The 4 Digital Publishing Trends to Watch in 2017

By: Ron Matejko

The table for digital publishing in 2017 was actually set last fall when Apple killed off its newsstand app. This set the wheels in motion for Adobe to de-emphasize its digital publishing software in February in lieu of mobile app development. Just like that the two biggest players in the digital publishing game were now largely on the sideline.

These two events, along with a plateaued growth rate for tablet sales, have greatly tempered the hope that digital magazines would both be the next evolution in publishing and replace a decline in print revenue. However, digital magazines aren’t dead. In fact, Adobe relinquishing its stranglehold on the market opened opportunities for existing and new players to reinvent how we think about digital magazines. This potential reinvention of digital magazines is one of the trends to watch in digital publishing next year.

1. Digital Magazine 3.0: Made for Mobile

Around 2005, digital magazines first emerged as glorified flip books, followed by the interactive format that was fed by Apple’s iPad & Adobe software, but neither digital format gained significant traction. David Blankenship, president of Advontemedia thinks he has a solution — software that builds magazines that scroll vertically instead of swipe horizontally.

Mobile drives content consumption. Think about the apps we use most often on those devices. According to comScore, more than 80% of social media time is spent on mobile devices, including more than 50 minutes per day on Facebook. And how do we use it? By scrolling through our posts. Instagram? Endless scrolling. How about Twitter and LinkedIn? Scrolling. Even the progressive content-driven mobile web sites, such as ESPN, have adopted endless scroll within its responsive design. Sure, apps like Snapchat and Flipboard utilize swipe, but think about how much deeper you go in the scrolling apps in comparison.

Blankenship believes users being conditioned to consume content via scrolling can revive the sagging digital magazine market with his innovative software leading the way.

“As far as user experience is concerned, we know until some other dimension of user experience occurs, scroll is probably here for at least the next 10 years, as the primary UX experience for consuming content,” Blankenship said. “The effort to read a horizontal digital magazine isn’t as easy as in print. It’s a lot more work, so we wanted to figure out how to preserve the experience without ending up a newsfeed, which is the direction we saw other solutions moving. We felt we wanted to take the issue and preserve it in a linear stream.”

Woodwing offers its own alternative with Inception, its digital content production tool for publishing article-based HTML5 content. Instead of creating a static publication that a reader only needs to visit once, Inception enables a publisher to create an app that is constantly updated and developed with responsive design for all devices.

“Just as how social media has transformed the Web by making every article a landing page, publishers need to realize every article is a cover story,” said Woodwing CEO Roel-Jan Mouw. “Digital magazines will never be the same anymore, those who will succeed will be those who master the techniques (and tools) and having the best understanding of the different digital medium. Digital content is critical for any publisher, not per se for paid subscriptions, but for sure to drive digital ad revenues and ongoing connection to the media brands tribe.”

Time will tell if either of these formats gain enough traction to redefine digital magazines but with the proliferation of content consumption on smartphones versus tablets, the theory behind both concepts make sense.

2. Magazine Apps Enhance the Print Experience

Cities West Publishing in Scottsdale, Arizona was an early adopter of producing digital magazine apps with the Adobe Digital Publishing Software. In 2016, the company expanded its app offerings to go beyond interactive versions of its two monthly print publications and now also includes apps that supplement multimedia editorial and sales campaigns for two of its special issues.

One example is an app it released in January, to go with the debut of Phoenix Home & Garden‘s Top Design Sources issue. The magazine features more than 1,200 listings of design experts, shops, and services, which were reformatted in an app for Apple and Android mobile devices. The TDS app was developed in house with its own unique functionality instead of replicating the magazine format. In addition to acting as a mobile resource guide for those who downloaded the app, it also drove business with its enhanced interactive listings for partners who received this added value item if they purchased a print ad. The results were strong, so its brother publication, PHOENIX magazine, replicated the model in July by releasing an app to coincide with its annual Travel Guide issue.

“The mobile apps provide many benefits including the branding opportunity for the publication, extended shelf life for the concept beyond its newsstand presence, and the multiplatform campaign we can offer to our print partners,” said group publisher Susan Karis. “Looking forward, I see a number of other applications for this template that we can potentially apply to many of our other products.”

3. Cultivating Digital Expertise

As digital has taken on a greater role in publishers’ business models, the need for support staff has also taken on greater importance. In some cases, city publishers are hiring people dedicated to its digital efforts, with few matching the commitment by Today Media, Inc., which is the parent company of four Northeast city/regional magazines including Hudson Valley magazine.

Director of new media Mike Martinelli was its first digital hire in 2006. Since then, the company has added a director of digital strategy, a digital managing editor, and four years ago added its first dedicated digital account executive for Westchester magazine. That hire went so well, the other three magazines in the family also hired a dedicated digital account executive. The sales rep for Hudson Valley magazine exploded in her second year, booking $250K in revenue in 2015. The digital account executive in Westchester is doing even better and in 2016 could book as much as $400K.

One key to their success is an infrastructure that has established digital sales goals and a system that rewards them for reaching and surpassing those goals.

“We were noticing across the board that there was a reluctance to pitch digital when there was a lot of comfort in pitching print,” Martinelli said. “You can’t have it set up where they are only rewarded if they crush print. The demand for digital has increased and our reps have seen that and know they have to pitch it.”

Another important reason Today Media has added to its digital staff is they’re also selling programmatic advertising. That is going so well the company is planning to add a second dedicated digital sales rep to all four of its city titles.

“By selling targeted display advertising, we are able to sell beyond the limitations of the traffic our sites can generate,” Martinelli said. “We have good traffic numbers, it’s just you only have so many impressions, sponsored content, or directory listings you can sell. We needed the ability to sell into programmatic, which is the only reason we can even consider adding the second reps.”

This year Today Media will also focus on adding more digital employees on the operational side, including the production department and digital-only editors. Martinelli sees digital as the largest area for growth in publishing.

4. Subscription Efforts Go Digital

Subscriptions are the lifeblood of a magazine so it’s not surprising another emerging trend in digital publishing is the use of digital tools in audience development. D Magazine is setting the pace in this area and is seeing great returns by leveraging its combined database through its digital assets.

D Magazine has developed a sophisticated and efficient outreach strategy, through largely automated and personalized email campaigns and targeted social media advertising to audiences that look like their current subscriber base. As a result, the Dallas-based magazine has seen a large increase in new and renewed subscriptions.

“Almost everything we are doing on the audience development side is either to replace or supplement older acquisition efforts,” said audience development director Melissa Chowning. “In the past, we relied more on direct mail or insert cards, which are solid sources but very expensive. Now we’re using email and digital marketing to generate subscriptions for the print product. As a result, between 2012 and 2016, we’ve seen an almost 100% increase in subscriptions we generate each month with our digital efforts.”

Looking Ahead

Other trends to watch for 2017 are an increase in demand for sponsored content, more wifi-enabled cars to simplify mobile content consumption, joint social media marketing campaigns between magazines and its advertising partners, continued stabilization and even growth in print revenue which will fuel digital opportunities and hiring in-house staff dedicated to social media and other digital properties.

“For most print products if you aren’t realizing the change in landscape that digital is driving you’re going to find yourself extinct,” said Tom Fraley III, associate publisher of 405 Magazine. “I’d be surprised if anyone thinks they’ve totally maximized the digital opportunities that are out there.”

It’s been almost 12 years since digital publishing was first introduced and there was suddenly this “new push” to incorporate digital with print for readers and clients. Here we are, 12 years later, and we are still trying to figure digital publishing out. Technology is constantly changing, so how can we possibly keep up? Perhaps, the greater question is, will we ever catch up? In the meantime, as quickly as these changes are coming, publishers must adapt or risk being left behind.

Author: Ron Matejko

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