Digital editions – trying to solve the wrong business media problem


Recently I’ve become quite a fan of my ex-colleague, Bill Pollak, the CEO of Incisive Media North America.

Bill has recently ‘got’ social media & is both twittering and blogging profusely.

Along with the rest of the business media sector Bill is clearly looking at the future of his product lines and wrestling with the challenges they face. He is doing this in a very open way and with the aim of both engaging the staff of Incisive Media’s North American operations & reaching out to the industry he serves. I applaud his efforts & hope they permeate the rest of the company.

However, Bill’s post of the 28th November entitled “Capitalizing of Digital Edition Technology” tells me that there’s still a long way to go as the old ALM business faces up to a digital world.

In the post Bill says:

“If advertising declines, I believe publishers will be pushed to find ways to cut the costs of those publications, and that almost certainly means manufacturing and distribution costs. Turning a print publication into a digital one is an obvious solution, and one which we need to all be looking at with an eye toward how we can make the transition work in our favor.”

He then goes on to highlight a recent edition of American Lawyer which managed to embed video from an awards dinner into its digital edition pages & urges his teams to look at ways of selling this to advertisers.

With the greatest respect Bill you’re sending everyone off on a wild goose chase here. Digital editions like those facilitated by Zinio, Olive, NxtBook Media, Texterity etc. are a massive red herring & here’s why:

1) Recipients don’t read them. I could stop this post here. Just think about average open rates for e-mails these days let alone the people who cannot be bothered with re-formating and re-sizing something that wasn’t designed to be read on screen.

2) The digital version of a magazine is called a website – or occasionally a PDF. Concentrate on getting these offerings right rather than tinkering around with something that is designed to look like a magazine but isn’t printed.

3) Engagement with a media property is about much more than having a video pop up from a page. It’s about commenting, sharing, bookmarking, forwarding… how do you do this within a digital edition?

I understand why publishers are tempted to go down the digital edition route – quite apart from the suppliers being all over the trade associations like ABM & PPA.

Let’s see, I can charge the same amount (or even add a premium) to my advertisers and not have to incur any printing and distribution costs, hmmm. What’s not to like?

But the reality is that digital magazines are a gimmick, and not a very practical gimmick at that. They are trying to solve a problem by ignoring the original nature of that problem – the fact that advertisers, in the main, don’t see the value in spending money with your controlled circulation title. The old business case doesn’t make sense any more.

So, my advice to your publishing teams is this. If your magazine is not making money and you’re giving it away for free then cut back the circulation to the people who your advertisers really still want to reach – and make sure those readers are actively engaged with your brand.

If you still cannot make money then don’t pretend to be a print magazine online. Drop the legacy print title and start again.


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21 responses to “Digital editions – trying to solve the wrong business media problem

  1. As the director of Public Relations for Zinio, I feel compelled to respond to this. You are misinformed about several of the points you make regarding digital publications. First, you say recipients don’t read them. That is just not true. Qualified paid circulation via digital has a high engagement rate. People open these titles, they download them, they engage–it’s content that they have paid to access, which makes the stakes significantly higher. Also, your third point about sharing, bookmarking, and forwarding digital magazines is outdated. Zinio recently launched a program called Zinio INSIDE that accounts for all of these possibilities. Anyone who uses the internet can search, share, embed, and email articles, images, flash files, or video from digital titles for free to anyone through social networking sites like facebook or MySpace, as well as sending direct links through email.

  2. I would like to respond to your points regarding digital editions, specifically:

    1) “Recipient’s don’t read digital editions”. The reading rate for digital editions is much higher than other types of e-communications, because these messages are delivery notifications of a valued item — their magazine. If you want to read why, see the most recent “Profile of the Digital Magazine Reader” (

    2) “The digital version of a magazine is called a website”. For some, yes. But a website cannot capture the value of the “lay out” of a magazine, the high-quality photography, charts, pictures, and the serendipity of an experience that has a beginning, middle and end. There are many other reasons why digital editions are preferred, but the point is that readers ask for them! Publishers want to make sure that readers are served, whether in print, on the web, in a digital edition, through newsletters, etc.

    3) “Engagement with a media property is about much more than having a video pop up from a page. It’s about commenting, sharing, bookmarking, forwarding… how do you do this within a digital edition?” Texterity’s digital edition solution provides full capability for sharing via email, bookmarking, and posting on social networks including Facebook, Digg, etc. There is also a “widget” for posting on your blog.

    As to your general assertion that “advertisers, in the main, don’t see the value in spending money with your controlled circulation title”, well… I might let Incisive answer this.

    But, I believe that smart advertisers are deriving great value from working with publishing partners like Incisive. The value that a good b-to-b publisher can bring with their support includes not only advertising, lead generation, and events, but using the valued “brand” and authority of the publication to bring readers together with advertisers. Everyone benefits.

    We’re proud to be a part of a solution with digital edition services that serve our publishers, their advertisers, and readers.

  3. Rory Brown


    Thanks for taking the time to comment and give an update on the zinio inside programme.

    Just so I am being clear I was not talking about paid products here. I was commenting on Bill’s blog post about taking a print controlled circulation magazine and transferring the readership over to a digital edition which I believe won’t work.

    Obviously if someone has chosen to pay for a service then that is a different matter.

    I do still contend that digital editions are not easy to read and interact with – even supposing you opened the e-mail link in the first place. I believe online publishing should be designed for a web page and a web audience rather than trying to pretend to be something else.

    However, I’d be interested to hear other views. Especially from anyone who is making digital editions work successfully in a B2B context. If you are, please leave a comment below and maybe you can convince me that I’m wrong.

    Thanks again for dropping by.


  4. Hi- Sorry to add on to what looks like a provider chain of comments. I’m the CMO at Zinio and also a blogger, twitterer, columnist for Incisive Media and authoer.
    I think Steve Rubel says it best in recent blog and reference to Zinio client: AdAge. Take a look:

  5. Rory Brown

    Cimarron – thanks for your comments. Your survey results clearly show that readers do value digital editions but obviously you are polling from a group of existing requested users.

    Jeanniey – I read Steve Rubel’s piece & respect his views greatly so maybe digital editions do have greater traction than I think.

    I’d still be interested to hear directly from readers who are fans of digital editions. The interesting thing for me is not the option between receiving a printed magazine or a digital edition but between a digital edition and a web page with the same information on it – advertising, links to video, comments directly on the article etc.

  6. Alexandra

    Hi Rory,

    I stumbled across your blog and feel, as a fan of this medium, I have to reply.

    Bit of background: The company I used to work for made the strategic decision to move from a printed format into a NXT Book digital magazine and saw revenue increase, as well as readership. We had on average 15,000 readers per fortnight all engaging with our digital magazine. None of our users pay for any of our publications, so we made a successful transition from free print circulation to free digital circulation, and actually increased our reader base.

    When I first started with this medium however, I felt similar to yourself – why would someone look at this and not our website (which is one of the best in the UK)? However, it soon became apparent that the NXTBook format could do so much more than our website and needed to be treated as a medium in its own right.

    This is think is key. A digital magazine is NOT a website, it is NOT a magazine, it is a brand new medium and should be treated as such. We had tried to make it an online magazine, this wasn’t right so we redesigned it to redesign the pages to be read easily on screen. We tried to make it into a website, but this wasn’t right – people don’t want to browse it they want to read it. The digital magazine fills a gap between a magazine (can’t buy / apply / interact instantly) and a website (don’t get people reading the information or staying for a long period of time)

    One of the best things for us though was that it could be delivered direct to our audience, but has the advantage on email as you can include so much more information, AND you can make sure people are looking at the info you want them to, not get to the landing page and going off through irrelevant parts of the site.

    I no longer work in publishing, or with digital magazines, but I continue to be subscribed to several different publications (ASOS fashion magazine, Betty Crocker’s recipe book) and will continue to read them, as well as use the web.

    The thing is, you don’t have to be one or the other. I’ll read papers and magazines – both do similar things, both are printed medium, but the content is being delivered in different ways to meet the audience needs. You don’t have to sit in the digital magazine camp or the website camp; both have their merits. Personally I think that moving to a digital format is a smart move, and more and more people should consider it. How much more environmentally friendly would your company be if you halved your corporate brochures and did a NXTBook version?

    I hope this gives you a different view – from a slightly different perspective.

  7. We’ve been bouncing this one back and forth at SAS, where I edit sascom magazine. We feel, like you, that the flip-a-page online magazine model isn’t going to work for our readers who are more likely to read either print or HTML. Instead, I’m focussing on how to improve the HTML version of our magazine with interactive features – but I’m having a hard time finding good examples for inspiration.

    What are your favorites?

  8. Rory Brown

    Alexandra – nice to hear some direct experience from a publisher.
    My problem with receiving digital editions has always been that the first time I receive them I open and scan through but never end up reading anything because you keep having to come in and out and re-size pages. Generally for future editions I don’t bother.
    Do you remember any metrics on levels of open rates and time of use?

    Alison – I was beginning to think I was the only one who felt this way about digital editions so thanks for your comment.
    There are obviously a lot of great websites out there. My preference has always been for those which offer many ways of engaging and interacting – comments, voting, video, podcasting, social bookmarking etc.
    I’m sure other readers can name some of their favourites here.


  9. Bill Pollak


    This has certainly become a lively debate! Let me just add a couple of points to the discussion.

    1. Technology does not stand still. Not only is the software (eg Texterity and Zinio) improving, but more importantly so is the hardware used by readers. One of the things that I think will drive reader acceptance of Digital Publications is the proliferation of the Kindle and similar devices among both business professionals and the general public. Were you planning to give a Kindle for Xmas? Too late–Amazon is already sold out until after the holidays. And The NY Times is now claiming it has 10,000 subscribers to its Digital Editions via the Kindle. With newspapers and magazines more widely available on such devices, reader acceptance will rise and advertisers will be happier with the results.

    2. I never said that I favored Digital Editions over websites. In fact, we are investing heavily in our websites and I think that they have a bright future. But display advertisers, who provide most of the support for our controlled distribution magazines, have shown an inability to transfer their 4-color image-building display ads into a web environment. Banner ads don’t quite do the trick. And interstitials may be intrusive and look good but if there are too many of them web users are likely to get frustrated. Digital Editions represent another channel for those advertisers to use in getting across their brand-building messages.

    3. I remember in the old days editors would first create a magazine, and then they would simply copy the same content and art on to their web 1.0 website. There was little advantage in it for the reader. Now, smart editors, do things with their websites that they would have never been able to do in print–they are taking advantage of the technology and creating added value on their sites. I think the same needs to happen with Digital Editions–editors need to take advantage of the rich media capabilities, links, etc. that provide a meaningful difference with print, in ways which will engage readers and boost open rates and readership. That will be good for the publications and good for the advertisers.

    Like you, I’d like to hear more from experienced publishers with regard to successes and failures in the Digital Publishing arena.



  10. Rory Brown

    Bill – thanks for your feedback. When the Kindle was launched I never thought it would be successful so I have learned a lesson there..

    Actually though I think this gets to the heart of my problem with digital editions – that there is no usable reader for them.

    Digital editions are currently read in a web page and yet are not formated to make it easy to do so. That’s madness. A4 or tabloid pages need to be shrunk to fit a standard computer screen & to read individual articles regularly requires re-sizing, scrolling etc.

    This, in my opinion puts a significant barrier in the way of user acceptance.

    A controlled circulation magazine is all about introducing buyer to seller. If the buyers aren’t using the product then it doesn’t matter how creative you are being with the seller’s message delivery.

  11. Bill Pollak


    Again, I think your response to Digital Editions is grounded in what we might call DE 1.0. But we’re now moving into DE 2.0, and as with the web I think thatstep forward will make a significant difference in the user experience.

    For one thing, publishers are now designing DE publications from the ground up, rather than simply as replicas of their physical publications. They are sizing the page to better fit a computer screen, using type sizes that can be read with relative ease, and building in links that help the content better come alive.

    One example you may not have seen yet is Sporting News in the US, which recently converted from print to digital with a redesign that takes advantage of the technology platform. It’s worth it to download a sample copy from here so you can see what they have done. Not perfect, but certainly a giant step forward and one I’m sure other publishers will be emulating.

    By the way, you might ask why download a digital copy when you can see the content on the website? As a reader who commutes daily by train and often finds himself on long plane rides, I find that the web is not always available. But I can theoretically carry a hundred digital editions with me on my travels and not worry about an internet connection. Just one more reason why I think the technology has a future.


  12. Rory Brown

    OK – the Sporting News example is definitely more user friendly & it has also got away well from the ‘trying to give you a magazine experience’ with sounds of paper and flipping pages which I always thought was pointless.

    I’ll remain a sceptic but I can see that things have moved on in the digital edition world & will keep an eye out for the next evolutions.

  13. is chocka with social media lovability. I use it to publish a (free) e-book that will also be available as a printed product on Amazon etc.

    My business model was going to be paid-for book, freebie promo PDF-to-Flash page flipper, and then a paid for e-book.

    When I researched Issuu and Zmags and even CS4’s new page-flipper PDF-to-option, I could see that I could make money with a B2C product using a B2B model.

    In short, I sold ads in the book. Some people complained initially but the content won them over.

    I’m now a PDF-to-Flash zealot and can see a lot of potential in the delivery method, especially the social media potential.

    I also like the stats on For instance, I can see that nearly 50 percent of the visitors to my book read right through to the end (well, flick, anyway). The book is 50 pages and that kind of low bounce rate really surprised me.

    If you’re interested the book is at:

    Click on ‘author’ to see the other 14 versions of this self same book. I personalise covers and ads so advertisers and those with audiences can distribute their own versions of the book.

  14. matthewmcgowan

    interesting update –> The Detroit Free Press plans to launch digital editions of its print paper, in conjunction with some major digital changes:

  15. Great article and comments.

    The big trend here is the abstraction of content from presentation. Print magazines are all about presentation – its one of their key strengths. Online – presentation is a totally different matter, as people consume in many ways through different browsers and forms (RSS, flash mags, HTML websites, mobile apps, widgets etc etc).

    So the key hurdle in the minds of traditional publishers is that the tight grip on presentation must be loosened so that readers can consume as they wish. The issue with the classic pdf/page turn models is that it too closely replicates the print version (and therefore, incidently, the cost of creative is just as high as in print – which is tough to carry when delivering and monetising online).

    At idiomag, we can offer publishers and brands a platform that enables delivery in multiple formats (currently flash mag, mobile, widget, RSS) with the presentation layer being automatically created, based on the requirements of that medium.

  16. Mike Barrett

    Rory, I agree with your scepticism. I think you have to look at the different way that on-line content is consumed compared with off-line.

    Magazines are a “lean back” experience, consumed when you have the time to browse the content at your leisure. On-line is very much a “lean forward” experience, most users are searching for the answer to a question and are looking for results as fast as possible.

    Page turners offer the worst of both worlds. They are not easily indexed by Google and therefore unlikely to satisfy a researching user and lack the portability and tactile experience that a printed magazine provides.

    There are always exceptions to the rules, Monkey magazine is a good example. This works because the content is disposable, the target demographic love the video format and there is a large database of users to send the emails to.

    If your content has long term value then much better to publish it in a CMS based website where you can continue to monetise it over a long period of time.

    Publishers looking to cut their print and distribution costs by simply creating page turning versions of their magazines misunderstand the way content is consumed on-line.

  17. Ed

    Hi Rory, i wrote a similar post last year and agree with everything you say.

    There’s no denying that they can make money if you get the right advertisers but it’s a short term fix and won’t provide long term digital revenue. Recreating offline experience online seems like a painfully unimaginative way of making money. The only person it seems to help is the salesman who doesn’t really understand online.

    I think your point on ‘engagement’ is the key to realising how websites can give your content much more value online over digital editions.

    It’s also worth adding there is little to no search engine indexation (digital edition companies will argue there is but compared to a well designed website their visibility in search engines is worse than a badly formatted PDF). This significantly reduces their longevity and traffic over time.

    Plus you can sell a regularly visited 5 year old web page many times, you can only sell space in a digital edition once.

    The internet is a city and you surf from website to website like you would walk from house to house. Digital magazines don’t share this world, they’re a web cul-de-sac.

  18. Rory Brown

    Interesting further addition to this debate – which I intend to keep going in the comments here.

    (thx to Richard Lander for the point)

  19. I know I’m a bit late to join this conversation, but I wanted to come from a different angle after all the page flipping vs website posts.

    Publisha just launched a free to use browser based CMS that creates a publication across web, Facebook, iPhone and iPad. This is not a PDF converter or just a website. Rather it focuses on an easy reader experience, without the need to zoom or awkwardly move around the page. Layout wise, the website looks more like a blog, built in HTML.

    The Facebook app is a tab within an existing Facebook Page, where full archived articles can be stored, along with polls etc.
    Publisha is a complete publishing ecosystem with full social media / sharing features and has built in revenue streams. The systems has full analytics so publishers can fine tune their articles and advertising.
    It allows independent publishers to gain wide exposure and an easy reader experience for minimal cost and resources.

    From all the issues you raise, I think this is a good solution to your concerns.

    Would be interested in hearing your thoughts:
    or drop me a line

  20. Pingback: Favourite posts: The future of the magazine/newspaper

  21. Pingback: Poynter’s ugly ducklings of digital news are finally singing their swan song - FIPP

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