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The Benefits of Being a Multichannel Magazine

Posted on Wednesday, August 18, 2010 at 12:59 PM

A publishing concept that will allow your publication to thrive in this period of transition and well into the future.

By William Dunkerley

Is your publication print or digital? That's a question a lot of us hear these days. And typically our answer will be: "print," "digital," or "both."

Lately, it has become fashionable to be something other than just print. Print is old.

But, if you think about it, plain digital is old, too. The ways in which consumers are now receiving information are increasing almost exponentially. Something new is coming along all the time.

Starting with the traditional website, now there's also the digital publication. Some of those are in HTML format. Others come as PDFs or the page-flip variant. Some information is text with the usual photos and illustrations. Then there're videos, podcasts, and even databases. Not to forget blogs, RSS feeds, text messages, email blasts, and tweets.

Google recently announced "Google TV." It is a platform that will merge the Internet with conventional TV. With it, viewers could seamlessly go from watching, say, a CNN news story about a Mediterranean resort, to reading a Traveler magazine article about it, to zooming in on the satellite photo on Bing maps. All on a single household TV.

Things are diverging and converging at the same time!

With all that going on, why are we still print, digital, or both?

Discordant Channels

Actually, a growing number of publications are using a lot of channels today. But typically, each channel takes on an identity of its own to some extent.

Rarely do the channels appear to be part of a unified whole, however. Often it is difficult to figure out what the relationship is between the print product and the digital presence. Sometimes one channel appears to be competing with another. Seldom do the consumers have the impression that what they're getting from the publisher is a coordinated array of information, provided via the most convenient and effective channel.

There's little synergy going on here.

What should be done? The idea isn't that you just use all these various channels in some way. It is that you use them synergistically. It is that you use the channels in a way that gives the subscriber a sense that she is getting a unified product. It is that you use them in a way that takes best advantage of each channel to convey the kind of information that is best suited to it.

The Difference Between Brand and Channel

While commenting on Google TV, Broadcast Engineering magazine recently editorialized, "Today's viewers don't know or care whether the programs come from satellite, cable, over the air, Internet or by water pipe. What viewers want is to be able to easily find the desired content and then view it in a comfortable environment."

Today's publishers would do well to have a similar perspective regarding their readers. Yet, too many publishers tend to view themselves through the prism of the channel or channels that they favor. They think of themselves as basically print or basically digital.

A few years ago, I was a speaker at the World Congress of the World Association of Newspapers. There I heard some of my fellow speakers, publishers of many of the most well-respected newspapers in the world, proclaim steadfastly, "Make no mistake about it, we are in the print business."

Think of where the beverage Coca-Cola would be today if the company's 1950s-era leaders insisted, "We are in the glass bottle business."

Today, you can get the product in a can, a plastic bottle, or a paper or plastic cup. You can buy it in a supermarket, a convenience store, at a restaurant, or from a vending machine.

The brand is the contents. The container is like the channel.

Coca-Cola carries its brand to its consumers via various channels.

It also differentiates the identity of its brand from the container used to deliver it. There's no product called "Bottled Coke" or "Coke à la Can" or "Coke in a Cup." Regardless of where you buy the beverage or what kind of container it comes in, a Coke is still a Coke.

The brand is not wedded to the channel. In fact, it is independent of it.

Those newspaper publishers at the World Congress were confused over the difference between their branded information and the channel used to deliver it, the printed page. As a result, they have been leading their publications into greater and greater irrelevancy as reader preferences have evolved. And so have a lot of magazine publishers.

It's Time for a Change

The time has come to adopt a new paradigm for magazine publishing. The objective is to decouple the channel from the brand.

It is also time to begin employing the power of the range of channels now available to magazine publishers. Coca-Cola has benefited from being a multichannel brand. And so can you.

Change doesn't mean simply going over to digital. For many publications there is still strong role for print. A lot of talk has claimed that readers are abandoning print for online. Advertisers, too. But what they're abandoning is the inappropriate use of print when publishers try to keep it as the be-all of a publication.

At the same time, a lot of digital publications are missing a bet by not having a print component.

The new paradigm for a multichannel magazine washes away these channel-specific fixations.

If the name of your magazine is XYZ, let that be the name of your brand, not of a particular channel used by you. Let XYZ be the brand name for the sum total of the experience a reader gets when subscribing. Market that brand, that sum total experience -- not a particular channel, not a disparate assortment of channels. Market a synergistic and unified whole.

What Does a Multichannel Magazine Look Like?

The multichannel magazine is part print, part digital. It is the best of both worlds. But, its essence is not in the channels through which it is expressed. It is in the content. The multichannel magazine looks like its content.

Let's use a hypothetical magazine as an example. "Clown Magazine" serves an audience of professional and advocational clowns. Its typical contents includes:

--A cover (traditional format)
--Table of contents
--An editorial
--Photo stories featuring costumes and facial make-up
--Tutorial articles on tricks and routines
--Short features and news stories of interest to clowns
    (Topics include:)
     --Relevant regulatory and legislative issues
     --Laughter therapy
     --Getting respect as a clown
     --Clowns in Washington
     --Avocational clowning
     --Rent-a-clown business tips
     --Circus update
--Classifieds (help wanted and positions sought)
--Directory of products and services
--Display advertising

Here's how the contents make use of the various channels:

The tutorial articles are lengthy, and tedious to read on an electronic display. In addition, some illustrations and diagrams are large and intricate. They also do not lend themselves to viewing on a display. Therefore, the tutorial articles appear bi-monthly in print. The bi-monthly frequency is not problematic because the content is not time sensitive.

The photo stories involve large photos and often two-page spreads. Consistency in rendering color is important. The idiosyncratic color variations among electronic displays are unacceptable. As for spreads, only the page-flip digital format seems equipped to do them. And with most current technology, reading a page-flip publication is like reading small print with a magnifying glass -- not an attractive feature. As a result, the photo stories appear bi-monthly in print.

The cover appears as the home page of the digital destination (which appears weekly). It has a horizontal format to accommodate display formats. On the first week of every second month, when the issue includes a print component, the cover does double duty, appearing on both the digital and print components.

The table of contents is the first editorial matter to follow the cover. It lists all contents, print and digital.

The editorial is a blog, and accommodates reader comments.

The short features and news stories appear in the digital component. Design for all digital content is intended to accommodate viewing on iPhone/iPad-type mobile devices. Breaking news and high interest short features are the subject of tweets. Email blasts are used occasionally for particularly compelling items. Email is also used weekly to provide subscribers with a link to each new issue

Any editorial content is subject to podcast and video treatment, as warranted.

The archive contains not only the content of the digital component, but also PDFs of the print component.

The products and services database is a full, searchable editorial feature. It also appears in categorized form. Companies listed may purchase emphasis for their listings, and add links.

Display advertisements appear in both the print and digital components. Print ad placement follows typical industry practice. Digital advertisements are large compared to typical practice (banners), since the smaller sizes are relatively ineffectual. The classified advertisements appear in categorized form.

That's the Blueprint

As publishers, if we follow this plan, we will better serve our readers and advertisers. And, we will be more successful in this rapidly-evolving period when reader preferences are shifting quickly. The plan should be far from static, however. As technological innovation opens new doors, new channels, it will be important to embrace any that will be helpful.

If you believe you're already doing all this, you may be right. But maybe not. I recommend that you conduct a fairly exhaustive analysis to assess how integrated your brand really is. What do the readers believe? Do they think they are receiving the benefit of a synergistic, multichannel magazine?

Going from a fragmented or confined use of channels to become a truly multichannel magazine is a big step. It is one that involves a lot of change. It is a new paradigm. Change is usually uncomfortable, and frequently resisted. Keep in mind, though: during this period of rapid changes in reader preferences, a magazine that fails to adapt will make itself increasingly irrelevant. Don't do that!

William Dunkerley is publisher of STRAT and principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants.

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