently updated content, this is less practical. So the digital magazine has to offer a different, complementary and independent experience to a print edition.

Testing new business models

Magazines have always had to balance the needs of reader and advertisers, having two equally important revenue streams. Many digital mags are now choosing to make the magazine free, and drive revenue from advertising and e-commerce. This is a viable approach for customer magazines, where clients gain a loyalty benefit and can justify the marketing investment if costs are not wholly covered by advertising. But it is challenging for independent publishers. The alternative is a strong focus on delivering reader value, and generating direct subscriptions. Most subs are still edition based, but a growing number of publishers are testing time-based subscriptions, where they allow access to their entire archive and back catalogue while the subscription is in force.

Non publishers are taking a fresh approach to digital publishing models. The National Theatre’s Backstage app has free article and video content, but also makes it easy for users to buy tickets, and showcases their paid for digital programmes, which have vastly more enhanced content than the paper version. Intriguingly, when they price tested their digital programmes, the top price performed as well as the lower price, perhaps demonstrating that if readers value the product, they are happy to pay. Porter from Net a porter, is a paid-for magazine that also carries upmarket fashion advertising and has a seamless e-commerce interface. Nikon Pro is another customer magazine that is paid-for.

Tackling the workflow challenge

Readers expect digital magazines to look good and be user friendly on any mobile device, but this causes big headaches for magazine design and production teams if each platform requires individual design work. Liam Keating, formerly of Conde Nast, implemented a set of flexible templates for smartphones and tablets, and used Umbraco CMS to feed content into each template.

Innovating in advertising and ecommerce

Smaller circulations, multiple platforms and higher production costs for interaction have all hampered the growth of advertising revenue in digital magazines. Rebekah Billingsley of John Brown advocates careful re-use of clients existing content assets, and planning to create new content that clients can then go on to feature on their own media. It’s important to build in tracking and test alternative creative. Offering in-page shopping with live feeds from e-commerce sites is very appealing to readers. The Edit from Net a Porter and Dare from Superdrug execute this particularly well, and are optimised for smartphones.

Proactive marketing

The Economist is a bit of a poster child for the digital magazine industry – showing rapid growth in digital subscriptions. And in the last couple of years they have reduced their reliance on advertising with subscriptions revenue now 67% of total, up from 50/50. But what is evident is that they have really worked at reaching out to a new audience by multiple channels and then carefully converting them to subscribers. Steve Lok, Head of marketing tech, talked through The Economist’s approach to marketing subscriptions, ensuring that all marketing investment was trackable, and building up a database of 4 million prospects by exposing them to relevant content on social and web. What is particularly interesting is that mainstream advertising on TV to build awareness has boosted online searching and subsequently the growth of the prospect database.

The Economist have also taken a scientific approach to conversions, tracking the behaviour of prospects and what prompts them to subscribe. Marko of Richie also concentrated on the conversion funnel, and urged publishers to identify all the obstacles to a reader buying a subscription and eliminate them systematically.

So the message is that digital subscription growth does not happen by accident, and simply being in an app store does not drive new readers and sales.


The winners of the Digital Magazine Awards show that there is plenty of innovation in marketing, design, content and commercialisation of the digital magazine medium. Other publishers need to avoid copying over conventions from print publishing, listen hard to their audience, and be prepared to experiment both in content and in their business model. Worth taking the time to browse the winners over the Christmas holidays!

Do get in touch directly if you’d like to discuss how these ideas could make your digital magazine more successful, or if you’d like a copy of the slides from my presentation at the Future of Magazine Media conference.

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.