May 14, 2015 Last Updated 12:41 pm

To successfully launch a digital magazine, one probably should replicate the print approach

The basic rules of successfully launching a magazine does not change when the launch is digital-only, and launching into multiple digital newsstands is not going to be enough

The rules of print magazine publishing can be brutal and rarely can be broken. So there are good reasons why self-publishers who want their own title jumped at the chance to launch a digital magazine: it seemed to offer a cheap and easy way to produce a publication and reach readers.

PW-cover-200In the end, producing the new digital magazine is the easy part (and cheap, when compared to print), but reaching and keeping readers has proven to be nearly impossible.

Digital-only magazine launches rarely come from traditional print publishers. There have been exceptions – Photography Week from Future plc, for instance – but for the most part, print publishers have remained print publishers, with their digital editions merely created to try and extend the brand to new readers, and help make meeting the rate base a bit easier.

Why is this? Why didn’t print publishers immediately see what digital-only publishers saw: that launching a new title would be easier and cheaper than print? Because it simply isn’t true – at least not if you want to guarantee success.

Very few digital-only publishers have ever launched a print magazine. Those that have any experience often were not in charge of the overall launch, but were part of the editorial team. Because of this, many of the steps of a successful print magazine launch were skipped.

CMmag-smI’ll use my very first print magazine launch as an example of what I needed to do.

At McGraw-Hill, I launched a regional construction magazine that ended up being called CM Magazine (“CM” = construction management). The project was the outgrowth of creating newspaper special sections that always used “CM” in the title: CM: Steel Construction, or CM: Hospital Projects. After investigating the costs of printing a magazine I decided to convert these sections into a 6x a year magazine.

But as I was coming from print, I knew right away that I needed to have my readership set before I launched. There was no way we could simply print the issue and see if, by some miracle, 15,000 readers would appear. So I started with the couple thousand newspaper readers we had and decided to insert the magazine into one of the issues. I then looked at my database: it was comprised of around 25K past readers, construction company staffers and managers, as well as our list of advertising prospects. I picked about 10,000 names from the list, careful to include the ad prospects, and that was our readership for issue #1 (seen at right).

I was able to unveil my magazine launch at a publiher’s meeting held at the Avenue of the Americas office in NYC one summer day. Unexpectedly, Terry McGraw sat in on part of the meeting. At one moment there was a knock on the door and someone came in with a FedEx package for me containing the premiere issue that had just come off the press. Some of my fellow publishers thought I had planned the whole dramatic event, but it was just luck. My fellow publishers passed around the issue and thought it looked great (we had a very talented art director), but McGraw was a bit surprised, to say the least. How does someone just launch a magazine without it being approved by corporate?

I explained that the propject was just another way to create a special section, and that the entire cost of producing this first issue was small and that the project did not get the final OK from me until we had sold enough advertising to turn a small profit on the very first issue. I had stuck my neck out a bit, but not very far, so I didn’t need to worry about getting my head chopped off.

That is the way a typical B2B magazine gets launched: the publisher already knows who will be reading the title before even the first issue is produced. They have a list of who should be receiving the new title.

But with the typical digital edition, an app gets released into the Apple Newsstand (or before that, into a category of the App Store such as News or Entertainment) and the day the app is released the readership is zero.

In 2010 through 2013, the typical new digital magazine launch might attract a few hundred to a thousand app downloads the first week the app was launched. Back then, the app would appear on the home page of the Newsstand or the front page of a category under “New” before sliding back and out of sight. This first week was the one time an app might get a spike in downloads.

A few new digital magazines were able to take advantage of other things, such as website support. The Magazine, launched by the developer and blogger Marco Arment, benefited from name recognition and the fact that he could promote his new digital magazine to an eager audience. This led, his editor said last year, to the magazine immediately getting thousands of sales.

But the new magazine also benefited from Apple continually promoting the title on the home page of the Newsstand, at a time when that was believed to be one of the keys to success.

TheMag-54-featureThe Magazine has been the marquee independent publication in the Newsstand,” Fleishman said in a Macworld post. “I don’t claim this out of egotism—given that I’m about to stop publishing new issues, that would be a strange trophy to grab. Rather, it’s based on both the way in which the app was seized on when Marco introduced it and cited as an example in the last two years, and by the relative position of our app in the top-grossing list in iTunes, where I know what my figures are and can thus deduce the relative position of much, much larger publications.”

But even this didn’t prove enough to be successful long term.

“At our height, the magazine had nearly 35,000 monthly subscribers paying $2 every month. Our peak, however, was February 2013. Knowing the numbers full well, I bought The Magazine in May 2013. We now have about 2,000 yearly and 4,000 monthly subscribers,” wrote at the time he announced he would be shuttering the digital-only magazine.

Most observers place the blame on the decline in digital sales at the doorstep of Apple, who stopped maintaining the Newsstand some time in 2013, without even bothering to place magzine titles in the top carousel of the categories or making sure the “New” area actually shows new magazines (they simply are an alphbetical listing of titles). Apple’s failure to maintain the Newsstand has likely cost publishers hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sales (maybe millions).

But Apple is not the reason so many digital magazines are failing. Instead, it is that they rarely follow the rules of print magazine launches: have a list of readers at launch, promote aggressive with real marketing dollars, and discount, discount, discount.

Meredith Corp. launched its new print magazine Allrecipes in the fall of 2013. Meredith had purchased the website from Reader’s Digest for $175 million in January 2012 and at the time the print magazine launched had an online audience of nearly 29 million.

MEREDITH CORPORATION ALLRECIPES NEWSSTAND PILOT COVERMeredith launch strategy was to bundle a test issue with Better Homes and Gardens, Parents, Family Circle and Fitness, as well as to promote the new title on As a result, before the first official issue printed, Meredith had 400,000 orders, making it easy for the publisher to set the rate base at 500,000.

It also discounted, as all magazine publishers do. The magazine’s official subscription price for 6 issues was $24, but it netted only $6.90 from actual buyers, according to its first publisher’s statement. Even today, Meredith heavily discounts its titles, bundling them together to encourage readers to acquire multiple titles.

Meredith-mag-promotionWhen launching a digital magazine, the same sort of marketing and promotional effort must be made. One can not simply launch the app and then hope for the best.

Future’s launch of Photography Week is one of the few examples of a print publisher launching a new digital-only title and sticking with it longer than a few months.

“Since launching in September 2012 as an iPad-only title, it has racked up 100,000 downloads, achieved 80,000 Facebook likes, sold nearly 20,000 subscriptions,” senior editor Paul Newman wrote in July of 2013, when the magazine was about to launch its iPhone version.

One assumes Future had a database of potential readers it could promote the magazine to. But even if they did, they could not mail the first issue to them, or get them to sign up for a subscription before the app was launched. (Why not? Apple allows for pre-release sales of eBooks inside the iBooks Store, why not subscription sales for magazines before the first issue appears?)

A good subscription campaign for a new digital-only magazine launch would involve email blasts after the app appears in the Newsstand, promotion through the title’s website, and other promotion, a guarantee from Apple or Google that the app would be promoted on the front page of their digital newsstand, and other marketing efforts.

A digital magazine, like a print magazine, has to have an idea who their readers are before being launched. The thought that a new digital magazine can find its readers inside the Newsstand, something some digital publishing platforms claim, is proving not to be true.

  • Andy Kowl 3 years ago

    Because yours is an engaging and upbeat story, I wonder if people will be left with the idea there is something easy about this. People should understand the “build it and they will come” scenario you correctly describe as past, is definitely over. Publishers I respect suggest 50%-75% of your budget should be for marketing, that a digital magazine needs lightning to strike today for success. Working backwards, take all your other costs and multiply by 2x or 4x for start-up budget. I talk regularly with (mostly B2B) print publishers who added digital magazines later, so not exactly a launch. Every one of them had the identical motivation to go digital: “everybody else did.” They all say most people who read these editions are advertisers checking their ads. I understand consumer publications can have better results.