Discover how to start an online magazine when you don’t have a print magazine as your basis
If you’re an existing media company that doesn’t publish magazines, or you’re launching an online magazine from scratch, there are 3 steps to successfully branch into the world of online magazine publishing.
At Mequoda, we work primarily with established legacy magazine publishers, but in the past, we also worked with publishing startups. These startups benefitted from our work with legacy publishers in teaching them how to start an online magazine, because what you’ll soon discover is that the planning required to start an online magazine is not much different than the planning required to start a print magazine.
Let’s begin by defining an online magazine . An online magazine is a web-friendly version of your magazine. It’s in HTML, it works like a website and it has a topic-based archive in addition to an issue-based archive. And while our research indicates that about half of users place a high value on being able to access content by topic in addition to accessing it by issue, those who do wish to access the content by topic value this feature very highly.
One question we often get asked is: if you’re a from-scratch start up, how many back issues do you need to launch with in order to have a viable archive? We believe the ideal scenario is to have 12 months worth of issues available in your archive. But if budgets are tight, you may decide to launch with as little as 3-6 months of back issues and allow the benefits of the archive to grow over time.
Consumers are telling us loud and clear what they want—are you listening? How much would you pay for that information? Download a copy of our 2018 Mequoda Magazine Consumer Study  for FREE instead, to find out how you can improve your digital magazine rapport with subscribers.
How to launch an online magazine in 3 steps
Step 1: Create an Editorial Plan
Having personally participated in the launch of dozens of print magazines, I can say with confidence that the process of launching an online magazine  is not much different. It all starts with creating a strategic planning framework  and an editorial plan.
And the reason to create an editorial plan is two-fold:
First, as editors we need to make sure the magazine has legs. To do this, the editorial team sits down to write out a table of contents for two years worth of issues. So if this is a 6-issue per year magazine, we need to come up with the TOC for 12 issues and make sure not to repeat ourselves. We must value diversity and consistency in the content and be certain it’s something we can be proud to publish, just as we would if it were a print magazine.
The second reason we need to create an editorial plan is for budgeting purposes. We need to know how much to spend to create each issue, plus we need to determine what will be spent pre-launch to create the back issues we plan to have available both for purchase and archive upon launch.
Step 2: Create a Prototype Issue
The next step in launching an online magazine is to ensure we create an editorial product that has all the attributes of a great magazine. It must be a product people can read on a linear basis and that they look forward to getting their hands on each month or every other month.
The first issue you create will likely be a back issue for your online magazine library.  During this process, you’ll get to test the budget assumptions you came up with in Step 1 to see what it’ll cost to create the content you envisioned. This becomes your opportunity to modify the budget if needed, as we often discover that the costs are higher than we predicted. The reason for this is that with an online or app-based magazine, you get more options to produce content in ways that a print magazine would not allow for, like slideshows, videos, or web widgets that update on the fly. These are all elements you may want to consider to help set your online magazine apart from its print ancestors.
Step 3: Consider your Marketing Channels
While this may seem counterintuitive, online magazines that’ve been around for more than a decade, like the Economist, were not successful until they were also available as app editions for the Apple iPad. Why is that?
There is something that clicks in the user’s mind when you tell them that the online magazine is also available for the iPad and that they’re going to have the option of choosing between the two editions. Even users who only purchase the online edition and forgo the app edition seem to have become clear from the comparison that your online magazine, is indeed, a magazine.
In our experience, 10-20 % of all revenue that’s generated from your digital magazine efforts (your online magazine and your app edition) will come from digital newsstands and the Apple app store. However, for publishers who want to keep 100% of their revenue, online magazines are a more profitable path. We suggest publishers have both, but think the online edition is the most important of the two.
If you’ve read our articles on contrast pricing , you’ll know that you have the ability to price 3 different options:
- app edition only
- online magazine only (the issue-based archive and a topic-based archive)
- a combo that includes both the app edition and the online edition
And note, the option to price as laid out above is revolutionizing the magazine industry, even when print isn’t in the mix!
So what’s next?
If you’d like to see an example of what can be accomplished when launching an online magazine  from scratch, check out what the experienced publishers at Prime Publishing did with their launch of two online magazines – I Like Crochet  and I Like Knitting . Their strategy includes all of the above, as they very diligently went through the planning, prototyping, marketing and pricing steps before they launched their online magazines.
If you need help launching an online magazine and are already generating $1m in annual revenue, we’d love to talk. 
This article was originally published in 2015 and has been updated.