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Shape Your Brand to Fit Modern Technologies

Posted on Sunday, August 30, 2015 at 2:25 PM

Taking a multichannel approach to content delivery.

By William Dunkerley

Very few publishers are successfully reaping all the opportunities offered by modern digital technologies. The problem isn't that publishers don't know enough about digital or don't possess the right technological systems. Instead, the problem is how publishers conceive of themselves.

Outmoded influences from the past are still shaping publishers' self-images today. And they are holding us back, not only as individual publications, but as a whole industry. The principal constraints are business paradigms with roots in the print era. This is a problem not only for publications that started off in print, but for ones that had a completely digital birth, too.

Here's how I see the problem:

In the print era, a magazine's brand and its print product were synonymous. Publishers were stuck with only one substrate for delivering content: in a word, paper. There were no hyperlinks, no audio, no video, no electronic search. What you saw on paper was what you got. Nothing more, nothing less. The content was paper based.

The New Publishing Substrates

Now we have digital as a new substrate. It frees us of the constraints that paper imposed. Consumers can view our media-rich content on a smartphone, a tablet or laptop, a desktop, or even see it on a large flat-screen TV. These are the new substrates for our content.

What's more, many consumers are not bound to a single device. They want to access certain content wherever they are and on whatever device they happen to be using. It's called "content portability."

Some publishers interpret that as a mandate to replicate content for use on each digital device. That presents a huge technical challenge. The devices aren't all the same size. They range from small-screen smartphones to wide-screen TVs. The orientation (horizontal or vertical) and the aspect ratios of the viewing screens differ, too.

Responsive Website Design

Software developers have proposed one solution called "responsive website design," which entails putting your content into a malleable form. It then detects the kind of reading device your subscriber is using. And, finally, it scales your content to match the characteristics of that device.

Responsive design is a neat technical solution. But it is not necessarily an optimal one for many magazine publishers. It basically requires that you produce one-size-fits-all content and design. All the software does is shoehorn content in to the screen specifications of the various devices. That's what makes it portable.

One expert observer said that content portability "simply means taking your content and making it accessible on a range of devices." I don't think that's a practical concept for magazine publishers to embrace.

So why is that impractical?

The Limitations of a "Responsive" Approach

One reason is that it severely constrains the graphic designs you can use in presenting content. A design that makes sense when viewed in a vertical format on a smartphone is likely to be quite different from what would work best on a horizontal wide-screen display.

Another reason concerns the length of the text. Smartphone users may be looking for short texts that are accessible quickly and easily. They may not want to be confronted with lengthy articles. Someone accessing content on a much larger screen, on the other hand, might be looking for more detail and more length.

Multichannel Content Delivery

About five years ago I floated a proposed solution to this dilemma. Unfortunately, it went over like a lead balloon. Publishers just couldn't wrap their heads around the concept. Now I'd like to propose the same basic idea again.

The concept is to forget the idea of all your content appearing in a contiguous format. That was an essential feature of a print magazine. But it's not essential when it comes to digital.

Now you can consider content best suited for smartphone access as one of several channels for delivery. Content that is better suited for larger screens would be another channel. And in some cases it might even be advantageous to revert to print for content that is best presented if you control the size and shape of the viewing area, i.e., the printed page. That's another channel.

In effect, your magazine would become a multichannel brand. If the name of your magazine is XYZ, let that be the name of your brand. Don't give each channel a separate name. That would dilute the synergy of what you're offering. 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.

A Hypothetical Example

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

--A cover (traditional format)
--Table of contents
--An editorial
--Photo stories featuring costumes and facial makeup
--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 updates
--Classifieds (help wanted and positions sought)
--Directory of products and services
--Display advertising
--Archive

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

The tutorial articles are lengthy and tedious to read on a small 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 bimonthly in print. The bimonthly 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 bimonthly in print, too.

The online table of contents lists all contents, print and digital.

The editorial is a blog that accommodates reader comments.

The short features and news stories appear in the digital component. Design for much of the digital content is intended to accommodate viewing on a smartphone. Breaking news and high-interest short features are the subjects 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 components, 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) because the smaller sizes are relatively ineffectual. The classified advertisements appear in categorized form.

As publishers, if we follow this plan, we will better serve our readers and advertisers. It will shape our brands to fit today's realities, and we will be more successful in this rapidly evolving period when reader preferences are shifting quickly. Our plans 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 to us.

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

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