What If Print Magazines Never Existed? Three Ways to Improve the Digital Reading Experience

In preparation for my appearance at this week’s SWIPE 2.0 conference, I read The Association of Magazine Media report on magazine readers and smartphones. You can view the report here. The data in this report suggests that the industry is doing a lot of things right in what is undeniably its early days. It also reveals some practices the industry would be wise to rethink. The best way to imagine how the industry can improve is to think about a hypothetical world in which the print magazine never existed and instead came to life as a smartphone, tablet, and web-based experience. When you frame it this way, untethered to its print ancestry, I think the solutions become clearer.

This is what I concluded about the report’s many findings, starting with the good news.

  • Most magazine readers 18-34 who own a smartphone are consuming digital magazine content on their smartphones. Turns out that like so many things, Steve Jobs got it right when he said, “We can’t depend on bloggers for our news.” Consumers want professional journalism, and they are accessing it on their phones.
  • They are twice as likely to consume this content at home as they are at work or while commuting. Perhaps this means readers are as likely to reach for their their smartphones as they are to their tablets or printed copies when they want to read.
  • Digital magazine readers want to share content with others, with nearly a third actually doing so. Content owners crave an ecosystem of consumers who are eager to share because they know that word of mouth marketing is far more powerful than any advertising they can buy.
  • About two-thirds of respondents claim that digital consumption has not diminished their print reading. This suggests that what was true for baseball at the advent of radio and television broadcasts – that free transmissions of the game would not dampen ballpark attendance – is true for publishing.

The industry does face some headwinds, though.

  • Digital magazine consumers read in relatively short bursts, with nearly two-thirds reading digital magazines for less than one hour a week. That’s a paltry sum compared to time spent watching television or on the Internet.
  • Most readers are not willing to pay more for their digital content, relative to a print subscription. This means that not only do magazines face digital pricing pressure, perhaps because users expect so much of their digital stuff to cost nothing. The fact they spend such little time with the magazines makes ad revenue generation a challenge, too.
  • While a majority of readers claim satisfaction with getting nothing more than the print edition in their digital versions, nearly two-thirds want more current, timely content.

Thankfully, none of these problems is insurmountable. If I ran a magazine, I would ask my digital team to rethink its position as if the print edition never existed. Without that anchor point, I’d expect to see three changes that would improve reader satisfaction and the bottom line.

  1. Build a content management system (CMS) that recognizes the differences between smartphone, tablet, and traditional web reading. This would acknowledge that smartphones are geared for shorter reading sessions and allow a publisher to treat smartphones as a gateway to longer form reading. Don’t just give digital readers the same table of contents that provide order and structure to the print issue. Serve up shorter stories to smartphone users, with previews of longer form content that readers can expect when they migrate to their tablets. Shorter stories are a good fit for more current reporting, which digital readers want, too. Accordingly, the CMS should recognize a tablet reader and provide a mix of short and long form stories because tablet users tend to engage their content more deeply. This should increase overall time spent reading digital versions.
  2. With more readers embracing digital, advertisers surely will follow. That’s why I’d adapt a responsive design approach for advertisers. For example, smartphone readers would get served a simple banner within a story, while the same advertiser could offer rich media content in the same story for the tablet or web.
  3. Finally, I’d seize on the tendency for users to share and make it easy not just to pass along a story, but also to make content sharing a revenue generator. Each instance of sharing represents an opportunity to sell a story, a photograph, an ad, a subscription, or even an item mentioned in the story itself. Referrals are a great way to test offers and link redemptions to specific recommenders. Imagine if you could identify your most influential readers based on the engagement their friends have with referred content. That would be a powerful source of data and a marketing program unto itself.

The publishing industry has taken its knocks as it transitions to digital, but it has the resources and the tools it needs not only to survive, but flourish. Smartphones obviously have a role to play, and I look forward to learning more this week at the conference.

One comment

  1. “They are twice as likely to consume this content at home as they are at work or while commuting” – interesting finding,I wouldn’t have guessed that.

    “Make it easy not just to pass along a story, but also to make content sharing a revenue generator” – hadn’t given this any thought. Realise I need to!


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