Buyer's Guide: How to Choose the Right Digital Magazine, CMS & DAM Vendor
This article is from the Publishing Executive Buyer's Guide which is a publisher's reference on emerging technology in the media industry. You can find other Buyer's Guide Sections here:
Implementing a viable digital publishing strategy requires a successful combination of relatively unfamiliar technologies, mostly from outside service providers. This section will help publishers find the right partners for creating and managing multi-channel content, and for storing the images and other assets used by both editorial and advertising workflows.
Digital Publishing on Tablets and Smartphones
Publishing magazine content on the web is not new, nor is the practice of creating digital facsimiles or replicas of print editions. Many vendors in this guide do exactly that. What is relatively new is the process of publishing content on mobile tablets and smartphones. This is done in two ways. One is to create an application or "app" for Apple's iOS, Google's Android, or other mobile operating systems. The other is to create a mobile-friendly website, using HTML5 and CSS 3, for use on any browser -- including those on iOS and Android devices.
There are several options for creating a native tablet app edition, which have been defined in the MPA's tablet metrics definitions.
- The easiest option is to send existing print PDFs to a cloud-based service provider, who typically converts these into non-Flash-based replica editions, activating hyperlinks and sometimes adding other interactive enhancements. The MPA refers to these as SFP ("Straight From Print") and SFP+ editions.
- Another approach is to use existing page layout or website production to build interactive digital editions. These often use familiar software (InDesign or QuarkXPress) and a cloud-based service to generate enhanced content -- appropriately termed EFT ("Enhanced For Tablet") by the MPA.
- The most advanced but often expensive approach is to design and produce app or website content specifically for tablet or smartphone use. This approach -- DFT ("Designed For Tablet") -- can use content from the print edition, but is a completely new digital product, providing greater access to a device's camera and other built-in features.
Many providers of SFP+ and EFT editions also offer an HTML5 reader option, allowing publishers to move from native app to browser-based content, which can be especially helpful on smartphones or smaller-screen tablets. Some companies do all the conversion and adding of interactive elements, while others provide online or desktop plugin tools for publishers to create their own product. Almost all offer cloud-based distribution to digital newsstands or, in the case of HTML5 browser content, integration with existing Web hosting.
Channel & Workflow Strategies
Regardless of the format used, most publishers and their service providers must deal with digital distribution to multiple newsstands, integration with existing circulation and advertising systems, as well as analytics software -- from generic to publishing-specific systems. Since print is often still the major component of a publisher's channel strategy, it is critical that digital content produce meaningful business data compatible with the whole publishing environment.
Every magazine has its own workflow -- from editorial and page or web design to the handling of advertising content. These involve specialized skills and labor cost centers that cannot be easily changed or expanded. So, it is especially important to select vendors and tools that leverage existing resources, while still allowing for future growth. Many publishers choose the SFP or SFP+ model today, because it requires the least amount of deviation from their existing print workflow. EFT uses existing page layout skills, but as some publishers are discovering, this can lead to sharp rises in labor costs. Because the trend increasingly favors responsive design on multiple screens, publishers with existing strengths in web creation and data management will be at an advantage.
Content Management and Digital Asset Management Systems
Content management systems (CMS) have existed since the late 1990s, and are best known (to publishers) as the means for creating web content dynamically -- without manual HTML coding. CMSs are also found at the heart of complex print production systems. While perhaps not as exciting as tablet app or website creation, managed content is an increasingly important cost-cutting technology for multi-channel publishing.
In practice, CMSs are more often found in larger enterprises, including most of the top-tier publishers. However, as many services become more cloud-based, mid-sized and smaller publishers can avail themselves of the benefits of managed digital content. Another CMS trend -- primarily for websites -- is the emergence of open source solutions like Drupal and Joomla. While open source does not involve licensing fees, it does require investment in technical staff-an important consideration for publishers considering the shift from native device apps to HTML5 web apps.
Related to content management systems is digital asset management or DAM technology. While CMSs are designed for content aggregators and distributors, a DAM system is a repository of images and other assets, identified in a way that makes it easy for a publisher to find and use (or re-use) them. Historically, DAM systems were installed on-site, but are increasingly being hosted in the cloud, using a subscription-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. Ideally, a DAM should integrate well with other production and management systems, with the goal of reducing manual labor costs for finding, using, and charging for content.
Any CMS or DAM provider should be selected to suit the unique needs of the publisher. Design-first or page-oriented publishers will have different content management needs than "content first" publishers -- those whose work usually begins on the web and then appears in print or in a native app. Publishers with large print operations will have radically different needs than pure-play digital companies.
Questions for Vendors
When selecting a vendor, publishers should always ask the basic business questions, of course. Pricing, customer service, and reliability are essential to any purchase decision. However, for digital publishing and content management providers, there are some specific matters to address:
- Does the digital content display to a typical subscriber's satisfaction on multiple devices, operating systems, and screen sizes?
- Is the content viewable in text form -- especially on smaller devices?
- How easy is it to add rich media, such as video or animation?
- Does the vendor make it easy to use a device's built-in features, like a camera, or social media venues?
- Does the vendor make it easy to discover and purchase the digital edition or content?
- Does the digital content service provide new opportunities and benefits for advertisers or sponsors?
- Does the vendor provide a path to responsive design publishing on multiple platforms?
- Does the vendor's system provide ample measurement of reader activities and responses -- to both editorial and advertising content?
- Does the vendor's system leverage the publisher's existing production skills and capital investments?
- Does the underlying CMS or DAM provide a high level of automation, or otherwise lower the overall labor and capital costs of producing digital content?
Making a digital content move should not be done lightly -- or simply because others are doing it. If at all possible, the process for creating and managing digital content should leverage existing skills and capital investments on the print side -- especially if print is still the primary channel for subscribers and advertisers. However, since the content experience on tablets and smartphones is often radically different from print, new skills and technologies will be required.
Every magazine has a unique base of subscribers and advertisers -- with a knowable relationship to emerging technology. When selecting digital publishing vendor partners, be sure to select those that will best help you be there at the right time for your audience.
John Parsons (email@example.com) is the Principal of IntuIdeas LLC in Seattle. He writes and advises on a variety of topics and technologies, including mobile publishing, online video, ebooks, editorial and design workflow, digital color, and web-to-print.