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Re-imagining advertising for digital editions

An advertisement in a print magazine is a clear and proven commercial proposition, but, says Jon Benson, MD at MA Business, publishers need to be more creative when it comes to delivering advertising within digital editions.

By Jon Benson

Re-imagining advertising for digital editions
“A new full-page ad site becomes available opposite the front cover itself…”

When the government’s first workplace lockdown order landed in early 2020, we, like a lot of publishers with a significant B2B presence, immediately looked at our distribution model. After all, in a space where we put an emphasis on ensuring our magazines are delivered to our readers’ places of work – them not being there is a problem.

So, when our strength became a potential weakness, that meant our publications were in danger of going unread, at a time when their content was arguably more business critical than ever; it forced us to look again at how we used digital editions.

We were fortunate in many respects that digital editions were a fairly well-trodden path for the business, admittedly more through happenchance than design. Within the business, which has grown significantly in recent years through M&A, historically different brands had used different ‘inherited’ platforms, some good, some bad and some definitely ugly. So, just a few months before the pandemic struck, we conducted a full review of what the business and its brands needed and what the market offered, with a view to consolidating our portfolio to a single provider to ensure we maximised the opportunity offered by the technology and minimised the pain points in our production workflow.

Long story short, by the time the pandemic hit, the majority of the portfolio had already migrated to our new platform. It goes without saying that the timing was a blessing.

Few would argue that a high-impact digital edition of a magazine is an increasingly essential publishing platform. Readers value the convenience of accessing content on their desktop, phone, or tablet, while publishers can expand the reach of their brands quickly and easily.

If you throw into the mix a pandemic and, more recently, the eye watering increases in costs relating to printed magazines, then what was once essential becomes business critical.

Satisfying advertiser needs

But where does the rise in popularity of digital editions leave advertisers?

If a controlled circulation B2B publication fails to deliver for its commercial clients, it cannot survive. The good news is that, as we have discovered, if digital advertising is delivered in the correct way, the impact cannot just equal, but in some cases exceed that of print. Better still, if print, digital editions and a strong website are used as complementary platforms, then a brand’s reach, and its effectiveness as a marketing platform, can increase exponentially.

Take positioning of advertising, for example. This can be a digital downside, but it is one that can be turned into a positive. In a print publication, the outside back cover or inside front are the prime sites, delivering maximum impact. But in a digital edition, it’s different. While the inside front cover is still clearly a highly desirable site, the back cover of a magazine won’t be reached until the final click of the page turner. So, does this mean digital editions, are always going to be a page short of prime ad positions? Not if you leverage extra digital-only space.

The best digital editions create new space for advertising. New ads can be inserted to pop up between pages. These ads, sometimes referred to as ‘interstitial ads’, are a bit like the digital equivalent of a bound-in insert, but of course without the costs. Advertisers get an extremely high impact for low cost compared with the kind of production overheads they have to support for something like this in print.

Furthermore, while the back cover may be less prominent in a digital page turner than in print, a new full-page ad site becomes available opposite the front cover itself – this ‘presentation page’ works as if a traditional print mag were opened and laid out flat with the cover and back page facing up. Such sites can and do attract additional digital sponsorship either from the back cover advertiser themselves or another print supporter.

Desktop & mobile

Digital presentation pages, opposite a cover, have the one drawback that, in order to be seen on a mobile phone screen, they must appear in front of the cover, as mobiles tend to view one page at a time, rather than spreads. Publishers must then decide if they are comfortable to switch their cover for an ad. If they decide not to, it is important to educate advertisers as to the different experience on different viewing platforms.

Such decisions can be informed by user habits. Despite the availability of mobile-friendly digital editions, readers of B2B titles tend to use them as useful guides in their day-to-day professional lives and are therefore likely to be at work, and to read digital magazines on a desktop or laptop computer. Our stats reflect this, with digital-edition readers on desktop and laptop outnumbering smart-device readers by about three to one. It is a point well worth considering when assessing the impact of different types of digital advertising.

And stats are a key benefit of digital editions. And not just in terms of demonstrating tangible ROI to an advertiser.

The stats offer powerful insights to us as publishers. We know exactly how many people viewed a page, how long they looked at it, if they zoomed in, if they clicked a link, if they played a video, etc. Essentially, it’s like every issue has an inbuilt reader survey, which means we can try new things, new page layouts, even new ad formats.

And on that subject, one tool that has been particularly successful for MAB titles has been augmenting advertising with video. The opportunity to embed video on a digital ad creates extra value for the client and an enhanced experience for readers and has been well received by both.

In order to leverage the clear opportunities that exist in digital advertising, it is important to ensure you have a platform that supports as many of them as possible. Older ‘digital page turners’ (see boxout) are little more than rescaled PDFs and were simply never designed for augmentation and enhancement for advertisers across desktops and mobile devices, so investment in a platform that works across all platforms and offers new advertising opportunities will pay dividends.

Protecting print

However, despite the clear opportunities that exist in digital advertising, a few words of caution.

In the same way that a strong website complements a strong print brand, a digital platform rounds out the offering – it should not simply be seen as a replacement for the print product, it should be seen as an extension. Regardless of how good a digital platform is, it can never truly replicate the experience and perceived value of a printed product, and nor should it.

Because no one wants to repeat the mistakes that so many publishers made in the noughties where some of the sector’s brightest stars decimated their own print revenues and destroyed flagship brands chasing what was at the time the fool’s gold of online, rather than listening to readers and advertisers.

Don’t get me wrong, with the new ad sites and augmentation that digital editions can provide, it’s tempting to offer these to any client willing to pay the price. But herein lies a potential pitfall, because advertisers may then decide to only support the digital product and therefore reduce their overall spend with the title across the year. This is why most of our titles have a policy of only offering digital extras to existing print supporters, who of course automatically get their ‘conventional’ ad in both the print and digital editions as a matter of course. Digital augmentation must always be an extra, not a starting point.

And that’s where the focus needs to be, what are the additional opportunities offered by digital editions; if it is simply a way to cut costs then all you are doing is managing decline, albeit elegantly, perhaps. But if it’s about adding value, adding formats, increasing choice and increasing engagement, then go for it.

At the end of the day, we as a publisher must be agnostic in terms of how we deliver content. Our job is to build audience communities by creating and curating inspiring, informative and interesting content; how our readers want to digest it is entirely up to them.

Digital editions by type

  • PDF Replica: a copy of the PDF of a magazine which has then been converted and exported via software allowing it to be viewed on different devices. It’s usually exported as HTML5 although some platforms still offer a Flash version export.
  • PDF Replica-Plus: A replica-plus is exactly the same as the PDF replica but offers a more interactive experience with the option to include things such as videos, image galleries, off-page advertising, hyperlinks (both internal links to specific pages and external links to the web).
  • Digital Reflow: These types of publication are basically standalone microsites created from the content of the original magazine, but designed to work dynamically cross-device (desktop, tablet and mobile). Each page is “laid out” and designed specifically for viewing online instead of just being a replica of the printed version and the content can adapt to fit the device being used at the time (responsive).
  • Native Apps: Apps usually offer two options; the replica which works in much the same way as a PDF replica publication or the bespoke route which works much like a reflow publication with a custom layout etc. The app route isn’t something recommended for B2B magazines, as they are more suited to B2C models, where subscriptions can be sold.

Key factors for consideration

  • Ability to create article and advertising links within the product
  • Cost
  • Ease of use for the end user on different applications
  • Flexibility of final product
  • Legacy considerations for archive issues
  • Look and feel
  • Resources required to produce each issue
  • Tracking and reporting
  • User interface

MA Business

MA Business is the B2B arm of the Mark Allen Group. Founded in 1985, the family owned business owns more than 100 brands and operates across publishing, events, and data insights via its group of operating companies, including MA Healthcare, MA Business, MA Agriculture, MA Education, MA Exhibitions, MA Music Leisure & Travel and MA Dentistry Media.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.