Magazine publishers keep scrambling to find the right combination of digital/print/video content that promises to keep readers engaged. And, more importantly, advertisers paying big bucks.

It may come as small consolation that no one — yet — has come up with a good enough model for everyone else to follow. At the same time, that means there’s room for innovation and experimentation – so long as those moves pay off.

So, what are magazine publishers pushing these days? What’s working? What’s merely a gimmick and what looks to stick around? Will there ever be such a thing as a sustainable business model in the world of digital magazine publishing?

All the advertising that’s fit to consume

Here’s the one, and likely only, point anyone agrees on right now: Publishers may secretly love and even admire their respective brands, but if they don’t make money, those precious titles won’t be taking up space – on the rack or on your tablet.

Here are some of the latest attempts to beef up magazine revenues:

  • It’s gimmicky, and hardly new (Entertainment Weekly tried it in 2009), but at least one U.K. publisher saw fit to turn the tables on the digerati, inserting an actual video ad into print magazines last fall. The 45-second spot, featured in Britain’s version of Marie Claire, played automatically when pages 34 and 35 were opened. The ultra-thin, iPhone-sized screen was powered by a special chip. No word on how much it cost. But the intent seems clear: Put technology in its place, and make it pay off for print.
  • Condé Nast, it was reported by USA Today in March 2013, decided to use YouTube to reinforce some of the publisher’s higher profile brands, such as Glamour and GQ. Not as a platform to merely regurgitate magazine content. But to expand upon it in the form of webisodes, each somewhere from 2 to 7 minutes in length – such as a “fashion ride-along” that profiles a Glamour editor’s trip to a fashion show. Or a GQ comedy series on the ten things men can’t live without. (Extra swag for the “man on the street” who looks directly into the camera and says, “I read about them all in GQ!”).
  • And what is Apple doing – because, in this day and age, it must? Why, offering digital access to 80 or so magazines through a service called Next Issue – a joint venture of five American magazine publishers: Hearst, News Corp., Condé Nast, Time Inc. and Meredith. For a mere $9.99 a month, users can get unlimited access to 79 titles; $14.99 monthly opens up 5 more titles, including The New Yorker, People and Time. Other titles in the lineup include Esquire, Better Homes and Gardens, Parents, Car and Driver, Fortune, Glamour, Vogue, GQ, Popular Mechanics, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair and Wired. And both subscription plans provide access to back issues.

Something to read, not everything

Think about that last point for a bit. For as little as $120 bucks a year, users can access more reading than most could possibly think to do in a lifetime of beach-filled summers. OK, you have to have a tablet device to make it worthwhile. But since you’re going to be watching those webisodes about figuring out the opposite sex anyway (while minimizing the actual work needed for a good workout), the tipping point of value looks to get realized fairly soon after the initial investment. There’s even a free trial period, which, as free trials are supposed to do, stands a very good chance at hooking users onto the service as paying customers. And there are bonus items for the digitally minded: Videos (again!), interactive features, extra photographic spreads and links that take you further on your Internet journey.

And does anyone really care that the content is primarily advertiser supported at this point (like it pretty much is in print)? Probably not. Unless, and let’s please not add “until”, the geniuses in Cupertino and Manhattan decide to force users to watch commercials before accessing content – a favorite trick of some TV stations that provide their news stories online.

“Video killed the radio star”

Given all of that, what’s the predicted life expectancy of print magazines? Particularly as advertisers are concerned?

Not to get overly technical, but that would seem to depend on how consumers view the medium. TV didn’t kill radio. Or the movies. It changed the experience of both, however. But CDs pretty much did in vinyl. And MP3’s took a major-league chunk out of CDs. Nothing has quite killed the theater, though pundits have been predicting its death since the time of Shakespeare, and earlier. Cable is still going fairly strong. Then again, there’s Apple TV….

In a sense, then, print magazines will hang around so long as consumers believe them to be an integral part of the reading experience. With the emphasis on reading. And for as long as magazines continue to serve the mission of advertisers to put their products in front of consumers.

Videos are great. But who really wants to take an iPad with them everywhere they choose to read?

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