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Looking Ahead at Digital Publishing Strategies

The definition of a digital publication is getting harder to pin down.



By Bill Mickey
10/29/2009

As consumers continually adapt and change the way they like to consume content, publishers are scrambling to overhaul the way they produce and distribute it. Along the way, the definition of a digital publication has changed and publishers must utilize an "unrestrained" approach to multiplatform content production, argued Steve Paxhia, president of Beacon Digital Strategies, in his presentation at the recent FOLIO: Virtual event.

According to Paxhia, just 18 months ago there were about 3,900 publications offering digital replicas. That number has jumped to about 6,000 today, accounting for about 25 million subscriptions. "They're especially strong in b-to-b, where people read them at work," said Paxhia.

Up to now, he said, the real strengths of digital replicas have been international distribution and satisfying that portion of a readership that prefers to read their content online.

Today, however, the definition of a digital publication is harder to pin down, especially as the mobile device landscape—from eReaders to smartphones—shapes the way consumers interact with content.

What Is a Digital Publication?

Just where, exactly, digital editions fit in that landscape depends largely on how readers prefer to consume their content. "What is a digital publication?" asked Paxhia. "That used to be an easy question. Replicas represented that vast majority of magazines and newspapers. The idea was that with the position of advertising, the reader would be presented with a publication that looked just like the print product."

Now, however, smaller devices like the ubiquitous iPhone and the current crop of eReaders make it difficult to consume digital magazine replicas. "We have found that people aren't interested in reading long articles with complex illustrations and charts [on smaller devices], it's too hard to navigate," said Paxhia. "Instead, they're interested in receiving specific content for their smartphone and getting that information wherever they are."

Nevertheless, Conde Nast recently announced it will be debuting a full digital replica of the December issue of GQ as a $2.99 iPhone app. In horizontal mode, the reader will be able to scroll through the entire issue, including ads, which qualifies the app as ABC paid circulation. In vertical mode, readers can tap and pinch their way to specific content.

Conde Nast built its iPhone reader technology inhouse, but many of the market's digital edition providers, such as Texterity, Zinio and Nxtbook, offer iPhone interfaces for accessing and reading replicas.

At the end of the day, said Paxhia, publishers must be involved in a reader's entire information cycle. "We can't be engaged with them if they're browsing through a magazine. We have to give them an integrated experience where they can browse, search and follow links to other content."

Replica or Chunks?

And that's the crux of the issue. If a reader wants to read a digital product that mimics the print format experience—whether on the Web or on an iPhone—or if they want smaller, targeted digital chunks, then the publisher must deliver.

Conventional wisdom suggests that smaller devices are counterintuitive to presenting the print experience, with all of the "eccentricities of zooming in and out and navigating left and right," as Paxhia put it. Yet that hasn't stopped Conde Nast and vendors supporting the market from offering the content anyway. Reader preferences will ultimately seal that deal.

Key, however, said Paxhia, is an "unconstrained" approach to producing content, where publishers start the production cycle by creating content for multiple devices and formats, in stead of producing it for print first and then reverse engineering it for other platforms.

  By Bill Mickey
10/29/2009







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