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Growing Your Digital Audience

Posted on Sunday, September 29, 2013 at 5:25 PM

A reader's question: Is growing digital readership a solution for sagging print revenue?

By William Dunkerley

Q. I publish a print magazine. I guess you'd call it a special interest consumer publication. It's almost 20 years old. Five years ago we added a digital replica edition. I had hoped it would be a nice source of added revenue, but then, the Great Recession hit us. Our ad revenues dropped by 20 percent. We've regained some of that, but we're still uncomfortably low. Although we're getting some ad revenue from the digital edition, most of the money still comes from print. And we don't seem to be able to attract more print revenue. I'm thinking that growing our digital audience may be the solution. I'm always reading about how digital is the future of the publishing industry. What do you think? Is it a good idea to grow our digital audience? And if we do, will it attract stronger revenues to make up for the print shortfall?

A. The problem you face is not yours alone; it is industry-wide. A lot of publications are having trouble recovering from the hit they took during the recession a few years back. Many like you are looking for an alternative way to set things straight and get back on more secure financial footing.

Looking for a relatively simple solution, like growing your digital business, may not serve you well in the long run. That's because our industry is changing so dramatically and so rapidly. What may sound like a good solution today may become obsolete because of industry changes tomorrow.

But let's talk short term first. You may be utterly frustrated in your attempts to regain print ad revenue. That's probably what got you started seeking a digital solution. Some publishers, however, actually held their own with print revenue through the recession. A smaller number even experienced revenue gains. What can we make of that?

To a certain extent, this is tied to the industry or market in which each publication operates. Another factor is the publication's expertise in selling advertising space. Pre-recession, many publishers were satisfied with the performance of their ad sales teams. Salespeople were meeting revenue targets, so there were no problems.

Selling advertising during poor economic times requires a higher skill level, however. It could be that your staff's skill level, which was okay in earlier days, became inadequate when the recession hit.

In my consulting work, I have rarely found a publication whose sales team I couldn't help to improve revenues significantly. That was the case pre-recession and especially immediately following the start of the recession.

So a short-term strategy for any publisher is to increase the skill level of the sales team and to devise effective sales strategies that are appropriate for the current economic conditions. You probably have greater short-term potential for increasing revenues that way than by trying to increase digital revenues, which is no long-term solution.

In the long run, things are likely to be challenging. We are aiming at a moving target. Digital replica editions were hot items five years ago. Now for many they are passé. More and more advertisers are being tempted by mobile platforms and social media, which have moved to the forefront.

The iPad was touted as an exceptionally attractive platform for magazine publishing just a couple of years ago. Last month Advertising Age ran an article titled "Is the iPad Era Already Drawing to a Close?" The pace of change is rapid.

One of the things many advertisers have liked about digital advertising is the ability to use cookies for tracking. But the cookie technology may be changing, too. The current intense concerns over Internet privacy are calling into question the current practices regarding placing cookies and extracting information. Google is said to be developing a plan to replace cookies.

Although the recession has caused many publications to fail or downsize, the competitive picture has not weakened. More and more advertisers are turning to content marketing to improve their sales. In some cases, that means eliminating the middle man. That's us. If advertisers can go directly to their prospects with content that they produce, why would they need publications like ours?

In future issues we'll tackle these and other problems faced by our industry -- and will offer strategic advice for adapting to the changing landscape in profitable ways.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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