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The Art of Making it Personal: the Next Decade in Magazine Publishing

Publishing exists in a state of constant flux, with new trends and ideas replacing old orthodoxies as regularly as the stream of new titles being launched into the marketplace. It’s what makes it so exhilarating and exhausting in almost equal measure. Damian Butt looks at the challenges and opportunities ahead.

By Damian Butt

As an industry, we’ve been guilty of underestimating the speed with which digital technology is transforming the market. The publishing world, though still founded on the principles that have sustained it for over a century, is a very different place now that the internet is a permanent fixture and attention spans continue to plummet.

The good news is that there has never been a more exciting time to be in publishing, and in the next decade, smart companies will have the opportunity to deliver truly amazing content that can be purchased and viewed in new and exciting ways instantaneously all around the world. Whichever way you look at it, that’s pretty cool.

Still life in print?

The question I am asked the most is, is print still important?

Unequivocally, my answer is ‘yes’, and I believe it will remain so for the next ten years and beyond. But it has to be quality print. It has to be innovative print. Luxurious and specialist print. Brands that embody those qualities have little to fear from the future, and there are many examples of print magazines right now that are (whisper it) growing circulation, not declining. The real question is not whether print will survive, but what needs to be done to support and grow it as part of a content strategy encompassing print, digital, video, social and, increasingly, events / experiences.

Specialist magazines are sure to continue to thrive over the next ten years as they are proving to be the most resilient in terms of copy sales and offer the opportunity for the greatest number of brand extensions. That’s because a devoted audience will often consume any of its branded goods, provided they share the same values as the core brand itself.

Back to the future

Retro Gamer, a modest videogames title, is a good example of a magazine that few companies could publish, and ironically, given its subject matter, it offers a glimpse of what the future could be. You couldn’t wish for a more supportive, vocal and loyal bunch of readers (known fondly as ‘retrobates’) who help shape the direction of the magazine and its content. It’s a truly interactive brand, where readers are able to speak directly to the editorial team as they create the content; helping to shape it, and even becoming part of it, in a virtuous circle that ultimately sees them purchase everything Retro Gamer offers them.

For any publisher to be successful in the future, particularly worldwide, it has to have a multi-platform offering that best reflects the values of its brands wherever readers engage with it. It also means they must be prepared to go where the audience is, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the newsstand. Today, some of the most exciting new publishing brands exist only on Facebook or Instagram, with monthly audience reaches in the millions. And you’ve probably never heard of them. Most people hadn’t heard of PewDiePie. Until he made his first $10 million.

To do all of this, of course, you need a team who live, sleep and breathe the brand, but even that isn’t enough - they also need to develop new skills. The modern magazine journalist must not only be an accomplished wordsmith, researcher and evangelist, but also increasingly they must become viral ninjas – skilled in the sacred art of BuzzFeed-esque attention-grabbing headlines, social conversation, video production, and the generation of entertaining ‘listicles’ for fans, in addition to the traditional well-researched article. Publishing the finished article used to be the end of the work - now it is just the start of the journey.

Own the content

And for that journey to be ultimately successful, I cannot stress the importance of publishers owning and controlling their own content so they are able to use it quickly and in any way they choose. Imagine Publishing was founded on this, and it allowed us to be first onto the Apple iPad in 2010 with our digital editions, it fuels our world-leading bookazine portfolio, and it means we can deliver our best content to anyone on any device at any time. To achieve this, it is important to create a simple non-threatening, non-legalese freelance contract that all content creators must sign before starting work. I encourage all publishers, no matter how big or small, to adopt something similar; it is vital for survival in an increasingly harsh commercial world. In the last ten years, I have been part of so many exciting acquisition attempts that have ultimately failed because the back catalogue of content either wasn’t available at all, or was embroiled in an impenetrable mess of fragile or non-existent rights permissions. Many a brand that should have survived and flourished in the modern world has been lost forever because of the short-sighted lack of content publishing rights.

Revenue models

Just as publishing and content delivery is changing radically, so must its way of funding itself to suit its new environment. Content delivered digitally worldwide necessitates the retirement of the traditional coverprice, and heralds in a new era of micro payments, disruptive subscription models, and even, crowd-funding. But what about advertising?

Ad blocker technology (now seen in the latest Apple OS as well as many others) has seen panic rip through the online advertising world, and indeed if web adverts don’t radically change in nature, they face total annihilation. And rightly so.

Magazine readers don’t resent the chance to buy things, they never have, but what they do hate is the ham-fisted and obvious way advertising is thrust upon them. So many online ads are the digital equivalent of a man in a sandwich board deliberately blocking the way. You didn’t want to see them in the first place, and you’ll be damned if you are going to buy something from them now!

People prefer to find their own way, and be guided by people they respect and trust, which is why recommendations are so powerful (just ask Amazon).

It’s therefore no surprise that more subtle ‘native’ advertising has the potential to win the war for eyeballs, and the next decade will see magazines integrate purchasing suggestions into their very DNA. Together with more advanced analytical tools, publishers will be able to offer specific readers what they already know they want at that precise moment. If you then spot-weld that to a specific loved magazine brand together with a share of the revenues, publishers can look forward to a powerful and limitless new revenue stream.

Getting personal

It’s my belief that personalisation will be the theme that dominates publishing’s next decade. Whilst our older readers may identify themselves with a prevailing taste, younger readers are resolutely individualist. Social media has made them the superstars of their own world and as such, they pluck and consume media from myriad sources. They also are increasingly distrustful of a media that they think is spinning everything that comes their way. Therefore, the question our industry needs to answer in the next ten years will be one of how we reach a cynical audience in a space where everything is available all of the time?

Magazines of the future will be able to adapt to their readers’ tastes depending on their viewing habits, make suggestions, generate topical and unique special editions on the fly or based on known interests. Readers will be able to interact directly with the creative team, influence content, improve content, and most of all, purchase that content in new flexible ways that suit their preference.

Publishers that control their content and can deploy it instantly via web, tablet, smartphone or as an API feed are ahead of the game right now, and they understand that the difficult part is generating the content in the first place - the easy part is coming up with ways to use it and make money from it.

The future today

More than anything, magazines are curators of trusted quality content, and in a world where unverified information is ubiquitous, there will always be a need for a vessel to cut through the sea of inaccurate, biased dross, and deliver trusted engaging content to a willing audience.

Consider a digital magazine that creates itself based on the personal preferences, profile and browsing habits of the reader. Articles and assets are pulled from a content management system and strung together, appropriate non-invasive advertising falls into place, navigation points materialise automatically as a result of the content that has been chosen. Even the front cover is designed and compiled from the articles appearing in this truly bespoke issue. And then it’s immediately available to download to any device, anywhere. No human has made this magazine, no editor was present to sign it off, and no contributors have been called upon - yet it is available to buy out of thin air, and tomorrow it will be entirely different. Science-fiction? No, it’s happening right now, and it’s just the beginning. The best way to predict the future is to invent it.

For publishers to be successful in the future, they must unquestionably offer high quality specialist content, created by passionate experts, and be available everywhere, on any device, 24/7, and customised to reflect the personal tastes of the reader. It’s print, it’s online, it’s mobile, it’s streamed, it’s fed, it’s pinned. It’s all these things, and in the next decade, publishers must become fearless and embrace it all.