8 Lessons From the Failure of Digital Magazines to Revolutionize Publishing
At any gathering of magazine people about four years ago, there seemed to be only one topic of conversation: iPads. Everyone sensed that a revolution was at hand. Beautifully displayed magazines now were only a click away -- no waiting "6-8 weeks for delivery" or running out to a store that may or may not have the title or issue you wanted.
Creating tablet editions of magazines seemed to be at the top of every publisher's priority list. Visions of slashed costs for printing, paper, and postage danced in the heads of many a publishing CFO. "Within a few years, we won't even have print editions anymore," one executive confidently told me.
But nearly five years after the first incarnation of the iPad, rare is the U.S. consumer magazine that delivers even 10% of its circulation via digital editions. Tablet editions are way down the list of priorities, mostly in maintenance mode rather than receiving new investments of money or human energy. Some are even experiencing declining circulation.
The Tablet Revolution turned out to be only a minor uprising. What happened? More importantly, what can we learn from revisiting the plans and predictions that turned out to be so far off target? I see 8 lessons:
1. "Digital" Is Not A Strategy
With content consumption increasingly moving to digital media, we publishers frequently assume that every shiny new digital-media offering will flourish. Yes, the publishing business will continue shifting toward digital media, but many a digital product will go the way of The Daily and Myspace. We would do well to ban phrases like "digital strategy" from our vocabulary so that we don't mindlessly assume that what works on the web will work for e-newsletters, webinars, or digital magazines.
2. People Don't Hate Print
One line of thinking was that consumers, especially young ones, were rejecting print media, so the way to win them over was to present our publications in a digital format. Consumers, however, weren't rejecting the concept of ink on paper -- they were choosing digital alternatives when those offered something better, such as timeliness or relevance. Even 20-year-old college students who seemingly spend half their waking lives on the phone (but rarely on phone calls) often prefer printed textbooks to digital ones. It turns out that people who didn't already love what we were doing in print saw little reason to read our digital editions.
3. Digital Media Have Short Half-lives
Remember the first time someone showed you an iPad -- how cool it was? Those early owners carried their devices everywhere, but now, not so much. Commuter trains used to be full of glowing tablets, but now the emailing, posting, headline checking, and even book reading occurs mostly on smartphones. It's too soon to call tablets obsolete, but they have definitely gone from must-have to nice-to-have. No matter. Great music recorded in the age of vinyl has survived the eras of cassettes, 8-tracks (God forbid), CDs, and MP3s. In the same way, we must first build passionate audiences that will crave our addictive content regardless of the medium and only then concern ourselves with fitting our content to the device du jour. That being said…
4. The Smartphone Is A Game Changer
For the foreseeable future, the devices du jour will have a small screen -- too small for magazines that were created for tablets or for optimal viewing of websites designed for laptops. Some have predicted that smartphones will be as disruptive to web publishing as the web was to print publishing. For many publishers, phones have become the most common device for viewing the website and the only source of traffic growth, magnifying social media as a source of new visitors and minimizing the home page's significance. Have you explored your website through the eyes of a mobile visitor -- reading, viewing ads and images, clicking links, trying out share buttons, filling out registration forms? Have you thought about what it would take to get them to return to your site, sample your products, or engage with your advertisers?
5. Discoverability Matters
We must make our products easily discoverable, even to people who aren't looking for them. From the standpoint of consumer awareness, digital magazines combine the worst of printed magazines and websites. They can't be discovered at hair salons, in a neighbor's home, from a colleague lending you a copy, or in stores or libraries. Nor can they be found via search, a friend's social-media post or email, or via an interesting link on another website. For publishers touting their digital editions, just getting people to peek inside the walled garden has been a challenge.
6. Sales Channels Matter
Compared with the tablet edition of a magazine, most ebooks are a dull sea of monochromatic text. And yet ebooks have been far more successful, dominating some fiction genres, creating new superstar authors, and gaining greater consumer acceptance. There are millions of ebook titles, but the major sellers have made it easy to find what you want with powerful search and recommendation features, extensive categories and sub-categories, "Look inside" sampling, and other tools and promotions. But in the same e-stores, the process for selecting magazines is at best far more primitive and at worst a chaotic mess. And if you do find magazine titles you might want, you're likely to see customer complaints about slow downloads and apps that don't work.
7. Fulfillment Matters
One good thing about print subscriptions is that you know when a new copy has arrived. Not so with e-magazines. A frequent reason for not renewing iPad editions is that issues pile up without the owner remembering to look for them. Apple's emails noting the deadline to cancel a subscription before your credit card is charged again tend to stand out more than its subtle new-issue alerts. In the traditional magazine business, we learned long ago to push for longer terms. Monthly subscriptions? Ha! We try to get people signed up for three years (and then, a year later, to sign then up for another three years, and then—oops, we're not supposed to talk about that, are we?)
8. Magazines Are For More Than Reading
Why did people who are perfectly comfortable exploring articles on their laptop and watching videos on their phone never make the switch to perusing magazines on a tablet? The tablet edition of a magazine can be a beautiful collection of articles and images. But the printed edition can also entertain visitors, decorate a coffee table, or display's the owner's taste or passion. It is an object that can be clipped, shared, or collected. You'd better know what your customers want and how they use your products before creating a new, "improved" version.
The moral of the story: Just because we can create a cool new product doesn't mean we should. We'll have no shortage of breakthroughs to explore and ventures to pursue. But, in the words of business guru Michael E. Porter: "The essence of strategy is choosing what not do to."
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