In the realm of digital publishing, there are two kinds of players: those surviving and those thriving. So, writes James Chalmers, what sets the prosperous apart from those aboard sinking ships?
Just a few short years ago, magazine publishers were reaching for tablets with all the hope of shipwreck survivors spotting an Esky floating by.
For many, Apple’s then-revolutionary iPad promised to be the saviour of the magazine industry. Everyone knew readers were increasingly forsaking the printed page for glowing screens of all sizes; tablet apps for magazines, publishing folk hoped, would be the perfect vessel with which to transport the magazine reading experience into the digital realm.
Except it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Magazine apps continue to survive, and in some cases thrive, but the reality is their pulling power lacks the grunt to truly cut it in the digital age.
Take Wired, for instance. The US tech magazine has some of the most tech-savvy readers in the business and, as you would expect, has had a shiny tablet app version of its magazine for years, boasting more than 100,000 readers.
That figure sounds impressive until you consider that their old-fashioned dead-tree magazine has closer to 900,000 readers. And, most importantly, until you consider their website is pulling in about 30 million unique visitors a month.
The first hurdle
So, why are magazine apps lagging so far behind other mediums, particularly when many of them have had considerable amounts invested in them to combine the best aspects of magazine layout with digital interactivity?
In a word, access. Magazine apps are walled gardens in the endless park of the internet. That means two absolutely critical sources of traffic – social shares and search – ignore magazine app content, no matter how meticulously crafted, in favour of everything else happily skipping around the park.
A reader could be utterly in love with your content but, short of thrusting their iPad in front of their friend’s faces, that love won’t contribute to any more eyeballs for your product.
So if apps don’t work for magazine-style content, where does that leave you? Anyone who has pinched and zoomed their way through a PDF replica of a magazine knows that the solution does not lie there. But that’s not to say your precious magazine content has to be thrown online like it were a humble blog post or listicle.
These are the questions Mahlab asked itself when we were tasked with overhauling the digital communications presence of the National Insurance Brokers Association.
NIBA had a well-regarded website, which hosted daily news content as well as directing readers to a digital PDF replica of their international award-winning Insurance & Risk Professional (IRP) magazine.
However, the site’s design was dated and determinedly unfriendly towards mobile devices, so the decision was made to rebuild it from the ground up, giving us an ideal opportunity to do something more fitting with the magazine content. We could of course have simply just dropped the magazine content into the general mix of news content we published but the fact is most magazine content, with its longer articles and mix of breakouts and additional elements, is a poor fit for the cut-and-thrust of most news websites.
Having previously experimented with a tablet app version of IRP magazine and found that despite five-star reviews from users, it was more labour- and resource-intensive than could be justified given its reach, we decided upon a third solution.
Coming out the other side (reader in tow)
That solution is a magazine subsite designed to combine the best parts of online media (ie searchability, shareability, ease of access) with the virtues of magazines (such as being able to sit back and flick through a well-curated collection of long pieces, each broken up by interesting additional elements).
The IRP digital magazine site was designed to make reading a central part of the experience, with readers able to scroll immersively down to read the magazine content, clicking on expandable graphic and breakout elements on their way down, along with video and interactive features. The emphasis is firmly on readability, with the reading experience as seamless as possible regardless of the device being used.
And at all times, reading the next article in the magazine is as simple as clicking on one of the navigational arrows sitting on the margin of each page.
And, of course, each article is search engine optimised, and festooned with social media share buttons.
In this way, readers can get the best of both the digital and the print worlds, with an unencumbered reading experience that still utilises engaging digital features. Too many magazine apps require readers to learn a new navigational language to get around – tap this corner, scroll here, swipe there – that it is easy to lose sight of the point, which is of course reading.
Since its launch, the number of NIBA members accessing the digital magazine online has increased by more than 300%, compared to the old PDF replica version.
In time, this could very easily lead to fewer physical copies needing to be printed, saving costs while still expanding engagement among the association’s membership.
Tablets will indeed be part of the future of magazines but for a magazine to thrive digitally, forget apps and focus on delivering the magazine reading experience in the modern online environment, which is multi-platform, socially driven and ruled by Google.