Digital Publishing Guest Columns
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Thinking Beyond The Paywall: How Magazines Can Diversify

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As publishers shift their business models to digital, many are finding that it’s not as easy as putting up a paywall or creating a subscribers-only, PDF-like experience. Particularly in the magazine industry, publishers are learning that they need to get more creative as they diversify their offerings. The model that so many magazine publishers have followed – putting their print publication online in a close-to-the-original experience – hasn’t yielded substantial growth. The formats don’t translate well to mobile devices, and since third-parties are typically used to create the digital experiences, publishers don’t gain the benefits of first-party data they could use to inform monetisation strategies.

Magazine publishers need to think outside the box and beyond the paywall in order to diversify their offerings and build new revenue streams. Print isn’t dead, but it has plateaued, and digital is where the growth is. However, publishers can’t think of digital as the only option, either. The idea is to deliver content to users when, where and how they want it – while still growing revenue. That will require diversification.

The type of diversification varies greatly from publisher to publisher, but the key is to think creatively and openly about what could work, and not be limited by “legacy” thinking. While there are some publishers following the more traditional path of ad and affiliate revenue or pay-to-play content, these are not the only options – not by a long shot – and many publishers are looking far ahead. There is life beyond the paywall, and some brave players are forging new roads. Here are a few innovative ideas we’ve already seen for diversification:

  • Apps: The New York Times, while a newspaper and not a magazine, has an app strategy to which others can look for inspiration. In addition to a standard newspaper app, the esteemed daily also offers apps for its iconic crossword puzzle and other features, including recipes and real estate. These popular apps are highly rated and monetised: while there are free puzzles, users have to pay for additional crosswords and “theme packs.” The New Yorker released a very on-brand “Goings On” app that delivers upcoming must-attend events and happenings to the phones of the city’s most important people. At launch, the app was supported by MasterCard.

Also in lockstep with brand and subscriber values, Runner’s World released a run tracking app that includes editorial advice and tips on running, along with local weather reports and more helpful content. There is a free version of the app, but the publication also offers a subscription for premium content, including extended training plans.

  • Retail: Beyond premium content packages, t-shirts and tote bags, some publications are becoming retailers with diverse catalogs of merchandise. Goop, a digital magazine, may be best known for this strategy with its curated collections of couture and upscale wellness products, but they’re far from the only magazine selling goods. Grazia, a European publication, also took the headlong dive in 2014 to open, allowing its 17 million global readers to shop the magazine’s collections online.

In a different take on retail, Condé Nast has a growing branded subscription box service for publications including Brides, Condé Nast Traveler and Teen Vogue. Boxes in the “slim but profitable” operation range in prices, but generally include a variety of premium trial-sized items for the subscriber to sample.

  • Events: Business-to-business publications have long understood the revenue potential of live events. Trade magazines have been driving revenue from educational events, award shows and even hosted, co-branded webinars for decades. Today, more publications are grasping the enormous opportunity live events can have in driving both revenue and loyalty. Shape Magazine launched its first Body Shop for women in 2016, featuring celebrity fitness instructors and dozens of pop-up shops for leading health and wellness brands. The event, now regularly repeated, generates revenue not just from admissions, but from sponsors including Geico, Bioré and Coppertone.

Hearst has taken a similar, and very strategic, approach to events as a means of revenue growth. CEO Anna Jones has stated that “it’s about bringing a magazine to life – I think that’s going to grow…And our commercial partners want an experiential version of the magazine.” For Hearst, the experiment is proving successful: Hearst’s events, including #FashFest, Fashion Unbound and Red’s Smart Women Week, proved immensely popular events, making a splash with millions of impressions and shares on social media. In 2016, Jones was planning 100 events and anticipated that the publisher’s revenue would double in the year ahead.

Diversification is not about a one size fits all approach. It’s all about providing the right product to the right person at the right time. In the digital space, your strength is your brand, and moving forward, the key will be in leveraging engagement. In order to diversify successfully, magazine publishers need to know their audience and predict what they will want, which will be a data-led process of trial and error as publishers collect more data and insight on their audiences.

Many publishers are finding success by simply shifting their magazine’s business model to digital. For the likes of Forbes, Ziff Davis and others, the strategic use of advertising and paid editorial content is enough to keep subscribers engaged and loyal. However, other magazines may need to think outside the traditional playbook. There are many options to consider, even beyond those explored here. The key is to keep an open mind – and not to be afraid of taking calculated risks. Innovation will come through experimentation, which will provide a wealth of data and consumer feedback that will help guide your ongoing digital strategy.

If you know your subscribers well, you’ll know what they want and expect from your publication, whether that’s a Spotify channel, a series of TED-like talks or a capsule collection of designer handbags. Whatever it is that your subscribers want, it’s important to deliver quality in a timely manner. Having a platform with flexibility and speed will ensure that you continue to innovate whilst meeting your customers where they want to be when they want to be there. Magazine publishers can blaze their own trail, and there’s no mail truck required to navigate it successfully.

Ana Lobb, VP of Business Development, EMEA, MPP Global