Digital magazines: future, advantages, challenges and best practices

March 23rd, 2009 Karine Joly 3 Comments

About 2 months ago, I was interviewed for a CASE Currents’ article about digital magazines for alums.

The article written by Douglas Vaira, Living a Digital Age, has been published in the March issue (but is only accessible to CASE members), so I thought some of you might be interested in my answers to Vaira’s questions.

As far as digital magazines, where does the future lie?

I think we’re going to see more integration between print and digital publications. Given the shrinking budgets reported by many higher ed institutions, print magazines are going to take a hit in circulation, size, etc. When it was asked to find ways to save money to face a state funding cut in 2007, the University of Florida decided to take a hard look at its publication budget. At that time, I was asked to conduct a comprehensive audit and provide recommendations. Using this study as a starting point, UF has since been able to save more than 1 million in printing, postage and related costs.

However, I don’t think digital magazines should/will replace their print counterparts or even just mirror them. There is an opportunity to provide an even better experience to readers in a more cost-efficient way by making both media work together. Until digital paper becomes a fact of life – which will happen sooner than we think, it makes sense to keep printing magazines for alums, but maybe not as we’ve been doing it for the past 15 or 20 years. I think we really need to start designing magazines using an integrated approach with print and digital sections, with monthly/quaterly more in-depth features and daily/weekly electronic updates, with great copy and beautiful photo spreads and shorter text augmented by videos or slideshows.

What are some of the advantages of going digital?

There are several advantages of going digital. With digital magazines, institutions can skip altogether the costly and time-consuming printing process (as well as the increasing postage costs). It becomes possible to cover events in a timelier manner. Space isn’t limited by a set number of pages anymore. You can also provide a more comprehensive experience to readers including text, images (lots of images), video or audio interviews but also welcome/nurture instant feedback. Digital magazines especially in the form of Websites can become 2-way communication channels. Another advantage of digital magazines is the fact that you can get a very good idea of what your readers are actually viewing/reading. With the technologies available on the Web, it’s easy to find out where readers are clicking, how long they spend on a page, and the type of topics they are interested in by just checking analytics reports. Readers can also access very easily archives.

What are some of the issues or challenges you’ve seen with the format?

However, there are also some disadvantages with digital magazines. With so much information – and so many distractions – available on the Web, there’s a bigger chance to miss the reader. Even if you publish the best digital magazine in the world, you’ll still need to attract – and retain – readers. “If you build it, they will come” doesn’t apply to digital magazines or websites. It’s true that people can find you on the Internet easily by using a search engine, but you got to give them a compelling reason to search in the first place. That’s why these digital magazines require to be promoted on other channels: emails, postcards or other mailings. When an alum gets a print magazine in the mail, s/he won’t probably throw it right away into the recycling bin even if s/he doesn’t have time at that specific moment. A digital version might not be that lucky.

What are some best-practice ideas you might be willing to offer?

The recommendation I would make is to try to come up with an integrated approach using print and (a real – i.e. web-based) digital versions altogether, build both version as distinctive but complementary parts of a same magazine. Ithaca College has done something very interesting with a magazine targeted to prospective students, FUSE, that includes a print version and a digital version built using their web content management system. The digital version is updated more often, but the print version has definitely its place. The readers — the famous digital natives — have expressed a strong interest in the print version, proving that this isn’t the dead medium we thought it was.

http://fuse.ithaca.edu/5635/

It’s also important to offer possibilities for readers to subscribe to updates on their terms via email, RSS or even by pushing updates on Facebook and other social media tools (Twitter comes to mind). If you can keep printing your magazine, ask readers if they would prefer to receive it in their inbox instead. Some might find it more practical and more environment-friendly. Don’t launch a digital magazine without incorporating from the beginning some ways to measure traffic, reader behaviors, etc. If you have to go paperless (from print to digital only) for budget reasons, tell your readers in the print magazines and offer them the opportunity to be notified by email about new issues.

If you’re planning to go digital or paperless with your magazines, you should consider attending “Stop the Presses,” a 3-webinar series presented by editors who took this path. You can get more info about it at www.higheredexperts.com/stopthepresses

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