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You May Be in the Wrong Business

Posted on Sunday, August 31, 2014 at 12:17 AM

Are you in the magazine business, the publishing business, or the content business?

By William Dunkerley

Recently I saw a former associate at a conference. We hadn't seen each other in decades. When the conversation came around to magazine publishing, he snickered and said, "That's a dying field."

My instant retort was that it depends upon how you define the term magazine.

He was thinking of print. I had a broader definition in mind, one that includes digital.

The Current State of the Industry

It's obvious to consumers that some print magazines have disappeared. Others have gotten thinner. That leads to the impression that magazines are on their way out.

At the same time, many new publications are popping up online. There's quite a variance in their quality, both in terms of appearance and editorial content. Nonetheless, given an inclusive definition, the magazine field is burgeoning, not dying.

But that doesn't mean that everything is rosy for magazine publishers. In many instances, they are faced with the bulk of their revenues still being tied to print. And generally print revenues are on the decline.

What's worse is that, for many publishers, rebirth into the digital world has not be financially successful. They see only incremental revenue from digital.

Something's wrong here, but what is it?

What's Going Wrong

The tablet computer was initially viewed as the platform of the future for reading magazines. But that hasn't panned out. The tablet had an advantage: that you could easily convert a print publication for reading on a tablet. It made sense to a lot of us publishers, but it didn't seem of interest to a lot of consumers.

And perhaps that's the crux of the problem. Instead of being perceptive to emergent consumer interests, trends, and preferences, we're engineering our adaptation to digital all on our own. Well, actually, it's not all on our own. We're joined by the purveyors of the always changing digital devices and software, who lead us to believe that their latest innovation is just what we need. (The tablet was one of those.) In most of the surveys I've seen on how people use tablets, reading magazines isn't even significant enough to rate a statistic.

Another thing that has propelled many print publishers toward digital is a search to replace revenue lost when their print sales softened. That search doesn't usually pan out either. From what I've seen, most of those publishers are suffering weak print ad sales because of undiscovered flaws inherent in how they operate their print business.

We need to make a paradigm shift in how we perceive ourselves and how we address consumer needs. Consumer needs for information (or entertainment, if that's what your content is about) are changing dramatically. The very role of a magazine, whether it be in print or digital -- intended to be read on a desktop, tablet, or smartphone, or by holding paper in hand -- is now very different.

The Changing Concept of a Magazine

A magazine by definition and by tradition is a selection of content for readers that is made by editors and served to the consumers on a periodic basis. At one time, that was the best kind of service that consumers could get.

Now some things are demanded and consumed moment by moment. The specific information that is consumed is more and more at the selection and discretion of the consumer, rather than the work of an editor.

Here are a few more things to ponder. A comScore report shows that mobile devices overtook desktops last year, in terms of how users are spending their time. In March 2013 it was 53 percent desktop, 47 percent mobile. By June 2014 it became 60 percent mobile and 40 percent desktop. The difference came from growth in time spent on mobile devices. In other words, the amount of actual time spent on desktops stayed about the same, but time-on-mobile grew considerably. And most of the mobile growth came from increased use of apps. Growth in mobile Web use was far less dramatic.

Consumer App Trends

What kind of apps are consumers using? According to comScore, here's the rundown:

"The ranking of top apps is dominated by app constellations of some of the largest digital media brands; specifically, Facebook, Google, Apple, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay. These six brands account for 9 of the top 10 most used apps, 16 of the top 25, and 24 of the top 50.

"Facebook is the number 1 app in both audience size and share of time spent among each of the different demographic segments broken out, highlighting the breadth and depth of its popularity and importance to the mobile media landscape.

"Across all age segments, the most time is spent on leisure-oriented apps in the 'social networking,' 'entertainment,' and 'messaging' categories. The younger the age segment the higher the concentration of this activity, while older age segments also allocate their time to more functional apps, such as 'mail' and 'maps,' in addition to 'games.'"

So where does all this leave us? If we continue to conceptualize ourselves as producers of magazines, we appear to have limited options. We may be in the wrong business for this juncture in time.

On the other hand, if we can see ourselves as content providers who are not limited to the magazine format, print, digital, or otherwise, we can open our horizons.

If we do that, what does it mean concretely? Where will it lead?

To be continued...

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

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