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Publish Articles, Not Magazines?

Posted on Tuesday, September 30, 2014 at 2:33 PM

Are we off on the wrong foot in the digital world by pushing content in a format that was a product of the print era?

By William Dunkerley

In our last issue, we floated the question, "Are you in the magazine business, the publishing business, or the content business?" We also presented statistics showing mobile device usage overtaking desktop. What this means is that more and more people are accessing content on mobile devices, mostly on smartphones.

What specifically are they doing on their smartphones? In various studies conducted over the past few years (by Pew Research and ExactTarget.com, for instance) emailing and searching stand out above all the rest.

What about reading magazines? Even if you include tablets within the definition of "mobile," magazine reading usually doesn't even show up in the statistics. Not only are people not buying mobile devices to read magazines, but once they have the devices, they've got other uses for them.

The Allure of Tablets

At one time tablets seemed to be our best bet for connecting with digital readers. But the the idea of tablets as a platform for digital magazines, with all its allure, hasn't panned out. Nor has the magazine app.

John Lund, chair of the Danish Online News Association, opined, "Dedicated magazine apps for tablets may look good, but I fear they're headed straight to oblivion." Lund pointed out, "When a magazine is organized as an app rather than as a website, its articles can neither be indexed nor searched on the Web. And even if they could, clicking the link in Google at best takes readers to an app store, not to the article itself -- cutting the magazine out of the greatest traffic driver in today's world."

Burying Content in Apps

This means if your online content is in an app, it's less likely to be found by searchers. And what is one of the most active uses of online devices? Searching! So why are we hiding our content from those who are actively looking for it? It doesn't make a lot of sense.

If a mobile user wants to find out the price of tea in China, he's looking for a search result that will provide the answer. If the searcher's curiosity goes beyond a simple statistic, she'll perhaps want to read an article on the topic. But clearly the user is not looking for a magazine. What's desired is specific content accessible through a search.

But that simple principle does not seem to be the driving force behind the efforts of many of us in developing our digital publishing offerings. Instead, we're creating replica editions of print magazines and putting content into apps.

These certainly are not worthless activities. Replicas and apps have definite value for some applications. Replica editions are a great means of sending your print magazine content quickly to foreign subscribers. And apps can be a very convenient way of supplying specialized content to existing subscribers.

For broadening our audience base, however, or for penetrating more thoroughly a specific demographic, we need to pay more attention to the proclivities of our potential readers. A conclusion of the ExactTarget study is that "consumers use their mobile devices for connectivity and content. People are looking for improvements in how they consume and experience mobile content, but many mobile experiences are still lagging far behind."

Targeting Content for Searches

To me, this all adds up to a new need in the marketplace, one that we're not adequately serving as yet. It is the need for content that is targeted to search inquiries. That might be in the form of a concise answer, such as stating the price of tea in China. Or it might be an article-length elaboration on the topic. But, in any case, the need does not seem to be for a full-blown magazine.

This now harkens back to my opening question about what business are we in. It seems to me that if we continue to conceive of ourselves as being in the magazine or publishing business in the traditional sense, we'll be losing out on the audience growth opportunities that are now before us.

Do these growth opportunities include opportunity for revenue growth, too? Indeed, how can we monetize the providing of concise answers and one-shot articles? These are extremely important questions. We'll delve into them in a future issue.

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

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