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5 Keys to the Future of Magazines

2012 July 4

In the wake of the 2008 financial crash people were saying that magazines were doomed.  The story was that social media would allow amateurs to compete with professional journalists and that “big media” would die a death of a thousand cuts.

I argued at the time that the downturn looked very much like previous cycles and that there was no reason to believe that this time was any different.  As the economy improved, the magazine business would too. (It did).  So I’m certainly more optimistic about magazines than most.

However, both circulations and ad revenues are falling again and this time it is indeed different.  The decline has nothing to do with cycles and everything to do with tablets, which are becoming central to the new media value chain.  Although the challenges are not insurmountable, every publisher must adapt to survive.  Here’s what’s important.

1. Forget about Apps, Focus on HTML 5

When tablets first came on the scene, publishers immediately got excited about apps.  In their view, it was a way to finally get users to pay for content online.

I could never figure that out.  Magazine publishers lose a ton of money on print and distribution (as much as 90%), so “free” is actually a step up for them.  Why would they expect to be able to turn a loss leader into a profit center?  In reality, marketers are willing to pay more for consumers than consumers are willing to pay for content.

HTML5, on the other hand, will be a boon to online publications by offering a rich environment in which to display content, which is embedded into the fabric of the web. That means, among other things, great user experience and no search engine penalty.

The standard won’t be complete until 2014, but it’s already gaining traction.  34 of the top 100 websites already use it and it’s becoming fairly standard practice for developers to create apps in HTML5 first and then convert them to be compatible with Android and iOS. Windows 8 will be launched with full HTML5 compatibility.

If you don’t have a plan for HTML5, you don’t have a plan for the future.

2. Build a Video Capability

Probably the biggest opportunity for magazine publishers is video.  As the race to revolutionize TV heats up, you don’t need to be a TV station to compete for TV dollars anymore.  That’s a real game changer.  As this article shows, most of the major publishers have already launched YouTube channels.

Simply creating a channel isn’t enough though.  In order to pay off, people will have to actually like what’s on it.  That’s easier said than done.  Video is a completely different medium and a whole new way of telling a story.  Publishers will need to build a steep learning curve in order to compete.

The ones that do build a competency will have a wealth of possibilities.  Besides the obvious opportunities to access bigger ad budgets and promote talent, there is a burgeoning business in branded video content along the lines of what Alloy Digital has done.

3. Social Media

Ironically, although social media was supposed to kill professional publishers, they have in fact become a major source of traffic.  Why?  Because there’s more to writing than typing and people who devote their careers to creating content generally do a much better job at it than amateurs.

The growing importance of social media also has an ancillary benefit – better writing. SEO tactics make it easier for machines to read articles, but harder for people.  Success in social media, on the other hand, is more dependent on exciting headlines and content that people want to share.  In other words, good writing.

Still, social media marketing is a skill that needs to be honed.  Many publishers now are adapting by writing different headlines for different audiences.  What will work well on Facebook might not be suitable for Twitter and vice versa.  Pinterest, of course, opens up even more possibilities to benefit from a compelling visual experience.

So, overall, social media is generally a good thing for publishers.

4. Digital First

Make no mistake, Print is still where the money is and will be for some time.  Digital, however, is much faster paced and, in some ways, much more demanding.  Digital content needs to work on multiple platforms, each with their own opportunities and idiosyncrasies.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOm has written very intelligently about this issue and points out that both Forbes and Technology Review have had great success with a digital first approach.  The Atlantic is another publisher that seems to have benefitted from a very focused digital approach.

Ingram points out that adopting certain policies, like getting writers to focus on metrics and encouraging them to engage with audiences is crucial to success in the digital medium, but it goes beyond that.  Editors need to learn how to make competent decisions about video and interactive features.  Many still need to learn.

In other words, they will need to master new arts of storytelling and they will have to do it in a way that makes digital central to what they do.

5. Focus On What’s Important – The Audience

Magazine’s success never had anything to do with paper and everything to do with building connections with discrete audiences.  Magazine editors, then and now, know their readers intimately and know how to speak to them.  Great publishing has always been about more than content.  It’s about building that special bond.

Unfortunately, many publishers have taken one of two approaches:  Either they try to ignore the medium as much as they can or they go way too tech heavy and try every SEO and metadata gimmick in the book.  Both ignore what’s really important – the audience.

That’s what makes the digital opportunity so enormous for publishers; it enables them to do better what they have historically done best.  Where before there were crude tools like surveys and focus groups, now genuine interactions with consumers and real-time metrics augment editors’ intuition and passion.

Publishing, digital or otherwise, is fundamentally about building connections that inform, excite and inspire.

– Greg

11 Responses leave one →
  1. July 4, 2012


    Very, very impressive post.

    Digital world has created the New Audience that would like to be connected to media to be informed, excited and inspired. So the audience expects the new ways for content delivery, content selection and visualization and editor’s inspiration about new trends, brands and life style.


  2. July 4, 2012

    Spasibo Sergei!

    – Grisha

  3. July 5, 2012

    Thank you for a very cogent and “spot on” article. I believe that you’ve encapsulated the primary points quite well.
    Considering your international experience, do you see these points applying to both domestic & international publishers?
    Thank you for the info,

  4. July 5, 2012


    There are certainly some important differences. For one, in some markets print and distribution are profit generating (the relationship is roughly inverse to TV ad market share) and if you are running multi-country operations you have some compatibility issues that make things a bit more complicated, but in general, I think the same principles hold in most countries.

    – Greg

  5. July 5, 2012

    I understand completely and certainly appreciate your perspective.

  6. David T permalink
    July 5, 2012

    Greg –

    Great post. Your final point to “remember the audience” could be moved up to #1 (if you’re ranking.) WHY will the reader move to the digital platform? WHAT separates and/or enhances the digital from the print edition? There must be reasons for readers to come to the site and remain a “Faithful Reader” (as Stephen King has called his audience for years). Yes, you need to please the advertisers, but keep the audience in mind at all time.

    Thanks for your insights.

  7. July 5, 2012

    Thanks David (and no I wasn’t ranking).

    It does amaze me how often great magazines seem to forget everything they know about communication once they go online.

    – Greg

  8. October 15, 2012

    We should not forget the lesson from the past.
    Even if we got deezer and spotify, still there is people to by music on Vinyl’s
    I believe that the same way, paper based magazines will not totally disappear.
    It likely it will become an object of luxury.

  9. October 15, 2012

    You might very well be right.

    – Greg

  10. September 24, 2013

    I think those who want to survive have to choose to include on the new trends of the market is otherwise bankrupt.

  11. February 2, 2016

    Another great post. Points are well made. Even though there are digital transformation all around there will be certain audiences that will remain faithful. There are some collectors that treasures prints, however, due to the availability of the same information online, some tends to shift due to convenience.

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