June 20, 2014 Last Updated 10:25 am

Going digital-only: most publishers leave print when they can, others as a last resort

Last IDG Enterprise print magazine, CIO, resigns its BPA membership; without qualified readership will B2Bs lose their one big advantage over digital start-up competitors?

The tech publisher IDG yesterday announced that another of their titles, Computerworld, would be going digital-only following the publication of next week’s issue. A publisher deciding to go digital-only is hardly news anymore, but the timing of the move is always of interest. Is IDG pulling the plug on the print edition of Computerworld out of desperation, or because they can?

The question is important because it determines what a publisher does before they pull the plug on their print edition.

Computerworld-v45i14For many publishers who have transitioned to being event companies, the revenue they derive from their publications is becoming a smaller share of overall revenue. So much so, that contemplating shuttering their print magazine becomes an attractive option. Others, realizing that their magazines have transitioned into marketing roles, have kept their magazines printing as a way of promoting their events and attracting new exhibitors and sponsors.

It is hard to image either of the two trade publications that cover the magazine industry, Folio: or Publishing Executive, still producing print editions if they did not have their events to sustain them. Likewise, IDG has diversified their revenue streams so that any loss of print ad revenue is more than made up with cost savings from production and distribution.

But the fact that Computerworld is about to end its print run, yet will continue to exist without the staff being halved, means that the publisher had time to think this move through. Yet if that is the case, why isn’t the promised redesigned website ready to go, and new tablet and mobile apps already launched?

In many cases, the reason lies in a publishers conception of what constitutes digital. For many publishers, and a number of media reporters and consultants, digital simply means the web. As a result, developing digital editions is really an offshoot of their print production, not seen as a new digital platform. So tied to print are they that anything that looks like a variation of print is dismissed as print, just in another form. As a result, when it is time to go digital-only, the publishers are really going web-only.

The problem with dismissing the importance of mobile and tablets is that once a property has gone web-only they potentially lose the ability of taking advantage of these platforms when the opportunity arises such as for special editions, customer magazines, event apps, etc. One of the biggest reasons to create and launch a native tablet edition remains learning how to do this in order to be able to have this capability in the future.

Because of this, when a publisher chooses to close down their print edition without simultaneously launching new websites and mobile editions it smacks of desperation and is bound to fail as a survival strategy.

CIO_coverOne of the things that makes Computerworld a bit different than other familiar tech titles is that it is a B2B title and part of IDG Enterprise rather than IDG Consumer, where Macworld is housed.
In 2000, right when the dot com bubble burst, the magazine had a circulation of over 250,000 with just over 50,000 paid subscribers. The magazine then transitioned to a completely qualified readership model so that by 2003 the total circulation had dropped to 180,050 with no paid subscribers at all. Last year the circulation was 165,050 with 148,550 in print and the rest digital. But more importantly, the numbers do not vary from month to month. As any publisher will tell you, this is a bad sign, it means that the publisher is sending out the same number of copies every month whether the reader really wants to receive them or not.

A thriving magazine sees more variability in their numbers as readers sign up all the time, either at trade shows or because they are entering the business and see the publication as a vital part of their business. Keeping circulation rock steady saves money, of course.

This helps explain Computerworld’s willingness to dump these readers before they can be transitioned to digital subscriptions – subscriptions, print or digital, simply won’t be part of the equation.

The cost to get paid or qualified subscribers is a part of the business most observers ignore. In fact, getting readers qualified is a very expensive part of the business. One to two decades ago, circulation managers could place cover wraps on issues with subscription notices and could expect to get a decent percentage of readers to respond and complete the reader forms. Then, after one or two cycles, the direct mail campaigns would begin. No more, telemarketing has taken over and costs to qualify readers has skyrocketed.

In response, many publishers have resigned their BPA memberships, choosing to stop qualify readership. Resigning one’s BPA membership is also a first sign that a company plans to take its magazine digital-only.

Well, CIO, the last IDG Enterprise magazine still in print, has resigned its BPA membership effective June 16, according to the BPAWW website.

Many outside the industry think being audited is a major expense but it is the qualification process that is the expensive. As a publisher I’ve never considered BPA’s bill to be burdensome… but those telemarketing bills, ouch.

So what happens when the circulation department goes away and those readers stop being qualified. Most of time readership quality erodes and the publication starts to lose touch with its industry.

At my last publisher position, where I had nine magazines under my management, one of the magazine’s had 7 qualified readers in total at the end – only 7 readers that BPA would have considered qualified. Every other reader was receiving the magazine whether they wanted it or not. It was a sure sign the end was near, and came as a total shock to me as publisher. I knew the magazine was not being audited, but that its readership had been allowed to decay so badly was a sign that the owner of the company was playing games. Not surprisingly the magazine was soon shuttered after I left the company.

With thriving trade shows, a publisher can try and keep their reader files more up to date. They can also require website registrations, as well. But one of the reasons print magazines remain such a good investment for advertisers is the fact that they know exactly who is reading their ads and that they are being targeted at the right audience.

  • Peter Black 3 years ago

    The downward spiral you describe at the end of your article is one we have seen on many occasions. Once the investment in the quality of audience is cut, response to advertising declines and advertisers look elsewhere. This is especially true of response advertisers who can measure results quickly and shift their advertising just as fast.