The iPad is a game changer and the release of other tablets in the future will continue to advance digital publishing. But it remains early days (a recent FOLIO: blog quoted editors of The New Yorker as saying "writing for the iPad is like producing TV after WWII") and the "traditional" digital edition can still provide significant value, provided the publisher buys into the format. "Even working with the most basic digital edition can give a publisher a leg up when it comes to working with tablets," says George Otto, founder of publishing consultancy Publishing Transitions LLC.
Peter Houston, editorial director of Advantar Communications Europe, oversees four digital magazines within his group: Pharmaceutical Executive, Pharmaceutical Techology, Ophthalmology Times and The Column. One of the most effective (and most common) ways to add value to digital editions is by expanding circulation. "With one of our publications we joined together the U.S. and European edition and grew the audience from 90,000 to 140,000," says Houston. "We went to market with an impressive circulation number at no added cost."
An Easy Read Improves Response
The difficulty of reading on screen is one of the most common knocks against digital editions. "The screen is horizontal while magazines are in a portrait or vertical format," says Houston.
But emerging devices (as well as many current digital magazine formats) are optimized for the screen. "When you design across the page, it’s easier to navigate, says Houston, who says that open rates for his digital magazines mirror the open rates with newsletters at about 30 percent, with clickthrough rates at 10 percent to 15 percent depending on the issue. "One of the things we saw, when we changed to a more screen-friendly format is that open rates improved."
Network Your Content
Some early attempts at magazine editions on the iPad have been criticized for attempting to keep the reader in a closed environment, rather than taking advantage of linking out to the Internet. Existing digital editions should connect to other digital properties, from Web sites to Twitter feeds to social media (and vice versa).
"You must network your content," says Houston. "With one of our pharmaceutical magazines, we developed an active Twitter feed and began including links to articles in the digital magazine. At one point we were getting 5 percent of our page views directly from Twitter. Today we’re also doing other stuff, like building searchable articles into Web sites, and putting links into The Column’s community on LinkedIn."
While the days of the straight up replica are over (or should be), repackage magazine content for the digital edition, particularly content or images that didn’t make the final cut in print.
But at the same time, be aware of the length. "We do a lot of peer review papers that don’t really work in a digital magazine," says Houston. "With the more newsy stuff, we bring the content length down. A 4,000 word article in Pharmaceutical Executive becomes a 1,000 word article in the digital magazine."
Give readers control of the content. "Give them things to do like clicking on scrolling bars," says Houston. "They will they feel more engaged."
A digital magazine isn’t a Web site, and each channel should be leveraged for what they do best. "Web sites are good for delivering information in searchable formats, but they also fall victim to this idea of firehouse journalism-pushing stuff at people and making them work hard to find what they want," says Houston. "As magazine publishers, we can deliver real value from curation, design and pacing-the same things you brought to a print magazine. You can deliver value through a Web site but it’s a different proposition. With a digital magazine, it ties back to what we’ve done for years-give people a finished package they can get their arms around."
Sell on Engagement and Time Spent
Many publishers continue to offer digital editions as value-added but they can be revenue generators, at least on a small scale. "There isn’t a lot of revenue in digital magazines right now, but we do have at least two that are profitable," says Houston. "I’d say the biggest obstacle is the reluctance on the part of publishers and ad sales people to embrace it and say, ‘We’re getting behind it.’ Just because a salesperson is good in print or even on the Web doesn’t mean they get digital editions. We have to re-educate our clients but also our salespeople."
Don’t just offer static ads, offer opportunities unique to the medium-animated ads, lead gen, etc. "If you help them with animation, go to a screen-friendly horizontal format" says Houston. "You may have to do more work, but it’s worth it."
Play up engagement metrics with clients, rather than audience numbers. "Playing the numbers game is dangerous with these things, but if I was selling, I’d be focused on the engagement issue-how long do people stay with it, as opposed to open rates," says Houston. "The amount of time people spend on our digital editions is getting closer to the time spent with the print magazine. Look at the average statistic for Web sites-people spend maybe three minutes total and how much time on ads? People are spending 10 to 15 minutes on digital editions and the ad formats can be so much bigger, it’s almost like digital display. The branding opportunities are higher than on the Web site."