By Don Nicholas • 11/05/2012
Nine characteristics of a digital magazine that are defined by the user experience and dictate the future requirements of what will become the template for digital magazine publishing success
We have seen the future of magazine publishing and it’s paperless.
It’s not only us publishers who think so.
Today, many consumers have begun predicting the demise of print publications. Pay-for-access online content is gaining newfound acceptance, and eReaders and computer tablets are enjoying soaring popularity. Many of the publishers we work with will generate more than 10 percent of their new subscription sales from digital channels in 2012 and expect those numbers to double in 2013.
So, is it possible? Will all magazines be digital in the not-too-distant future?
Whether that “not-too-distant future” is three years, five years or 10 years away, we can see the inevitable metamorphosis. The 10 percent of the literate population that consumes the lion’s share of all written information has begun to devour digital content on new, intriguing and attractive platforms that are convenient, portable and — there’s no denying it — fun!
Will the digital magazine template required for tablet publishing success redefine the medium we now call magazines?
What characterizes a magazine in 2013, as many publications transform from print to digital and deliver content on a tablet computer that’s part netbook, part phone, part personal digital assistant, and part mobile Internet device?
What is the true essence of a magazine in the digital delivery world of 2013 and beyond?
What is a magazine? My criteria may surprise you.
The magazine is a reading experience like no other.
What has made the medium so successful over the past 100+ years? What brought it to its initial success?
How has the magazine survived as initially radio, and later television challenged the medium for readers’ time and attention?
What differentiates a magazine from a book, or a website, or any other collection of written content?
I have always loved magazines! But frankly, over the years, I’ve wondered if the magazine, as a medium would survive. And now, with the advent of the digital tablet — the perfect platform for digital magazines — I am no longer worried that the magazine medium will disappear.
In fact, I believe it will evolve and thrive. Here’s why.
The essential core characteristics of a magazine are those that define the user experience.
The attributes that define a magazine are not necessarily better or worse than those that define other media — websites, movies, books, etc. They are simply different in terms of the user experience.
The combination of a magazine’s attributes make it desirable and “survivable” for some part of the reading population, for certain topics.
The magazine will survive because magazine lovers like you and me will continue to demand this magazine user experience, which transcends its physicality.
Paper or tablet, the essential attributes of a magazine will not change. Consumers like you and me are not going to let publishers change the characteristics of a magazine that have made the medium so successful over the years.
That it has traditionally been printed on paper is not an essential characteristic of a magazine. Some publishers will inevitably disagree, but they are mistaking physical appearance for user experience.
Here’s what I believe is the core of a magazine. As your publication is transformed from print to tablet, make certain it doesn’t lose even one of these essential attributes, which define the user experience.
#1: Magazines are linear.
Magazines are designed to be read from front to back. Magazines have covers and a table of contents. Magazines are arranged in a series of articles.
Magazines are not meant to be read in their entirety. For the three decades that I’ve been a publisher, the average time spent with the average issue of a magazine — whether a weekly, monthly or quarterly — is about an hour.
Compare that with other media, where the articles constitute hundreds of pages, are arranged with taxonomies and hyperlinks, and are not linear.
Hyperlinking is not linear. Any medium that enables or encourages the reader to bounce around among hundreds or thousands of articles, is not a linear medium.
#2: Magazines are finite.
Magazines share this characteristic with books, movies and other media, but not Internet websites. The web is an infinite medium, with no beginning or end. You can never finish it.
Humans desire closure, which magazines provide. A reader can say “I have read the April issue of Vanity Fair. I finished it on Sunday.”
And that doesn’t mean the reader has read every word and studied every photo. It means he started at the cover, read the table of contents, read the articles that were of interest (usually a combination of reading and skimming), and eventually put the magazine down and declared, “I’m done with that. And now I’m looking forward to the next issue.”
But no one has ever said she has finished the Vanity Fair website. And no one ever will finish it.
#3: Magazines are periodic.
Weekly, monthly or quarterly, magazines are periodic, based on how often the user wants to consume content, and how often the content is needed and changing.
If you’re a knitter, and you need six new knitting projects each year, a knitting magazine that’s delivered six times annually is ideal for you.
If you’re a political news junkie and you love to catch up on the politics of the week on rainy Sunday afternoons, then a weekly subscription to The American Spectator or The Nation is your ideal.
Traditionally, the printing and postal system pushed magazine publishers to lower frequency. When publishers complete the switch from print to digital, we’ll pay greater attention to the natural organic frequency of magazines, rather than the economic frequency that has been imposed by postal delivery.
Some users will wish there were a new issue of Vanity Fair published every Friday afternoon instead of monthly. Or published with 75 pages every week instead of 300 pages once a month.
Such a publishing schedule might capture an hour of the user’s time each week instead of an hour monthly. And if a publication meets the users’ frequency needs, they will be more engaged with both the editorial content and advertisements in the medium, and more inclined to buy more affiliated publications and products. Overall, customer satisfaction and subscriber retention rates will increase.
#4: Magazines are cohesive.
Part of the appeal of a magazine is that it’s been edited and curated. Its editors have culled out the most interesting and most relevant content for the reader.
The content is not comprised of an isolated collection of articles or stories. Instead, the editorial content is connected and cohesive. Frequently there’s an introductory letter from the editor that creates context for the content that follows.
The whole (the collection of curated articles) is greater than the sum of the parts. The cohesive property of its editorial content is core to great magazine publishing.
#5: Magazines are portable.
Users can fully experience a magazine on the beach or on the toilet.
Tablet computers do not diminish this experience.
But laptops, desktops, eReaders and smart phones were not adequate media for the digitization of magazines. Going forward, tablets will do for magazines what eReaders have done for books; they will kick-start a resurgence of reading among literate people who consume elite media.
#6: Magazines are textual.
Magazines are an elitist medium.
Most Americans are not regular readers and are appallingly ignorant of anything even remotely resembling enlightened thought. Unfortunately, this condition will not change with new delivery platforms. Television will continue to be the mass medium.
Newspapers, magazines and books are all elite media as compared with television because they are textual. Magazines and magazine articles are “text first;” photographs are ancillary. This will not change as magazines are delivered on tablets.
Editorial content, the art of storytelling, and the ability to write a paragraph that paints a picture with words and enables the user to close her eyes and visualize what the writer is describing, is not going away.
Readers live in the world of ideas. The written word is their reason d’être.
Magazines are an elite experience, with the written word what readers enjoy most. But what 70 percent of Americans don’t have is the magazine experience on a regular basis.
#7: Magazines are collectible.
People like to own magazines.
As a child, I lived in a household that collected and displayed every issue of National Geographic and Reader’s Digest magazines.
Steve Jobs said that while there’s a small group of consumers that wants to own television shows, most want to rent.
But many magazine subscribers collect their back issues. For some specialty magazines such as Sunset and Interweave Knits, as many as 70-80 percent of subscribers keep their back issues for future reference.
At a magazine website, users must be able to download an issue of the magazine. If not, it’s not a magazine website.
Going forward, magazines will be universal and searchable
In the future, magazines will not be limited by platform. Readers (subscribers) will expect to be able to access the content of your magazine on any platform that delivers four-color-saturated, editorial content. Currently, that means desktops, laptops and tablets.
Going forward, publishers will make their magazines available on the Apple iPad, the Samsung Galaxy Tablet, Kindle Fire and all other lightweight, portable, touchscreen, tablet-sized, personal computers, regardless of operating system.
Users will expect their subscription content to be available to them everywhere. Publishers will not risk disappointing them by making exclusive platform alliances.
Additionally, in the future, a magazine delivered on a digital platform must be searchable.
Whether he previously read an article in Sunset and is now actively planning a Hawaii vacation, or previously read an article in Consumer Reports and is now preparing to buy a kitchen appliance, the user wants to be able to revisit and find specific information.
Why every publisher will need a subscription website
In 2013, every publisher must build a subscription website that is the nexus for all the other platforms.
Of course, the subscription website must enable the user to experience their magazine using all these criteria.
With a companion website, publishers will disaggregate all the magazine content and create a searchable content database.
While the traditional print magazine could only be searchable in a linear review of past issues, a companion magazine website enables the publisher to offer subscribers a searchable HTML database of editorial content.
In 1997, I advised Consumer Reports magazine to publish on two platforms and offer two separate subscriptions. One is the print magazine, for a linear, one-hour, once-a-month experience. The other is an online database — call it a reference book or even an encyclopedia, if you like — for researching previously published editorial content in preparation for making a purchase.
I would offer the same advice today. And I would recommend the launch of a second website — a truly subscription website — that would enable subscribers the nine magazine user experiences we have described above.
Note the difference between a subscription to the reference book website and a subscription to the magazine content website. The magazine website would enable users to buy and download individual issues or a 12-month subscription.
The magazine website would power the digital issues, viewable on the iPad and other tablet platforms, and would have a searchable archive of all the editorial content that appeared in the magazine as a subset of the reference book website.
The subscription magazine website and the subscription online reference book are different products with different uses.
The Consumer Reports reference website is used exactly like a book. The average subscriber accesses it 2.7 times annually for 5-10 minutes each time.
The average Consumer Reports magazine subscriber spends 50-60 minutes per month with each new issue.
Subscribers access the online reference book for solutions. They read the magazine for mastery.
Users can buy either the subscription magazine, or the subscription reference book, or both.
What do you think are the essential elements of the perfect magazine template?
Dr. Samir Husni, of the University of Mississippi, will disagree with me, arguing that a magazine must be a printed with ink and bound in a paper cover.
You may disagree, too, and argue that a magazine must be defined by other attributes and characteristics. This debate requires consideration and contributions from all segments of the publishing industry.
Please add to the discussion of “the perfect magazine Template” below.
As we prepare our 2013 digital publishing strategy, it’s clear that our digital editions will climb from a single-digit percentage of revenue into double-digit numbers. Understanding the core modality of our digital magazines along with the need to create magazine templates that display text, photos, and video in a format appropriate to the leading caplets is essential to powering that growth rate. As readers become more familiar with digital magazines, their expectations will rise above what can be met with a simple replica digital magazine template. The need to resize our magazine pages for these smaller formats will become table stakes for success.
If you’d like to discuss how we can help you create a business strategy that includes your existing print distribution, a tablet edition and a subscription website, contact Ann-Marie Sullivan, our member services manager, and she’ll schedule an opportunity for us to chat.
Originally published on 10/14/2010
Posted in Digital Magazine Publishing