By: Esther Kezia Harding
The Digital Magazine Awards have been going strong for six years, and the conference preceding the awards has been a place where the industry rebels and enthusiasts have gathered to discuss the issues facing the industry.
This year’s ‘Future of Magazine Media’ conference was no exception, featuring an eclectic mix of speakers and topics which brought a refreshing, behind-the-scenes honesty to many of the talks.
Although there are closures, cuts and general decline reported in magazine media every week, the very existence of the DMAs is testament to the success stories which still come out all around the world.
Colin Morrison, founder of the Flashes and Flames blog, opened the conference by putting the declining influence of print magazines themselves firmly in context.
“You would only have to go back ten years to find people who got most of their information from a print source,” Morrison explained. “Now, although print is a significant part of the media, it simply isn’t the single driver it used to be.”
The future may be bright, but it’s not ad-funded
Many of the speakers agreed that at a fundamental level, the advert-funded model is broken and cannot be relied on as a sustainable revenue source.
“The stronger businesses are those who are clear about exactly how they are funded and what they offer their readers,” Morrison asserted. He argued that while there are always exceptions, those that are doing well are those which have paying readers which they can put time and energy into serving properly. “When it comes to digital, you can give readers exactly what they want”
Rebekah Billingsley from John Brown Media was also sceptical about the future of the ad-funded model online, but was more positive about its place in print. “We all saw programmatic coming, and dropped our sense of quality and dignity,” she said.
“The whole premise of programmatic advertising is that it’s based on what you already know about what that consumer’s been searching for. The magic of magazines, and advertising in them is that they show you what you didn’t know you wanted before. That’s where the value lies for advertisers.”
“Magazine companies should have more confidence in the quality of their audience who have paid to pick up that issue, and need to communicate the value of that audience to advertisers.”
A clear value proposition
Magazines that survive long into the future – both in print and digital forms – are those which have something special. Morrison explained that this is the reason many ‘generic’ consumer magazines are struggling.
“People are more acute than ever about sniffing out cloned content. Magazine content needs increasingly to be valuable and exclusive: what do you have that no one else does?”
Given that we've seen titles like InStyle going digital-only - dressed up as being forward-thinking strategic moves into a bold new world rather than a transition that's been forced upon them - and numerous complete closures of magazine titles, it's more apparent than ever that magazines need to loudly trumpet their unique proposition. We frequently argue that it's magazines whose content is easily replicable online that will fare the worst over the next couple of years - and Morrison's speech backed that up.
Partnerships are the future
Morrison offered some hope for the magazine sector, and said that increasingly, collaboration between publishers, technology companies and brands were producing some impressive results.
“Most of the successful and significant developments in magazine media over the next few years will be through partnerships,” he said, concluding that “Digital is global – if you do a good job, people will find you!”
However, media consultant Nial Ferguson, who for many years worked as managing director at Future, was candid about the challenges he faced during his tenure at the company, particularly when it came to navigating the huge amount of partnerships available, all of whom have vested interests in working with publishers:
"I think there's so much noise in the system.... and thousands of ad-tech, data services, revenue support companies in between each, ready and rearing to show you how they can make your job easier."
To track, or not to track?
There were a number of opposing view on the role of data. The Economist’s Steve Lok expanded on their in-depth data strategy, and why they reduced the number of billboards and physical adverts they put out.
“Billboards aren’t trackable. Everything The Economist now puts money against is trackable – we can measure how we perform against KPI’s. We had to challenge a lot of our own thinking and what we thought we knew to get to this stage.”
However, Billingsley had an opposing view, citing recipes from the Waitrose magazine. “17 percent of Waitrose readers – of which there are about 15,000 – will bookmark a sponsored recipe from the magazine. They will then cook that over and over again. We simply can’t track that, but we know that it’s added value for the sponsor”.
Ferguson was more positive, arguing that if publishers can replicate the focus other industries have on user data, they could achieve great things:
"I was at a recent conference session where the performance director of British cycling talked about how they used data to make sure Jason Kenny could go round the track faster than anyone else. That was a singular focus.
"I can only imagine how good a media product would be if they applied that basic principle to the whole system. I think Vox Media are doing something very public about it; they've detailed how they're building the core CMS and advertising platforms, and they're obsessively focused on how they can publish content better."
Platforms – friends or foes?
Unsurprisingly, there were some intense debates about the role of platforms in publishing in a conversation which has dominated the industry narrative for the past few years.
Liam Keating, who has recently left Condé Nast, doesn’t see platforms as a threat and argues that publishers are refusing to see the change in the tide.
“Perhaps we’re not having the most effective dialogue we could be with the platform providers, but we’re still making them work for us,” he explained. “We put two articles a day from Wired on Apple News, and we get tens of thousands of views a day. Quite simply, that’s where the readership is, and we have to accept that.”
Keating admitted that there’s a degree of reticence about innovating on these platforms. “Too many mistakes have been made, and everyone’s afraid to make the next one”.
Words of warning
However, there were also warnings given at the conference to those who fail to innovate.
“Magazines need to learn the lessons of newspapers,” Colin Morrison said in his talk. “They can’t presume to shape habits. The audience are the only ones who get to define that.”
Billingsley highlighted some of the pitfalls with rushing to ecommerce as a revenue stream. “Retail is a very different business to magazines. Many non-magazine businesses with much less at stake have failed in retail."
Keating said that lessons Conde learned at the beginning of the iPad revolution still apply now. “We took the approach of just throwing money at gimmicks, without really stopping to think what the audience wanted from the digital experience,” he confessed.
“It took us four years to figure out that actually, they simply wanted to read the content”.
Appropriately, the conference was followed by the Digital Magazine Awards. Our news editor Chris Sutcliffe gave the keynote speech, in which he said it heartening to see that the spirit of innovation among magazine publishers has not been dulled by the pressures they face. Instead, he noted, it will be those publishers who double down on innovation and collaboration with partners who will thrive in the long-term.