On Reasons for not going Digital

We sometimes think that we have heard them all. The reasons for not having a digital edition of a magazine….

But we are still finding some surprising responses in the market. And I do not mean:

  • We will want to do a digital edition when we have sorted out our web site (I mean web sites are never, ever, in that sense ‘sorted out’).
  • We will want to look at this when our publisher is back from her maternity leave
  • …. when I have finished next year’s budget (a budget which should really have a digital revenues component in it, but will not)
  • …….. in three months when our mobile strategy team has reported on our options (as though it were not relevant to the mobile strategy team to take a look at a digital platform that runs smoothly on mobile devices)

Those are some of the none too convincing explanations for inaction that one hears when talking to publishers. But there are some more powerful reasons that occur to our publishing partners. Sometimes my sales patter gets stopped in its tracks.

  • A few years ago, I was trying to persuade the gardening magazine Hortus that they should have a digital edition and that we could easily show them what it would be like if they supplied us with a PDF file. “A what file?” came the response, and it soon dawned on me that Hortus is one of the few magazines that is still entirely printed by hot metal and it would not be a trivially easy matter to spin out a PDF file from their production process. This is the only time that in talking to literally hundreds of magazine publishers that I have encountered a production system which completely eschews the digital. Mind you Hortus is a wonderful quarterly magazine even if somewhat exclusive and I STILL think that a digital edition of it would do rather well. In fact I would really die for an iPhone App for it, but that is another matter, and I am prepared to accept that Hortus does not need to be digital.
  • A couple of months ago, the publisher at another up-market, high-style, magazine which shall be nameless (but not for gardeners) told me that his magazine had such wonderful production values in print that they really did not want to tarnish the brand with a digital offering. I am not sure that he used the word ‘sully’, but he got pretty close. Like the Hortus guy, this chap had me non-plussed on the other end of the phone. Spluttering. How could one persuade him, if he was not willing to undertake a free trial, that this beautiful magazine would for absolutely sure look even more stunning in a digital format? For if you have looked at high-fashion and high-design magazines on really good monitors (even on humble MacBooks) it is hard to deny that they look even better digitally than in print. Added to which, to put the matter at its bluntest: frankly there is a market out there and if you do not sell subscriptions to the 20 year olds and 30 year olds who want to read everything on their laptop and their mobile phone, the market for such magazines will surely shrink.
  • I was also spluttering yesterday when the circulation director at one of our biggest magazine publishers told me that he would not want to, would not be allowed to sell digital subscriptions to the magazine through the iPhone App store, because such subscriptions would not count towards the ABC circulation and subscription measures which are the bedrock of the advertising business on which the magazines depend. Since I know that the American parents of this publisher are desperate to build up subscription revenues and since I know that the advertising revenues of almost all the magazines in this stable have been collapsing, I found this reasoning less than stellar. This was a conversation about selling subscriptions to the iTunes audience, not about giving away RSS-style App feeds to the magazine content (which in fact the American parent does do for some of these big name magazines).

Mind you, I expect he is right and the last time I looked ABC does not allow Apple certified distribution figures to count in any way towards advertising-related circulation bases. But that really shows us what terrible shape the advertising business is in, and how sublimely irrelevant the ABC methodologies (and the same for BPA statistics) are to the businesses that they purport to serve. I would not put special blame on ABC or BPA for this, but we should be chucking bricks at the movers and shakers in the advertising business. Google and soon Apple will be eating their lunch precisely because the mainstream advertising agencies and publisher networks have not seen how fabulous digital distribution can be for advertisers provided that the technology for measurement and for targeted distribution can be transformed with digital tools. ABC should be ‘penalising’ magazines for not having measurable digital offerings, not discounting those that do….

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