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The Evolving Business Case for Digital Magazines

While some publishers grow digital circ, others jump on the device bandwagon.



By Bill Mickey
03/29/2010

For some publishers, digital editions have evolved from a standalone circ-builder to a way to get a foothold on as many devices as they can. Either way, digital editions, when marketed properly, are still a viable way to grow overall circulation.

Now that both the BPA and ABC have defined digital editions in such a way that they’re auditable on new device platforms—such as e-readers and tablets—publishers have a clear path to growing circ and counting digital magazines in rate base. “[The ABC Board] wants to ensure that ABC's qualification and reporting guidelines are forward-looking and provide ample flexibility to take advantage of new devices like the iPad,” says Teresa Perry, ABC’s SVP, publisher member audit and report processing services. “The new guidelines allow ABC magazine members to design digital editions that are better suited for the specific distribution device, like the iPad, and provide additional features in the digital edition that enhance both the editorial and advertising content while still counting that circulation in rate base."

A 'Fluid' Digital Edition Strategy

At Reason, a political magazine with libertarian leanings, a digital edition strategy can best be described as in process—but one focused clearly on customer demand, or what might become customer demand. “It’s so fluid and unknown at this point, in all seriousness I wouldn’t pretend to say there's an overly developed business case,” says Mike Alissi, the magazine’s publisher. “But there’s only going to be more and more readers shifting in that direction, and we want to be there when they do. That’s what’s basically driving our strategy.”

Alissi says digital circulation, particularly on the Kindle, which the magazine joined in 2008, has become a “decent percentage” of overall circulation. Alissi declined to share exact figures because of the agreement the magazine has with Amazon. Additionally, readers have been requesting to cancel their print subscriptions in favor of their Kindle subscription. “It’s not alarming, it's great,” says Alissi. “One thing to keep in mind, we're a nonprofit publisher, so we have different considerations, but we do want to maximize eyeballs. It’s much more of a concern when someone cancels a subscription to get free content on the web site.”

Growing Digital Circ Via Transitions 

In a similar fashion, Foreign Policy is actively converting its sponsored and controlled circ to its digital replica. Right now, Foreign Policy is BPA audited at almost 20,000 copies, about 18 percent of overall circulation. Sponsored circulation of the print edition is 25 percent, says Annette Munroe, FP’s circulation director. She’d like to transition half of her sponsored circ to the digital replica and about 20 percent of controlled as well.

“Digital is still growing for us,” she says. “Growth has been fairly organic, but we’ve tried to push it in a couple different ways. Insert cards were not as successful as simply offering an option. On the Web site, we found 15-20 percent will select the digital edition when it's an option. That was not the case with the insert cards.”

This, says Munroe, might have to do with the fact that new subscribers are coming to the brand without a print “legacy”. “It gives them a way to have the subscription benefits without wasting a print copy that they feel they might not get around to reading.”

Munroe has also found that the 35 years of subscriber-only digital archives that FP has available online has been a key selling point for the digital edition. For readers that balk at receiving the print edition, a digital subscription, which also allows immediate access to the archive has been easy for new readers to pick up. “Digital is more acceptable to get access. That's been an area that's been able to help the digital edition circulation grow.”

By Bill Mickey
03/29/2010







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