The challenges for digital magazines

“Your success in life isn’t based on your ability to simply change. It is based on your ability to change faster than your competition, customers and business.” Mark Sanborn, author & speaker.

Based on the last few years of my working life in magazine publishing, I would have to agree.

The number one challenge (there are more, below) facing all publishers, is how to keep customers engaged and coming back for more, through print (yes, it still exists), mobile, tablet, online, events and in a few cases, television, without breaking-the-already-depleted bank account. If the numbers are there, brands will continue to increase their spend on advertising and sponsorships. And if the products are reliable, exciting, innovative, relevant and consistently good value – the punters will, too.

The thing that worries me is the desire to produce tablet editions that fall into line with the ABC Circulation regulations.

Yes, we need to provide the ad industry with regulated numbers, but at the cost of compromising what could be a time of real innovation and culture change for publishing. Clear guidelines need to be set, and even then there must be flexibility in what relevant content goes into a digital edition… thats for another conversation but it is a concern for me.

So it remains an uncertain time for many publishers, forecasts are hard to predict, and business models are constantly being evaluated and modified. And are printed magazines the force they once were?

What’s happened to the industry?

There are so many distractions these days with the onslaught of mobile devices and instant consumption of news and editorial stuff. One thing that is certain, the ‘connected’ customer isn’t going anywhere soon. In fact, according to many industry reports, the staggering growth of online and mobile consumption will continue for some years, and this growth should now be driving the central strategy for any publisher.

On that note: Have some big consumer publishers been caught cold? Ambushed by their very own loyal customers who don’t require a monthly feed of news, they want it now, and they want it for most of the time, free, or for less than the cost of a Starbucks coffee. Most magazines have online presence with healthy followers, but is it enough? Has the industry been slow to react? Things have to change. And as Mark Sanborn advises, fast. The customer has changed their habits. Its time for magazines to change, too.

What can we do to accelerate this change?
These reports of online/mobile growth should be filtering their way into the magazine and newspaper teams. The message for culture change, or ‘a process of evolution’, has to reach the ground troops, directly from the top down – my previous employer, Future, have done exactly that, and their strategy to be a digitally-focused business and a nimbler, more efficient unit, will potentially keep the company in good health for many years, without completely taking the print product out of the equation.

I’ve worked with quite a few magazine teams there who are really up for learning new software tools and ways of doing things, its so refreshing. These guys are the early pioneers in digital publishing. And the message to change culture is from the top down. “Lets do this and get on with it”… making good mistakes as opposed to bad mistakes. Try and learn…

These magazines have digital editions that are currently nailing it on Apple Newsstand, and also Google Magazines. They sell in their thousands and have five star reviews on iTunes. The potential is huge. And its not just Future – Conde Nast, IPC Dennis, Hearst and Bauer all have highly engaging digital magazine apps that perform well. But its a handful of titles, to be honest – all the rest are either lazy PDF replicas or non-existent. The numbers to convert clearly aren’t there, yet.

On average, around 3% of magazine readers are via tablet or mobile, according to Forrester research in the US. They predict growth between 5 and 10 per cent over the next three years. Is that really enough?

So – what needs to change across the industry?

Bluntly, its out with the old-fashioned and in with the new-breed. Yes, its a time of flux for many magazine teams, with pressures on resource, budgets being cut, a lack of advertising – all this compounds the argument that things have to change. Everyone must be on board, from the interns right through to the editor, and the publisher.

Once you have your key personnel taking a vested interest, the project will run more efficiently and smoothly, and innovative ideas won’t be far away.

This is where your digital magazine will stand out from the crowd.

The steps to take…

“Going digital” for magazine teams requires an ability to learn, a thirst for new ways of doing things.

Learn how to commission video, animation, or do it yourself. Learn what makes a digital magazine work – what would the reader want?

How can I make the most from the software to improve the experience? What icons would help the reader navigate across the content?

If your team doesn’t have this within them, I’d definitely employ a catalyst, an expert who can provide valuable training and insight, and some interns who already have learned the skills at college. This combination will give you a hit-the-ground-running feel – and potentially minimises room for error.

The biggest challenge is working out how to get it all done. How much interaction is necessary? Do we need to automate some of the workflow? Are there cost-savings in creating content once and distributing across all platforms? Instead of web vs print vs digital… In five years that method will be old skool, I have no doubt.

Once you have your team in place with the right balance of drive, ownership, software skills and ideas, and the belief is there, its all about creating something exciting for the reader.

As mentioned before, many publishers have simply pumped out a PDF replica with some or no extra content. This is possibly the reason why digital magazines haven’t quite been the cash bonus everyone was hoping for. The magazines that perform on the Apple Newsstand grossing charts are all interactive, and all provide an engaging experience. And these are the apps that Apple promote.

When the majority of digital magazines are fully-interactive, with bespoke content for the loyal subscriber, and its created for a tablet experience in mind, – and if the marketing is clear and user journey to the app is simpler, we’ll start to see real growth in this area.

Exciting times ahead, if a little bumpy along the way.

About tabletdesigner

Mobile Product Consultant and Creative Director, consulting across design agencies, publishers and brands on digital publishing, apps, UX and interactive design. I also train designers how to use Adobe DPS, and inspire new ideas for getting content working on mobile devices...

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