Not long ago, with the traditional print industry in long term decline, the rise of digital magazines was seen as a great hope for the industry to reverse, or at least slow down, the trend. However, it seems that this was only temporary as figures suggest digital magazines are not taking up the slack of print decline, either in terms of circulation or revenue.

Many publishers jumped on the opportunity of creating digital publications, but it didn’t take much time for them to then lose heart when they found that their digital magazines were neither bringing in a whole new audience nor even retaining existing subscribers. Publishers have been learning as they go, and making mistakes, as it’s still a relatively new platform. It’s a shame, but some titles have fallen by the wayside while others have had investment in them downgraded now the initial wave of innovation has now faded.

One of the main root causes behind lacklustre performance has been that many publishers simply replicate their print magazine on a tablet rather than thinking about what kind of service consumers want – consumer expectations of digital formats are complex and can vary significantly compared to what they want from print magazines.

For example, take a look at the many magazines that make up the interior design sector. The majority of print magazines have just created digital versions of their print product, with maybe some added interactivity. As a result, they have struggled to create the audience they might have expected. Publishers see the other magazines in this sector as their competition, when actually they should be looking more at the likes of Houzz – a social platform for home remodelling and design - as a competitor.

Houzz gives an added twist to what people want from an interiors magazine. As well as providing inspiration for creating mood boards and scrapbooks, it makes itself more useful and relevant to the consumer than its magazine counterparts by providing practical tools and connecting them directly with architects and designers whose style they like. It’s even possible to buy the products shown so that they can also live the dream and create the same look they’ve seen on screen.

There is also an issue with publishers’ current payment models. They still measure success in terms of subscriptions which is fine for print magazines, but subscriptions for digital magazines create barriers for consumers who are used to a digital world where most things are free. It’s a big sea change for digital publishers, but they need to make their content free at the point of consumption as a means to get consumer interest and build wider distribution. Then, they need to think creatively about alternative revenue streams to subscriptions – bearing in mind that the cost of setting up and running a digital magazine is significantly lower than a print magazine, so profit ratios are different.

It’s similar to what happened in the music industry around five years ago, when free downloads and live streaming revolutionised how people accessed music, especially among certain generations.

Instead of contracting, though, the music industry has shifted. While a great deal of music is accessed for free, the music industry has identified that people are happy to pay for other items, and at varying levels, depending on their interest. For example, limited collectors’ editions of CDs are sold at a premium; Spotify is growing as a useful way to access music from one place; and live music is growing as festivals proliferate.

Publishers could do much worse than learn from the way the music sector has adapted and changed the way they do business. The new payment models need to enable consumers to participate at the level they want, with a pricing scale that reflects this. Guides could be written with helpful, in-depth advice, which consumers buy as extras; posters and other merchandise could be created from images and themes in the magazine; special events such as ‘Meet the Experts’ evenings could be arranged; and workshops and exhibitions could provide huge potential for revenue.

The digital publishers that will have staying power are those that take all of this thinking and redefine what publishing means. As well as being a content provider, a publisher is an entertainer, a source of inspiration, a retailer, a credible advisor, a manufacturer, an event organiser and a portal to a world of connectivity around the area of interest it covers. There is still massive potential for publishers in the digital world, but big changes need to be made – and fast.


By Russell Pierpoint, Managing Director at Evolved Media Solutions.

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