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Acceleration on the digital edition front: why now?

The big question is: when (or will) digital editions go mainstream? When will a critical mass of readers be reached? NewsStand’s Michele Chaboudy sees some encouraging signs.

By Michele Chaboudy

In the publishing business world, nothing moves at lightning speed, so it’s not surprising that digital editions are still a small part of total circulation. But we’re seeing some signs of acceleration lately, both in publisher and readership adoption. And we’ve got recent digital readership studies to help us understand what digital editions mean to readers and advertisers. Not mainstream, yet, but edging closer.


First, let’s get the semantics straight:- I’m not talking about a Web site, I’m talking about digital editions. You have probably heard this before, but until you see the exact copy of the print edition on a computer screen, it may not connect. I’ve explained to veteran newspaper publishers that it’s the exact copy. Then, while showing them the front page on my laptop, I often hear, "amazing, it’s EXACTLY like the print copy!" So, overcoming this confusion in the marketplace is a real challenge.

The digital edition industry is growing at different rates depending whether you are talking about newspapers, consumer magazines or controlled publications. Enthusiasm in the magazine sector was evident at the standing-room-only Digital Magazine Forum held in New York City last December. Publishers like Reed Business Information, who plans to have 30 digital titles in 2005, and Crain, who launched a digital-only title, are leading the way, along with Ziff Davis. Many targeted publications have tested the waters, like Blood Horse Publications whose titles cater to a unique kind of reader — horse owners and breeders who are affluent, travel a lot, and want their content before the print version is available or before they get home from a trip. This is not mainstream adoption, but I bet a lot of you were surprised that horse owners have jumped on the bandwagon already. And don’t forget young readers who have signed up for Seventeen Magazine, adding 45,000 subscribers to the print base.

Research findings

Recent research is proving the validity of digital readership. In NewsStand’s recent Nielsen/NetRatings study, 25% of users seeing an advertisement either ordered or purchased something as a result. This same study also revealed signs of starting to go mainstream, since the reader demographics show lower household income average and lower education average. Another 2004 NewsStand study indicates users want more interaction and animation, news updates, multimedia, Sunday inserts and online coupons. Also measuring interaction are results from a 2005 Mosaic Media Partners survey supporting heavy use of interactivity, finding 63% of its digital magazine readers used embedded links, 55% used search functions and 53% linked to additional online editorial content. And 91% of digital users were "more likely than not" to renew, compared to 96% for print renewals. So they seem to like what they are getting. Finally, a 2004 PennWell study also showed a high correlation between the behaviour of digital and print magazine readers. In fact, when asked, "how many of the last four issues have you read or looked through," digital readers say 74.6 percent, while print readers say 78 percent - and time spent looking through an average issue was 39 minutes for digital and 41 minutes for print. Advertisers take note.

Other factors to watch

Besides the research findings, factors to watch in this industry include:

* Youth online: a recent Generational Media Study found that the Internet is the top media choice among 18 to 24 year olds. I say, get your publications in front of that audience anyway you can. The sheer numbers will turn up new young subscribers to digital editions.
* Participatory journalism: the Northwest Voice in California now has open collaboration, inviting local residents to participate in the creation of the newspaper and Web site, using a blogging platform. This trend could be leveraged in digital editions adding Web blogs as appropriate, as key hotlinks.
* Online ad growth: the online percent of the total advertising budget is now over 10% (2004) vs 5.5% in 2002. So with more online advertising, there are more reasons to liven up print ads in digital editions with media that is already created.
* Environmentalists: they want to decrease the 90 million tons of paper that US publishers, alone, use in one year. A group to watch.
* Broadband and Internet size: now 51% of the online population has broadband, which could be the most important acceleration factor. And by the end of 2005, over one billion people will be using the Internet.

I think the ideal combination to move digital editions into the mainstream is this: get your web department involved with production so that the digital edition is built with interactivity to take advantage of rich media and deep linking, move more free content to paid or under registration (registered names are a prime target for digital editions) and offer unique content on your web site tied exclusively to digital editions. Last but not least, keep abreast of Internet usage trends, start reviewing the market research already available, and take advantage of the new browser-based reading options.