Enthusiasm for the digital edition fade at many magazine firms, even as access continues to grow through library systems
Circulation directors, who once dreamed of being able to rely on growing digital subscriptions to reach rate base levels, continue to fight to make their numbers
The digital edition was, for about two years, the one area of magazine circulation that looked promising, as digital circulation went from “not reported” to near 10 percent, in some cases. Titles such as Wired grew their digital subscriptions to that magic 10 percent level, helping overcome declines seen in newsstand sales. But growth slowed, and in many cases reversed, beginning in late 2013. Wired, which once claimed 10.2 percent of its circulation in digital subscriptions, now reports 7 percent.
Cosmopolitan is another example, and a more dramatic one. At one point the Hearst title was claiming 243,882 in digital subscriptions. A part of this was because of a combination promotion, as well as other promotions. Some have claimed that Cosmo’s digital circ was always a phantom, and that the declines seen today (digital subs stand at barely over 100K) shows that digital editions were never really selling.
I strongly disagree. Promotions have been a big part of print sales for years, as has promotional discounting, something that is less prevalent in digital subscription sales (because changing prices inside the app stores is a chore). So, while promotion may have pumped up the numbers somewhat, it doesn’t account for all digital growth.
For Cosmo, the problems with their digital edition really started when readers started to complain about the app itself. For a long period of time readers said their app either crashed or would not load magazines. Readers let the magazine know about it in iTunes, posting over 1,400 1-star ratings, and many written reviews explain the frustrations with the app. Recent reviews are slightly more positive, but with the demise of the Newsstand, it is unlikely that the digital circulation will recover – at least not the “Digital Issue” category which is where digital edition subscriptions are found.
Most discussion about digital today in the magazine world centers on “total audience” a concept best exemplified by the MPA’s Magazine Media 360 reports. According to the MPA, magazine audience growth was nearly 10 percent in the first half of 2015, making magazine publishing one of the fastest growing segments in the US economy – something absolutely no one believes.
The idea that measuring total audience reflects the power of a magazine brand makes sense, but it does little to actually sell advertising. The list of magazine being folded continues to grow not because total audiences are declining, but because too few ad pages are being sold into these struggling titles.
As I warned four years ago, growth in digital advertising outside of print magazines will not immediately effect those magazines that are number one in their field, but those further down. Print budgets, for the most part, are not being eliminated, but decreased and money shifted. Print ad buyers have a choice, cut across all the titles they are buying, or else trim titles. Competitive publishers know they need to be creative with both their rates and how they package their proposals in order to keep their schedules. Some win and keep their pages, others lose it all.
The digital edition, at least for two years, was the one tool for maintaining a rate base. But while digital editions were still growing, Borders was going out of business, Source Interlink was being shutdown. Finally Apple gave up on the Newsstand. Many publishers, not enthusiastic about digital editions to begin with, said readers would return to print as soon as they returned to their senses. Voices in the magazine industry, those who like to put trademarks next to their names, continue to push publishers to believe that the future is really the past, print is king and always will be. Conference after conference talked about why print would endure, and rarely (actually never) discussed the issues effecting the Newsstand and what publishers could do to build readership of their digital editions.
At least one digital publishing platform expressed frustration with publishers telling me at one event that the publishers they talk to simply will not consider doing anything different beyond producing replica editions and continuing to discount print subscriptions. That vendor eventually gave up on publishers altogether and shifted to selling digital publishing solutions to brands.
Meanwhile, each week another library system announces that they are replacing their print magazines with digital editions. Chippewa River District Library, in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, is but the latest – they are going with Zinio through a deal with RBdigital.
That means that while the emphasis at most publishing houses is to continue to move away from the digital edition as an important part of their circulation strategy, more and more readers will have access to digital editions through their library systems and through in-flight systems (another growing trend, especially in Europe).
One publisher asked me recently if I was still enthusiastic about digital editions and I said that my enthusiasm has waned, but I still see the promise in digital editions. What remains lacking, I said, was an effective way to encourage app downloads and in-app sales. Some efforts appear promising: Next Issue’s effort to “disaggregate” content from issues to get readers to taste magazine content, then get them to download the rest of the issue feels like a smart move, for instance. But unless Next Issue markets itself as aggressively as certain drug companies do I doubt many potential readers will notice their effort. App discovery remains a huge problem, one not being solved by “total audience growth.”
Hearst this weekend released app updates for many of its titles including Cosmopolitan, HGTV Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine and others. The update involves iOS 9 compatibility.
Looking through the iTunes reviews for many of the Hearst magazine apps that were updated I notice that O, The Oprah Magazine was one few titles that seemed to be maintaining their digital edition circulation, though it remains fairly low. With 80,783 in digital subscriptions, and 33,796 in digital single copy (almost all of it through Next Issue), the magazine has as much digital edition readership as it ever has had – one of the few titles that can claim that. One reason for this may be that readers have few complaints about the app and so have not been tempted to cancel their subscriptions when prompted by Apple. But we are still talking about small numbers here, less than 5 percent of total circulation, meaning few circulation directors would see these readers as indefensible to maintaining the magazine’s 2.35M rate base.