Dec. 15 — Should magazines bother with a digital edition, is a magazine an inherently printed product, and crowdsourcing your story list

Is a digital edition even worth the trouble any more?

A major magazine advertiser has allegedly decided that it will no longer count digital editions towards rate base. (Rate base is the guaranteed minimum number of copies of a magazine the publisher promises to deliver.) See Major Ad Buyer Tells Magazines It Won’t Buy Tablet Circ Like It’s Print Any More.

Note that some people think this is just a negotiating ploy. We’ll have to see how it all turns out.

However this particular issue resolves, digital editions have been a big disappointment, and this kind of thing only makes matters worse. Digital editions make up less than 4% of magazine circulation, and if advertisers insist on treating them separately that means a different sales process and, worse, different production for a small fraction of the audience.

If this stands, it’s one more reason for magazine publishers to wonder if they should even bother with a digital edition.

There are still reasons to publish an online edition of a magazine, the most important of which being that customers expect it. But it’s not a clear win, and “going digital” is certainly not going to save a title or a publishing company.

Is a magazine an inherently print product?

In my Dec. 1 issue, I asked “what is a digital magazine?” and said that in many ways the very word “magazine” is intimately tied to the printed page.

David Pilcher took that one step further and said “A magazine IS a print product. Period.” See Hyperbole and Hysteria in the Magazine Industry

His article is well worth your time. It ties together a lot of thoughts I’ve had over the years, and the headline is completely on target. There is far too much hysteria and hyperbole about “digital” and “the death of print.”

Scouting out the best content for your readers

Amazon has started a new venture where kindle readers can preview unpublished books. The readers vote on which stories they like best, then Amazon picks their favorites from that collection and offers the author a deal. It’s a way of crowdsourcing the slush pile. See Amazon’s crowdsourced publishing venture Kindle Scout goes live.

This is interesting to me because I’ve published a few titles on the kindle. It’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

I’ve often wondered if a similar method might work for B2B publishers. For example, as editors are working on their story list for the next issue they could post something on the order of “these are the stories we’re looking at” and allow readers to mark the ones they are most interested in.

There would be no need to promise to follow the stories the readers pick, but it seems like a good way to get feedback and to tailor content to subscriber needs. It would also help in establishing on online community around the publication.

Dec. 8 — Make a bigger pie, swimming in the outrage pool, and you can’t spotify magazines

Attract more readers

If the book market is a zero sum game, then any advance in ebooks means a decline in print books. The different formats are competing for larger slices of a static pie. (Although there is a small group of people who buy the same title in print and as an ebook.)

If, on the other hand, it’s possible to make books more relevant to a larger audience — maybe in different situations or for different readers — you can make a bigger pie.

That’s what this article is about.

It reminds me of something I recently read about younger readers and books. It’s not that they’re reading less, it’s that they’re reading in smaller chunks. I don’t know if that’s true, but it stands to reason that “readers” is not some inflexible demographic that is always X% of the population, and always consuming content the same way.

It’s not as if people are disinterested in content, but the how and the when and the why is changing all the time. People may be shifting away from 300-page novels to 75-page novellas they can read on their phones, and maybe one day people will be reading one-a-day serials they get by email every morning. Many of our famous novels started out as serials. The point is that publishing shouldn’t be wed to a particular style or format. Publishers need to be flexible and change in response to the market.

Is social media worth your time?

I’ve been a social media skeptic from the start, and when people started responding to “what’s the ROI of social media?” with “that’s the wrong question,” my skepticism burned even hotter. I think companies have wasted a lot of time and effort trying to be hip with the mean girls, trying to cuddle up to socially inept jerks with keyboards, to appeal to the lonely hearts or to navigate the assorted closet weirdos that run loose in social media.

Social media is a place for fandoms and strange causes. It’s a place where news stories get distorted and issues are prejudged and demagogued. It’s not a serious place.

So I chuckled when Mollie Hemingway spoke of comments that were “posted on Twitter where the social media mob fed their hankering for constant outrage.”

Outrage is like crack on social media. Calm, considered voices are boring and therefore don’t get as much traction.

Companies need to protect their brand, and that includes monitoring the wackos on Twitter. There are also some smart ways to use social media for customer service, and I’m sure there are other niche uses here and there. But generally speaking I think it’s a silly distraction.

Magazine articles don’t go on a playlist

Nextissue is an attempt to treat magazines the way Spotify treats music. You sign up for a subscription and you get access to any magazine you want. They’ve just raised $50 million.

It’s an interesting idea and I think it will have some limited success from tire kickers, but then it will fade away because it fundamentally misunderstands what a magazine is, and it has no clear benefit.

A magazine is not just its content. It’s not a collection of articles, pictures and ads. It’s a peculiar sort of package, both in its content and in its presentation. It’s also a lifestyle choice. It’s a way to brand yourself. A magazine is a form of self and group identity.

You don’t subscribe to Field and Stream just because you want to know how to get a trophy buck. You want to think of yourself — and you want others to think of you — as that kind of guy. You want to feel a part of that lifestyle. You want the people who visit your house to see Field and Stream on your coffee table and know a little more about you.

The idea that consumers will grab GQ this month, then Entertainment Weekly, then People, then Better Homes and Gardens …. It seems like a flawed premise to me. A reader might browse those things in the barber shop while waiting for a chair, but this undifferentiated mass of magazines is not a compelling sale.

If you want to sell Better Homes and Gardens there’s a solid pitch to be made. Have a nicer home! We’ll show you how, and all the great stuff we’ll show you is more than worth the paltry subscription price. Plus you get all these premiums!

What is Nextissue selling? You can read … uh … all this stuff … and, uh … whatever it is that you like you can … well … you can read it on a tablet, like no one else in the world is doing right now. (Despite the hype, tablet sales of magazines are awful.)

There’s no clear benefit to an identifiable group of people who want a discrete something — except for a group of people that simply doesn’t exist, that is, people who want to read an undifferentiated mass of whatever on a tablet.

People simply aren’t getting on board with the digital magazine thing — even with titles they like that have a clear audience and a clear benefit. The idea that it’s possible to water down the benefit, target an unclear demographic and sell even more digital magazines is not a business model I would bet on.

We’ll see, but remember — you heard it here first.

Dec 1 — Print books outsold ebooks, Blloom tests a new model for eBooks, the danger of LinkedIn groups to your brand, and what is a digital magazine?

How print refuses to die

Print Books Outsold Ebooks In First Half Of 2014

According to Nielsen’s survey, ebooks constituted only 23 percent of unit sales for the first six months of the year, while hardcovers made up 25 percent and paperback 42 percent of sales. In other words, not only did overall print book sales, at 67 percent of the market, outpace ebook sales, both hardcovers and paperbacks individually outsold ebooks.

After the launch of the kindle, ebook sales took off, with double digit growth year after year. Some people thought that meant the end of print, as if you could take the growth of ebooks in their infancy and project that same rate for the following years. Of course nothing works that way, and you get silly conclusions when you try. For example, if you charted temperature on a summer’s day from 5:00 in the morning to 2:00 in the afternoon, and then projected that trend out for another 20 hours, you’d think we were all going to bake to death.

eBooks have taken over a niche, for sure, and many people love them. Many others don’t, and it seems that ebooks and printed books will exist side by side for quite some time.

A membership model for eBooks?

Blloon Re-Invents Subscription Model for eBooks

Under this new service you can sign up for free and get 1,000 pages, then earn access to more pages as you review books or invite others to join the service. If you don’t like all that gamify stuff you can skip it and just pay a subscription fee.

As an aside, I think it’s a good idea to offer alternatives to gaming models. Some people love to play games and collect points and such. Others hate it.

I’ve been waiting to see models like this for a long time. When cable TV first came out there were proposals for innovative revenue models for watching movies. One person might watch a show for free, with commercials. Another might watch a show without commercials if he agreed to take a survey about a product, or watch one extended commercial. Another might simply pay.

There are any number of ways to monetize content and it’s usually pretty easy to come up with them. Making them work is another matter entirely. They need to fit in with your fulfillment service and your web store, your accounting department needs to understand what’s going on and your company culture needs to adopt it. You might also have issues with your credit card processor. Coming up with a new idea is child’s play. Making all the pieces hum is the hard part.

Start-ups have an advantage when it comes to new revenue models because they don’t have to reconfigure legacy systems. This often gets interpreted as “new blood” v. “old thinking,” but that’s a naive way to look at the issue. Old businessmen have ideas too!

Is your LinkedIn group damaging your brand?

Or, to put it another way, do you want the members of your LinkedIn Group sending messages “from” you?

I recently got an email “from” a company. The email had a subject line I don’t think that company would have liked. How did this happen?

The company has a LinkedIn page that I follow … or joined, or … whatever the lingo is for LinkedIn.

Some other member of the group — not an employee of the company — posted a discussion on that group with the offending headline. LinkedIn sent an email “from” that company to everyone in the group.

I’m a fairly savvy guy and it took me by surprise for a minute until I figured out what was going on. Imagine what this company’s less savvy followers were thinking!

Social media can give people an opportunity to hijack your brand and make it seem as if you’re saying things you wouldn’t want to say. Monitor this carefully!

I hope LinkedIn has a way to manage this sort of thing in their group settings. If they want to be “Facebook for business” then they’d better.

What, exactly, is a “web magazine”?

My friend and SIPA colleague Ed Coburn has a very interesting and helpful article on web magazines here — More Clarification: What is a Web Magazine? Ed is trying to help publishers think past the idea of simply replicating a magazine on an electronic device.

I posted the following reply in a thread he started on the SIPA LinkedIn page.

***

Interesting thoughts, Ed, but I wonder if the question itself is part of the problem. We have expectations about a “magazine” that go beyond how the articles are formatted or where or how people read it.

For example — this may sound trivial, but it’s really not if you think about it — most people think that a “magazine” is something you can display on your coffee table, or put in a rack. They think it’s something you can browse in the check-out line at the grocery store, or pick up before you get on an airplane. They think a magazine is something you can easily skim, or look at “just for the pictures.”

All those things are deeply ingrained in what we think of when we think of a “magazine.” The very word has associations and implications that simply don’t transfer to an electronic format — no matter how well you do it.

So I wonder if the right way to proceed is to forget about creating a “digital magazine” altogether and look at the question from a few different angles.

  1. If someone has the print magazine, how would they want to view the same material in other settings?
  2. Forgetting all about the print magazine, what’s the right way to present this material in other settings (and on other devices)?
  3. Why is this particular collection of articles (which we included between two covers) sacred? Is there a different way of dividing / organizing / presenting it that makes more sense to a different audience?

***

Another thought occurred to me later. The concept of an “edition” is key to a print magazine, but it doesn’t seem necessary in an electronic presentation.

Nov. 24 — What does “digital” mean, should digital teams be “free,” and the resurgence of print

We need to stop talking about “digital”

The imprecise language people use about the “digital transformation” of publishing is getting frustrating. I just read an article that says “Hearst got a late start in digital.” Gee, thank you very much. That tells me almost nothing.

Saying that a publishing company has increased its investment (or revenue, or staff or whatever) in “digital” is about as helpful as saying that a farmer has increased his investment in plants. We need details.

“Digital” can mean so many different things. Is that website traffic? Is it desktop or tablet or smart phone? Is it on the publisher’s site or is the publisher syndicating the content elsewhere? Is it on social media? Is it in an app? Is it ad-supported or subscription-based? Is it data or articles? Or how about video?

For that matter, print on demand could be considered “digital” in some ways.

“Digital” means nothing because it means everything.

Imagine three companies. One is going great guns with a subscriber-only website. Another doesn’t have a website at all but sells 50% of its subscriptions through Google Play. (Remember, we’re imagining.) A third has ad-supported, free content that it serves on its own site and syndicates out to lots of other sites.

All these are “digital,” but they are very different models.

The confusion when people discuss “digital” with reference to magazines is almost comical. Many people read about increasing “digital revenue” with magazine publishers and they assume that means people are buying the magazine through Magzter or Apple. No. Only seven or eight people actually do that. Most of the “digital” revenue that magazine publishers report is from ads sold against content on a web page.

We need to find ways to be more precise. We should distinguish subscription, ad-supported and sponsored revenue. We should separate periodicals (or issue-based publications) from the daily stream of online posts. We should separate sales on the publisher’s terms (their own app or website) from sales in someone else’s walled garden (on Apple or Amazon).

The world of publishing is incredibly fragmented, and it’s going to get more fragmented. To keep our heads we have to be clear what we’re talking about.

Free up your teams, but maintain a common strategy

This article about goings on at Hearst includes this little comment: “their digital teams needed to be freed up to act independently.”

I think that depends on what you mean.

There are different rules and expectations on different platforms. You can’t expect tweets to follow AP style, on the one hand, or require your shy expert who sits in his corner and cranks out brilliant copy for your weekly newsletter to become a social media butterfly.

However, sometimes there are radically conflicting visions of the business of publishing between the print folk and the “new media” people. To take a somewhat extreme example, some internet-only folk are suspicious of copyright and have a “content should be free” attitude. A publisher simply can’t afford to allow that sort of perspective to warp his business practices.

It’s also easy to create conflicts over the use of your resources. Should you sell your site’s banner ad to the highest bidder, or should you use it to promote your own products? That may depend on your business model, but you want to make sure the decision is made to the benefit of the company as a whole and not only to the benefit of the people who sell ads on the website.

In short, departments should have the freedom they need to function in their niche, but it all has to tie back to a consistent strategy for the company as a whole.

New magazine launches defy “print is dead” mantra

Mr. Magazine says there have been 862 new magazine launches in the last year. I’m not sure how that compares with other periods, but it sounds like a lot to me.

The whole “print is dead” meme was aided by two things. First, the 2008 recession, which shoved advertising sales off a cliff. Second, breathless excitement about the appearance of lots of new toys — ereaders, tablets, smart phones, etc. — which had everyone staring into bright little screens.

Now that we’ve caught our breath it’s obvious that reading isn’t some monolithic thing that will all, collectively, “move to digital.” It will vary by niche. Hardly anybody looks in the paper for job postings — that transformation has been almost complete — but magazines seem to be stubbornly print-centric — not because of publisher recalcitrance or “old school thinking,” but because readers like print magazines.

Publishers can’t start with a “print is dead” mindset. They need to listen to customers and be prepared to deliver content how the user wants it.

The downside of landing page testing

There are lots of ways you can improve a landing page to get better sales results, and wise marketers do lots of testing to find out what pages work best.

But have you wondered … If you manipulate someone into buying a subscription have you done yourself a favor?

There are all sorts of ways to help the sales process. Expert copywriter Bob Bly recommends things like testimonials, credibility enhancers (e.g., “this is a secure site”), guarantees and the like. Those all reflect something tangible about the offer.

Then there are other ways to increase sales, like using a pretty woman’s face, or using the right color button. Those things do increase sales, but they have nothing to do with the offer.

When you’re selling a subscription service, you are often willing to lose money on the first year, hoping to make it up on renewals. If you use parlor tricks to manipulate someone into buying, is that helping your bottom line? If the pretty woman’s face causes a 10% lift in sales, will those sales renew at the same rate as the people who bought without the pretty face?

If your renewal rate dips one year, you’ll look back and wonder what might have caused it. Was your content less compelling? Did you use lower quality lists? Did you change your offer?

In an environment where marketers are constantly testing and refining landing pages, you may be bringing in orders from people who didn’t really want your product. You just tricked them.

I’m not sure what to do about it. It would be cumbersome to track every little change to a landing page — by assigning a different code to the order, perhaps — and then following it through the renewal process. But it’s an issue I think about from time to time.

I’m re-branding this site

Rather than sporadic posts, I’m going to write one weekly column on my thoughts on issues in publishing.

I’m not going to limit myself to B2B or even professional publishing. Some of the material will be about transformations in the industry. Some will be about writing. Some will be about self-publishing. I’ll discuss magazines, newsletters, books, blogs … any and every variety of publishing.

On some of these issues I am quite expert. On others I’m only learning. I’ll try to keep that clear in my articles.

Expect a new entry every Monday morning, starting with November 24. I will probably also add the ability to sign up for these by email.

“Send this to my real computer”

There were some interesting discussions at BIMS about optimizing email for mobile, including a great session by my friends from Real Magnet. This is an important thing to watch because more and more people are reading (or at least triaging) their email on mobile devices.

My biggest concern is the next step — getting the recipient of the email to place an order on a mobile-optimized sales page. It’s my contention that very few people want to fill out an order form with one of those silly on-screen keyboards. Yes, I know that 13 year olds are experts with those things, but most publishers are not trying to sell to 13 year olds.

What’s the solution? I don’t know, but here are some ideas I heard over the last few days.

  • Add an option on the landing page to “email this page to myself” so they can do it later on a real computer.

  • Segment your list by how much data you have on the recipient. For the recipients where you have their name, address, etc., include that in the link to the order page (that is, send it as a query parameter in the link) so the recipient doesn’t have to do as much typing on the landing page.
  • Add Paypal, Amazon 1-click, or some other easy checkout option on your landing page so the recipient doesn’t have to type much.
  • Include a phone number (with click to call) so the recipient can place the order on the phone.

I’m not sure which is the best solution, but I’m going to try to test these.

The dangerous technology that’s going to kill your ad-supported website

You probably have it in your pocket.

I had a lot of interesting conversations at BIMS about monetizing mobile traffic. The concern is that as traffic moves from a desktop, where there are several ads per page view, to tablet and mobile, where there are fewer ads per page view, it’s harder to keep the same revenue.

Everyone I spoke with at BIMS agreed that it is a serious problem and that you can’t reasonably hope to make up the difference by charging more for the ads on mobile. That would be an easy and convenient solution, but it’s not going to happen.

The consensus seemed to be that it’s better to have a completely different monetization strategy for mobile, but there was a lot of confusion on what, exactly, that other strategy ought to be.

Some said you should move mobile traffic to sponsored apps, but it wasn’t very clear to me how that would solve the revenue problem. It seems to me it could make the revenue problem worse because now you’d have to spend money to support the app.

Also, a lot of the traffic on an ad-supported site is “drive by.” Or “one and done” as my friend Ed Coburn called it. If the “one” view is “hey, go get our app,” I think you get a whole lot of nothing out of it.

A few people were promoting native ads as the solution, although that seems to introduce a split personality problem in your content strategy — i.e., you’d have one type of content on the desktop and another on mobile. Wouldn’t that be a little odd?

Another option is to change the revenue model on mobile from ads to engagement — i.e., try to collect more emails on tablets and mobile and monetize the emails. That could be a matter of pushing email sign-ups more heavily, or you could do it by requiring registration to view all or some of the mobile site.

I prefer that last option because I lean towards subscription-based models for publishers. Relying on ads has always struck me as a very iffy way to go. However, I admit that I don’t have an answer to this question. It’s something we’re going to have to watch carefully.

The end of this iPad nonsense, finally?

A colleague went to a meeting of publishers — mostly magazine publishers — and reported that many of them are finally realizing that this “the iPad will save the magazine” stuff should be filed right there next to “the Segway will transform city life.”

Digital, yes — in a very fragmented, confusing way. iPad magazines, no.

Flipboard (or something like it) will do decently well — until publishers wise up and refuse to feed it content. But the idea of the digital magazine replacing the print magazine was a silly fantasy from the start.

The Apple newsstand was an abortion from day one

Apple never even tried to understand magazine publishing, and magazine publishers were stupid to play along. Now Publishers want out of Apple’s Newsstand jail.

It was a bad deal from the start, but publishers were willing to jump in because of all the breathless promises about the “digital revolution” — that still hasn’t done much for magazine publishers.