Digital magazines need to innovate..

..beyond the page.

Talking about what a magazine should be in the future means that I’m expected to tell everyone that print isn’t dead. It isn’t. The discussion about its demise, however, is now terrifically boring. Let’s just say that the printed magazine will always exist. Its value will change, as will its meaning, but while circulations are down at the major publishers – some of which are increasingly producing irrelevant, cash-strapped, anaemic branded products – previously niche magazines are having their mainstream heyday.

Publishing is booming. It’s just that it’s not the traditional publishers and brands making all the profit or leading the innovation.

The Gentlewoman – redefining what a women’s magazine might actually be to a real, sophisticated, modern woman – is increasing its circulation annually to 96,000. Monocle has increased its circulation to 150,000 by producing engaging content and global journalism with a sideline in niche Japanese retail. Print products such as Delayed Gratification, Eye, Offscreen are redefining what a magazine’s value can be to a reader. Let’s be very clear here – publishing is booming. It’s just that it’s not the traditional publishers and brands making all the profit or leading the innovation.

If we move away from print and consider that a magazine is a really just a means of delivering editorial and commercial content to users via a brand, then Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Vox and Pinterest are disrupting (in the true sense of the word) what a commercial, mainstream magazine is. If a magazine is a way of creating popular content relevant to a user group in an entertaining and highly profitable manner, then Buzzfeed, with its 130 million users per month and estimated $1 Billion IPO, is doing quite a good job of it. But are these brands ‘magazines’? Does it even matter to users? In the not-too-distant days of web 1.0, magazine publishers spent significant time and money cultivating online user forums and communities to engage with magazine content. Most of these were wiped out overnight by Facebook. The users didn’t care. Why would they? Facebook made a better and more relevant product.

Part of the problem of parsing the concept of a magazine into the future (and I’ve attended enough magazine conferences talking around the subject to know) is that we really struggle to define what a magazine is in the present – mainly because the term ‘magazine’ is at worst irrelevant; at best an uncomfortable fit. A magazine is not a paper-bound product, nor is it a (sadly) paywalled website, blog, digital replica, interactive edition (whatever that means), social feed, mobile app or a combination of these things. These are all merely delivery methods for content – of which some will die, some will be adopted by the mainstream and some new methods will be invented.

A magazine is a product generated by the atomic levels of content it contains that interlink and combine into an experience that currently encapsulates the user’s sense of ‘lean-back’ content consumption. By that, I mean browsing not searching; curated not aggregated; immersive not transitory. I say ‘currently encapsulates’ because this too may change – content consumption (and content engagement) is a completely user-focused and user generated metric and should be considered to be in constant flux. But it’s not just the users who are in constant flux. The content they consume is in constant flux too – as well as the content they produce (in reaction or in curation of the original content).

Beyond the printed page, the magazine is now an input/output (IO) product (whether the publisher realises it or not) and as such some great things can happen: new commercial models! real time analytics! user generated content! user generated distribution and aggregation! But unless this is embraced by magazines, users will go elsewhere. Magazines need to understand this process of information flow within peer groups and brands. Content produced now (or a significant part of it at least) must be able to be shared by whoever and wherever and coexist in multiple places, contexts and timelines. Its integrity must be maintained editorially (for this is significant to its value proposition), but it should be easy to embed into other narratives, easy to comment on, share and discover.

Digital magazines need to redefine their units of content and their value proposition to users.

So, how can we take current magazine content and make it fit into this new (or in many cases current) model? Well, we can’t. A quick look at the current reality of magazine content shows for the most part content contained and divided by ‘pages’. This is in terms of physical pages in print, but increasingly in skeumorphic pages in digital or interactive editions internal to closed applications. The digital page too often lives in a closed ecosystem within which users are only able to swipe between image or PDF encoded files. So, a future magazine doesn’t need to define what a future magazine is as a product but needs to redefine what it actually contains: the atomic levels of content; the curation of this content; the networks and interactions around this content. Magazines need to redefine their units of content and their value proposition to users.

This is a future where units of content will be taken out of context of a magazine brand and have to maintain a voice. Traditional value such as ‘page design’ may be redundant when the majority of content consumption happens in proprietary applications and timelines. Headlines will have to work both emotively and with SEO. A picture crop or image selection could make the difference between 2 or 2 million (insert metric here). Content will be instantly global, translated and shared. A future where the majority of users might not visit your website or application, business models will have to be built on a content unit by content unit basis, and where display advertising may ultimately become irrelevant.

This is a future where the page, beyond print, is ultimately dead.

Originally posted at The Human Layer. Sourced from Written by Rob Boynes

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