Thursday, December 10, 2009

They're investing in "digital magazines" and ignoring the elephant in the room

All the world's big magazine publishers are hurriedly spending a lot of money looking at ways they can deliver their magazines in some kind of digital format. Note that is not the same as delivering magazine content in digital format. Any clown can do that. That's where the newspapers have really gone wrong. By making their material available for free they have enabled Google and everybody else to unbundle it from its context and lost a fortune in the process.

That's not an academic argument. It pertains to business. When you were selling a page of advertising in a glossy magazine you were selling two things: access to the readers and access to the environment of that particular title. Once you take the content out from between the covers you are no longer getting the benefit of that environment. There's a legendary piece of research done years ago which showed people the same outfit in Vogue and the Daily Express. Respondents thought that the first dress was worth far more because it was in Vogue. They used to call this The Presenter Effect.

The reason that magazine publishers are looking at so-called "page-turning" technology is they are trying to keep their advertising in a controlled environment. The big publishers are spending fortunes to avoid the fate of the record industry. We've started making each issue of The Word available in a digital format to people who subscribe to the paper magazine. It's very early days but it seems to be appreciated. The idea is it's an enhancement of the magazine experience rather than a replacement. We've done a very Heath Robinson demo of how it works.

At the same time Apple are said to be working on something called the Tablet which will do for magazines what the Kindle is doing for books. Time Inc have got so excited about this that they have already demoed a version of Sports Illustrated in this format. As you'd expect theirs is better than ours because it wasn't done on the computer in the owner's loft.

They're still avoiding - either because they haven't thought about it or they prefer not to - the key issue, which is "how can you deliver the core magazine experience, which is essentially sitting back and reading, on a screen?" They show you plenty of neat ways you can manipulate the content and lots of ways they can make the swimsuit issue more like a TV programme, but they avoid that central issue. What if you want to read it?

If this technology ever really took off the first thing you'd be wanting to do is reformat the magazine to suit the technology. One of the first page-turning magazines, the lads mag Monkey, discovered this very quickly. It has hardly any reading in it because there's no room for it. Instead it's videos and interactive games. Digital tends to quick reads, small pictures and interaction. Paper tends to long reads, big pictures and contemplation. If you take that on board you can devise complementary experiences. What you can't do is hammer one into the shape of the other.


  1. Well, I've just looked at the demo and it's made me want to subscribe. There's always enough in the mag for me to want to clip bits out and refer to later. But I tried it years ago with other magazines and always lost the bits of paper. As my laptop is always with me you are onto a winner.

    By the way, how much more money do you make by having a subscriber rather than someone like me who buys it every month at the newsagent? The only reason I ask is that if it's a significant amount it would encourage me to subscribe (as I like the mag and want you to do well out of it). As it is, I don't think you are losing out, so I'll tend to keep going on as I am. It may sound bizarrely altruistic of me, but if you advertised subscribing as you making more money it might help the uptake.

  2. We prefer to have subscribers because they buy every issue, whereas even people who call themselves regular news stand buyers only buy eight out of twelve. And we're not having to pay retailers and distributors. But the biggests saving is on wastage. if you're going to sell one copy of a magazine on the news stand you have to print and distribute two.

  3. I bet that your magazine has one of the highest levels of reader satisfaction in the industry. I don't always have time to read as much of it as I want to, but I am prepared to pay for it because I think the standard of writing is excellent. So I subscribe - even if I don't get the subscription gift as I live abroad :-) You also provide me with the podcast (which is probably what I'd be most happy to pay for) and now the digital version. This is also interesting, but I'll probably read the magazine itself, and just flick through online to give me an idea of the contents.

    In contrast, the only other magazine I subscribe to is Autosport, where the features are also provided online to the subscribers; non-subscribers get just the daily news items. I could almost do without the print copy, as I read most of it on the web - because it's content is fairly time-sensitive. Likewise I only read newspapers online, and at present there are enough free sources of news on the web that I don't worry about supporting one particular one. I suspect that may change.

    In both cases where I subscribe, the content is excellent and unique. With The Word, I have no idea what I'll get next month, just that it will be great. And I understand that in order to keep receiving that content I have to pay for it, and frankly I'm comfortable with that.

  4. I really can't understand why magazines are pushing this new format (other than the financial ones you mention) I don't want to read online content in print-style columns - the resolution just isn't there yet so you spend the whole time scrolling.

    Maybe the next generation of ebook/mag readers will be able to make this layout comfortable to read but I think the next step is more likely to be a camera for eye tracking to automate scrolling and emulate the real world situation.

  5. Anonymous10:31 pm

    About the longest amount I want to read online at one time is...well, aboout the same length as the blog entry above. For anything longer, a book or a magazine please.

  6. Geoff: If you live abroad, you certainly should get the subscription gift. I do and I did (well, eventually). We don't get the Monthly Hepistle[TM], true, but everything else is as it should be.

  7. To be honest, I'd rather have the Monthly Hepistle (You're too good at that Archie) than the free gift, especially as it always used to come with the magazine. I'm sure Mr H will address both issues though...

    Coincidentally, the God of Perfect Timing personally preseted me with the latest issue last night - complete with the Best of the Decade CD. A perfect weekend is assured.

  8. The digital Word thing is interesting.

    The first time I looked at it I thought meh - crap format - hard to read - what's the point.

    Then, this morning, someone on Facebook mentioned that they were quoted in a story in Word and I was able to fish out the reference without having to dig out the mag.

    So yes - as an adjunct the product suddenly made complete sense.