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How Magazine Publishers Can Transform Themselves into Digital Giants

2009 September 9

Magazine Publishers’ digital efforts, to put it euphemistically, have been less than stellar.  It’s a surprising and disheartening state of affairs because magazine publishers have valuable skills sets that should position them for digital greatness.  What’s required isn’t so much a change in product, but a change in organizational culture.

While there is a lot of handwringing about the “Great Digital Threat,” as well as endless conference presentations, consultants hired and strategies developed, there has been amazingly little progress and, in some cases, serious missteps.  At one point, even web guru Chris Andersen’s magazine “Wired” had sold its digital rights to a 3rd party.

Perhaps what is most discouraging is the failure to capitalize on important assets that magazine publishers possess due to an inability to break old organizational habits.

The Digital Assets of Magazine Publishers

The Printed Word: While web video has gained ground, the internet is still mostly a text medium.  Moreover, Internet is a medium that people largely consume at work; so text is likely to remain important.

Nobody understands the printed word better than Magazine Publishers and they have years of archived content that is easily digitized and can be adapted for the web.  (See: How Magazine Writers Can Adapt to the Internet)

Niche Audiences: Magazines have long been a fragmented medium and magazine publishers know how to engage, market to and sell niche audiences.  Editors know how to speak to their specific audience, promotional people can find them and get them excited about the product and ad sales teams understand how to explain their value to coveted clients.

Interactivity: From letters to the Editor to write-in contests, magazines have long been interactive.  Good editors understand the need to listen to their audience and to respond to them.  Many magazines have also made a good business out of successful events and conferences.  Creative, versatile thinking is not the problem, for many publishers it’s what they do best.

These are all important digital skills and publishers have them in spades.  However, in other areas, drastic organizational, philosophical and cultural adjustments need to be made.

Mandatory Changes in Culture and Process are Required

Top-Down Management: Editing, by necessity, is a top-down process.  Writers need to be independent and creative while it is an editor’s job to rein them in.  Moreover, the business and creative side of the publishing business is deliberately kept separate through the time honored tradition of a “Chinese Wall.”

In most publishing companies, business objectives tend to be the domain of senior management exclusively and there is very little day-to-day alignment of business and product strategy.  While there are good reasons for these practices in publishing, they amount to digital suicide. (See Building Effective Web Product Strategy)

The Perfect Page: A lot of time, effort and expense go into creating a magazine page.  There are a limited amount of them in each issue, so editors want to make each one count.  Furthermore, a magazine’s “environment” is very important to advertisers (especially for monthlies) so it is of paramount importance that the product looks its best.

Beyond individual pages, Magazine editors spend a lot of time and effort on how everything works together.  They spend hours agonizing over the “wall” to find the perfect place for each article, page and ad.  Only a maniac would run around shuffling the pages back and forth.

In 1980, that maniac came in the form of Tim Berners-Lee who thought that every document should be able to link to other documents in any order.  He created hypertext protocols to enable the process (i.e. HTTP, HTML and URL) and created the World Wide Web. The Gutenberg Galaxy of linearity was shattered forever.

On the internet, there is an unlimited amount of space and no clear order in which pages are viewed.  There is no “pacing” or “flow.”  Design and editorial standards need to adapt and brands need to include content that is less than perfect, especially user generated content.

Usability: Principally, web pages need to be engineered for usability as much as for design.  While an original, innovative design in print is worth the effort, violating web conventions just confuses consumers and lessens their ability to use and enjoy the site.  Magazine publishers need to learn to work within templates, get users involved in creating content and stop valuing form over function.

Information Pacing and Flow: While a magazine is a closed system, digital content is about relationships between information.  A magazine is designed to be read front to back.  One is supposed to be able to judge it by its cover (and editors are supposed to agonize over cover lines).

However, on the internet many (and sometimes most) users never see the home page.  They get to content from search engines, links from other sites, etc.  So what an article links to (and what links to it) can be more important than the information it actually contains.  Background and reference information can be linked into, rather than included within the text.

Inventory Management:  Magazine page counts may be fixed for each issue, but they can be expanded or contracted according to advertising demand relatively easily.  Additionally, except for a limited amount of premium positions, ad pages pretty much all cost the same.

Although there has been some research done and there are lots of opinions and theories, the truth is that nobody really knows who reads what in a magazine.  As a result, magazine publishers don’t have a lot of experience or expertise in inventory management (although it is extremely important in broadcast, where it can mean the difference between a profit and a loss).

In Digital, similar to other electronic media, inventory management is paramount if revenue is to be maximized.  Some places (like homepages) tend to have high ad demand, while others (like pages that contain a lot of user generated content) have much less demand and get lower ad rates.  It is important to have both kinds of inventory.  (This is one reason why social networks struggle with profitability. See 2 reasons most social networks aren’t successful and 3 things you can do about it.)

It is possible to create large inventories of “low demand” pages and advertisers are happy to buy this inventory if the ad rates are low enough to improve overall campaign performance.   However, the “perfect page” mentality has to be dropped in order to do so.

The Way Forward

If magazine publishers are going to maximize digital revenues, they are going to have to learn how to work with packages such as RON (Run Of Network), ROS (Run Of Site), Channels (thematic cross-product packages), CPA (Cost Per Action), etc. They also will need to price and position their offer effectively (and eventually learn to use more sophisticated strategies such as e-commerce and Freemium).

They are also going to have to learn to lower production standards so that more inventories can be created.  Magazine publishers are also going to have to learn how to build “leaky Chinese Walls” that can align business and creative objectives without sacrificing credibility or editorial independence.  Most of all, they are going to have to overcome age old internal conflicts and suspicions between departments and functions in order to get everybody working together.

The transformation to digital excellence won’t require alchemy.  However, it will require greater awareness of the issues and some good faith efforts to solve them.


20 Responses leave one →
  1. vitaly sych permalink
    September 9, 2009

    it looks like you are quite smart.

    so should the print and web teams of the magazine be one or separate editorials?

  2. September 9, 2009


    It depends. For instance, a leading news magazine in Ukraine would probably want to have their Chief Editor do everything, because he is so smart. Of course, then he wouldn’t have much time to spend drinking whiskey with his american friends.

    So there a some trade-offs…

    – Greg

  3. vitaly sych permalink
    September 9, 2009


    Greg, your reply pretty much means that the two editorials should be separate. Otherwise, the cost would be unbearable – not being able to drink free expensive whiskey with my American friend. And – always – crossing out the day after the “digital discussion”.

  4. September 9, 2009


    No, I actually think they need to be integrated. One brand – one promise, even if the executions differ. Consumers don’t care what the organizational structure is.

    – Greg

  5. September 14, 2009

    Thanks for the different advertising model tips at the end.

    Though I’m not involved with magazine publishing, I’ve been struggling to figure out what would work best for my upcoming site. I’m looking forward to looking into those further!

  6. September 14, 2009


    Good luck!

    – Greg

  7. September 23, 2009

    Will digital magazines ever completely replace print?
    Kristie Melendez, CEO & Publisher of EasyChairMedia, would like your opinion. You can read her blog on this topic at (Smart Marketing)
    We have both currently and are working to build readership online, using the print version and PPCs to drive traffic there.

  8. September 23, 2009


    I have no idea. Never is a long time.

    However, one thing is clear: it won’t happen anytime soon. Magazines market share has actually increased over the last decade.

    – Greg

  9. September 23, 2009

    Greg: You are right on with your thinking. I believe there is a lot more to creating successful digital than just a conversion of the pages and you point it out quite well with your article what it will take to make this transformation a successful one in the years to come.

  10. September 23, 2009

    Good luck!

    A few extra points:

    1. Most likely, your online and offline audience will overlap less than 50%
    2. Make a clear distinction between brand values and brand execution. The brand values should be the same in Digital and in Print, but the execution should be different, sometimes drastically.
    3. Cross media promotions work very well. Suer uploads, contests etc can make great editorial content and increase audience and engagement both places. The same idea works for the revenue side. You can combine image ads in Print with the direct marketing capabilities of the internet.

    – Greg

  11. October 13, 2009


    Very good article. One question. Do you see multi-channel marketing coming into play more significantly in print by coupling digital ads (eg SMS adverstising) embedded as an extension of print in order to drive increased interaction and enagement with readers?

    John R

  12. October 13, 2009


    Absolutely. We had great success with Sudoko and SMS. I think the possibilities will only increase with augmented reality. You readers can interact with 3D images through mobile phone cameras.

    – Greg

  13. October 16, 2009

    Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  14. October 16, 2009


    Sure. Go ahead:-))

    – Гриша

  15. M.K. Carlson permalink
    October 20, 2009

    You’ve got it right , but they won;t do it. New ownership is the key.

  16. October 20, 2009

    M.K. Carlson,

    I wouldn’t be so sure. There are a lot of very talented Publishers.

    – Greg

  17. November 19, 2009

    The established print media will always resist moving into digital whilst they can get far greater advertising rates from print ad pages. Digital ad rates are pennies on the dollar compared to print.

    As Clayton Christenson proposed in Disruptive Innovation the established companies have far too much to lose to change entirely to digital, but new, sleeker start up company’s will have great success..

    I’m in print Media and digital is an essential part of what we do but we won’t be giving up print anytime soon….


  18. November 19, 2009


    Your point is well taken. Magazines have help up very well since the internet emerged. In fact, magazine market share has actually gone up in the US since 1996. So there is no reason to believe that the magazine model won’t be viable for years to come.

    However, there are great prospects for publishers in digital media and very low opportunity costs. Moreover, usually less than half of the digital audience is duplicated with the print version, so a strong digital effort can reinforce the print products market position.

    – Greg

  19. June 4, 2010

    Here, here! The great office divide — populated by a chasm about the size of france with a dragon at the bottom — between editorial and technology is the cause of so much politicking in media clients I’ve worked with. And that is the point — consumers don’t care — only the results matter. So build one team, eh?
    .-= Jonathan Lambert´s last blog ..Develpers vs. Engineers: Technology vs. Solutions =-.

  20. June 4, 2010


    At some point, the “chinese wall” ceased to be a business practice and became a rallying cry.

    It’s a shame.

    Thanks for your comment and have a great weekend.

    – Greg

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