rethinking digital editions

Faced with shrinking ad revenue during COVID-19, magazine publishers are being forced to ask tough questions about their upcoming print issues. Some are scaling back circulation or frequency to cut costs, while others are suspending print runs altogether. In most cases, they’re taking a second look at their digital editions (or lack thereof).

“For many publishers, digital has always been a sidecar to print,” says Paul DeHart, CEO of digital publishing platform BlueToad, which is currently experiencing an uptick in business. “With social distancing curtailing physical interaction, ‘digital distance’ is turning out to be the closest connection between publishers and their customers. So today’s environment requires them to rethink the model and, perhaps more importantly, retrain their audience.”

While digital editions are nothing new, DeHart encourages publishers to think beyond the dated print replica to deliver more responsive, interactive experiences. In the following interview, he discusses the possibilities and provides best practices for publishers during the pandemic and beyond.

How do publishers need to adapt their digital content strategies right now?

My biggest suggestion would be to produce and distribute an actual “edition” that maintains the curated, packaged, and delivered essence of a print version. Readers are comfortable with that type of trustworthy content experience and it better reflects the brand of most publishers.

Second, in the sidecar model, many publishers settle on a basic print replica edition for digital. But mobile matters now maybe more than ever during this time of social distancing. We completed a survey of magazine readers just before COVID-19 and found that the majority of digital magazine readers were using a phone because of convenience, which mirrors the analytics from publishers on our platform. At this point, a publisher’s digital content needs to be responsive and to specifically offer an engaging experience on phones.

Can you share an example of how you’ve helped a publisher improve their digital content experience for readers during COVID-19?

At the most basic level, we are getting a lot of calls from publishers trying to go from essentially nothing to something very quickly. We had one large custom publisher reach out to us and ask us to build branded, responsive versions of two of their key titles for distribution to readers in about 48 hours. Given the situation, the customer had no resources to devote to making this happen. Our team deconstructed their designed PDFs and built responsive versions of all the articles and selected advertisers in time for their deadline.

Another easy makeover we’ve been doing for a lot of customers is simply branding their digital content with their colors, fonts, logos, and other content initiatives (like video channels, blogs, and podcasts). We’ve found that these details make a significant difference in presenting a brand and keeping readers engaged.

What are some common concerns or misconceptions that publishers may have when it comes to digital editions?

The glaring one is the idea that a digital “edition” doesn’t matter that much. I know I’m a bit biased, but I think that’s the wrong view. There is an audience that wants digital but connects better with content in the form of a curated, packaged, and delivered edition, as I mentioned earlier. The internet is awash with publisher websites rolling content out every few minutes in an endless stream. I would strongly discourage a traditional magazine publisher from going that route at the moment. Their brand will just get lost.

Similarly, many publishers still envision the old school page flip version when thinking about digital editions. However, the product has progressed far beyond those clunky, hard-to-read experiences. Instead, publishing digitally can result in a beautifully responsive reading experience with features like audio articles, personalized content streams, integrated video feeds, and accessible content solutions. I would encourage any publisher sending out a digital edition in some form to view that edition as an extension of their brand. It should look and feel good, while meeting the technology expectations of today’s digital reader. It’s disappointing to see publisher’s just check the box on digital with a very basic and generic product that simply replicates their print in a less than ideal fashion.

Many publishers are offering access to digital editions for free through this crisis. Do you think that’s a smart move?

Generally speaking, yes. But it really depends on the content and the audience. We did another magazine reader survey after COVID-19 and found that 54% of respondents said they were more likely to consume digital content over print right now, and about the same percentage wanted to hear more from the magazine brands they trust. So the audience is out there.

Ultimately, I think there are two solid reasons to give content away for free (that previously wasn’t) during the COVID-19 health and financial pandemic. The social one is to provide important information for free to consumers at a time when they really need it. And this doesn’t have to be directly Covid-19 related. It could simply be local community information of value. The other reason is more of a marketing one – to grow readership in the long term. Offering free content could certainly help publishers connect with new readers looking to engage during their now disrupted lifestyles. However, some B2B customers with a niche audience might not see value in either one of these reasons, so it ultimately depends on the individual situation. Long term I am still a big believer in the value of content and publisher paywalls.

Do you think the increase in demand for digital editions will continue when the pandemic is over?

Yes. I think the immediate demand caused by this situation will have a lasting effect on the industry. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a personal fan of print and think demand for print will bounce back. But a common conversation I am having almost every day with publishers is that COVID-19 has just accelerated the digital transition they had already planned on making in the next few years. I think a number of publishing business models will be changed forever after the dust all settles.

What other tips do you feel are important to share?

Promotion is critical. Now more than ever publishers need to make sure they tell readers why they need to stay digitally connected to their brand. Consumers have a lot going on and a lot of media to parse through. I don’t think publishers can successfully shift strategies without letting their readers know what to expect. And this goes beyond just telling them to expect to see a digital version of the magazine. What do they have to offer as far as content – pandemic helpful information or something to take the reader’s mind off it? What do they have to offer as far as digital features – a rich archive to explore during extended home-time, a mobile-friendly reading experience, or perhaps special video or audio content? The point is simply that publishers need to make a list of four or five important offerings and then tell their readers. There isn’t time to just let that happen organically.

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By Leah Wynalek, Publishing Executive

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