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Why have digital magazines failed when ebooks, music and films are thriving?

Digital magazine insight from Miles Galliford

SubHub co-founder

Miles Galliford, co-founder of SubHub – the membership website company – on what magazine publishers need to consider for their digital magazines to thrive online.

Circulation of digital magazines in the US doubled in the first half of 2012 compared with the same period in 2011, according to ABC figures. Forgive me if I’m not jumping for joy or loudly proclaiming the death of print: digital titles still account for just 1.7% of total magazine circulation.

One by one, the content industries have undergone their own digital revolutions, starting with the music industry and moving on to books and film. In each case, the catalyst was a business from outside the industry throwing a grenade into what was quite frankly a stagnating pond.

Apple shook up the music industry with iTunes and cool listening devices. Netflix propelled the film industry into the digital age with its online streaming service. Amazon set the book publishing world alight with the Kindle and continues to develop solutions that could see book publishers cut out of the market entirely. Magazine publishing has yet to meet its insurgent.

The magazine industry is still worth £4.1 billion in the UK alone, according to the Periodical Publishers Association (PPA). There are opportunities to grow audiences and increase advertising revenue, yet publishers are not positioning themselves to grab their share. They are failing to adapt their business models as people’s media consumption habits change.

Some print sectors are thriving, while others are making a slow transition online. But many publishers, unwilling to give up control of their content, have simply tried to replicate their offline editions online, launching existing titles as digital magazines.

Others try to create an attractive and exciting experience for readers with visual ‘bells and whistles’ – resulting in poor delivery. Research by worldwide magazine industry association FIPP shows that 48% of people find digital magazines take too long to download, while 46% believe video content is “just a gimmick”.

Publishers must think more creatively and radically to find an online publishing model that works. Many are already successfully monetising their online publications with paywalls that restrict access to premium content, for instance. But they need to do much more if they are to convert existing readers and advertisers to digital, win new readers, and keep them all coming back for more.

The key is creating rich content that engages and which is ‘sticky’ and develop new revenue streams linked to that content. Success depends on understanding the value readers place on content but publishers are not necessarily attuned to where the real value is. Fundamentally, people buy magazines to fulfil a need or to solve a problem but this isn’t always clear or easy to pinpoint.

The American magazine publisher Christianity Today undertook a survey of its readers to understand exactly what content they valued and why. Many loved a section featuring ‘sermon ideas and illustrations’, which made preparing their weekly address easier. This had a real, measurable value which they were happy to pay for. So the publisher created a dedicated website, and put the sermon content behind a paywall. Today the site has revenues of more than $1 million.

Once they have identified where the real value lies for readers, publishers can implement a business model based on this – effectively recognising and monetising the audience’s needs.

Music fans who read a music magazine to discover new bands before their friends, for example, might like being able to buy gig tickets and download songs straight from the page they’re reading. While publishers of a magazine read by hikers looking to choose the best walking gear could start selling outdoor clothing or work on a revenue share basis with a partner who does.

Those publishers who simply push their existing formats onto the web are missing a trick, too. To deepen trust and engagement with readers they should not think in terms of ‘putting the magazine online’ but rather ‘turning it into a multimedia, multi-platform brand’.

Online digital magazine models must embrace the changing way people consume web-based content, on tablets and smartphones for example. Publishers should also explore how technologies such as Apple’s Newsstand could help them extend reader relationships.

And here’s a reality check for those determined to clutch their content closely to their chests: a successful move to online will require giving up some control over content. A certain amount of premium content can be stowed behind a paywall but this must be balanced with free content that drives broader traffic, for advertising appeal as well as to attract subscribers.

For now, publishers seem happy to make hay while the sun shines. Perhaps they’re waiting for that revolutionary saviour from outside the sector to shake things up. It may never come. If publishers want to thrive, they need to take a long hard look at how to grow audiences and revenues right now.