Digital content an “untapped opportunity” for publishers

clever boxer ()

Clever Boxer is a publishing consultancy business, covering content strategy across print, digital and live events. Alan Rutter is a journalist, digital consultant, product owner and trainer. Simone Baird is currently working as a consultant with the Time Out Group, Frieze and The Idler.

Can you tell us a little about the events you run?

AR: The events we hold are usually an hour long, and we have done a real range from ‘How to write like a pro’ to ‘Book keeping and cash flow for absolute beginners’. We are getting great feedback!

How important are live events for the publishing industry?

SB: Live events need to be seen as live editorial. They are features just done on a live platform. Brands need to look away from social media and digital and look to the live experience. The engagement is so much richer, more exciting and the response is fantastic. Although social media is great for what it does, it isn’t the end of all things. People feel responsible for up-skilling, and live events can provide this. 

Which digital magazines do you read?

AR: To be honest, I don’t read a lot of digital magazines but I read content all the time. There is an ease of use thing that I just don’t get from many digital magazines, even though I am consuming magazine content. I use Pocket app on my phone. So I read things like Quartz, News Republic, GQ, California Sunday, Mother Jones and if I come across a long-form piece that I want to read, I click the pocket icon and it goes into a bank of offline articles, which syncs automatically to my phone. I feel guilty that they are not getting any traffic from this, but this is easy for me to do. People do want to download individual articles, and not an entire issue of something. 

So, how do you feel about micropayments?

AR: I’m dubious about micropayments and about the Netflix model for magazines. Even though previously, I have said people want individual articles. I think the Netflix model works well from a users point of view, because people pay a small amount every month and then they forget about it. Micropayments is almost more of a hassle, not so much because of the amount of money but because of the transaction cost. I have to think about paying for it many times, which becomes difficult. The Netflix model works for whoever is the Netflix in that arrangement, but how does it work for the publishers? I honestly don’t know what the solution is, but I know that there are lots of different people looking at it and I would love to be able to work out how to bridge that disconnection between users wanting easy ways to access content and publishers getting paid for it.

digital mags ()

Are digital magazines still an opportunity for publishers? If so, why?

AR: Yes. Well – digital content is still an opportunity for publishers. It’s an untapped one. I think that getting away from the idea of putting the magazine onto the iPad, to what do people want from us in the digital space, given the brand and audience. That’s what people should be thinking about! As CleverBoxer, we think that applies to digital and live events and ways of communication with the audience. You look at how many live events WIRED are doing, it’s kind of perverse that as a digital focus brand, a lot of what they are doing and making money from is print and face to face contact at conferences and other events. They have thought about the 360°.

What do you think publishers should be doing in order to attract younger audiences to their brands?

AR: The only thing you can do is produce content that is relevant to that audience. Having worked in technology for so many years, technology is boring! It is what people do with it that becomes interesting. The clichés about the younger audience being more fickle and less brand loyal is applicable to everyone. It’s probably a good thing that people graze more broadly. Some people do just go into an echo chamber, where they only look at publications they are most interested in, but a lot of people do read a lot of different stuff, it’s just how they are going to be made to pay for it that is the tricky part. It is disturbing, when I talk with journalism students and I ask how many people want to work for a print publication, in comparison to those that buy a print publication. Obviously, a lot more want to work for them, than buy them. So unless everyone is going to go free, (and I don’t think there is any more room at the tube stops to hand out free magazines), there needs to be a way to make it sustainable.  

Can you expand on your views on free circulation

AR: I don’t think there is any more room. I think it will be interesting to see which ones survive, considering how crowded the marketplace is. What used to be a battle for space in [retailer] WHSmith is now people handing magazines outside Oxford Circus tube in London. I think it works better for some magazines than others. In many ways, it was more obvious for Time Out to do it than anyone else because they have a geographically-centered audience, who are commuters. It will be interesting to see how NME does, where arguably a promotion of their readers who don’t commute. Some will survive, other won’t. Some will thrive, others won’t. There are other types of free, take airlines magazines, which comes back to the fact, everyone is a publisher, everyone is producing some kind of content. 

How do digital editions enhance the magazine reading experience, as opposed to reading content in a browser?

AR: I’m out of sync with most people on video, particularly on phones, but also on tablets in that I don’t particularly like it. Especially, when it isn’t invited and video launches in the middle of a reading experience. I think in this case, it is interesting to see how WIRED developed over time, certainly, the very first issue was throwing everything into it – it made noises, it had video and loads of other stuff, and gradually it has been stripped back. It is slickness that I look for, rather than lots of whizzy graphics. Yet, it is being blurred, for example Bloomberg Businessweek’s ‘What is code?’, with graphics, but does not get in the way of the reading experience.  

Do you think weekly/monthly digital magazine editions work? If not, what needs to change? 

AR: I am quite intrigued by the idea of weekly as a rhythm and as a counter point to the constant bombardment from digital content. 

Monthly doesn’t work for me – there is nothing digital that you get monthly, but it still works with print. If you can amp-up the feeling of receiving a present, as it drops through your door, nicely packaged etc. A good example of print is Delayed Gratification – a quarterly news review, which is beautifully made, and lots of time is spent on journalism and infographics. 

Some budgets for digital projects are being compromised, possibly due to lack of ROI. How can publishers continue to innovate in this space with financial restraints imposed?

AR: I always argue that constraints are good. Some of the earlier digital magazines suffered by not having enough constraints on them, creating products that would never be sustainable. It’s a harsh truth that people hoped that the iPad would come along and offset the decline in print, circulation or advertising revenue. It didn’t – so everyone lost faith. It shouldn’t be how to put a magazine onto the iPad, it should be ‘what is our content and platform strategy?’ It’s also important to note – you don’t want to automate everything. Nobody likes receiving the same message on multiple platforms.

Anything else you’d like to add?

AR: Everyone has got very cautious. Nobody wants to sink a load of money into a project that’s not going to go anywhere. Everyone knows if you don’t keep innovating, you’re going to die or at least your revenue stream is going to be taken by someone else. The encroachment of people who aren’t publishers into the magazine space is a worry. 

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