In a nutshell:

Monetisation will be one of the biggest challenges for publishers in the coming years. 

Experiment with Facebook, Apple News and Google – it’s low-investment, and there’s very little to lose. 

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s still ‘early stages’ for everyone!

There was definitely something different about the Digital Magazine Summit.

I don’t just mean the trendy location (Proud Camden’s stables), the gooey brownies or the spectacular range of beards on display, but the tangible air of excitement as we took our seats for the first set of keynotes.

This was my first trip to the DMAs, so I had little idea of what to expect. As the day went on, it became increasingly clear what sets this event apart: honesty, and an eagerness to learn from each other.

Let me explain this a little further. At many industry conferences and awards, headline speakers are chosen who are very often from prestigious publishing houses, and they laud their digital publishing successes with a dazzling display of statistics and buzzwords which often conceal the truth: they are just as uncertain as the rest of us.

Instead, we were treated to thought-provoking Keynotes and shorter Perspectives talks from a variety of speakers from different backgrounds – consultants, digital agency representatives and large publishers shared the stage and their insights with us. Not only did we hear about the strategies being used to achieve success, but we heard about the challenges and the failures in a refreshingly open and honest way.

This paved the way for some passionate debate at the Unconference, and I wasn’t the only one who wishes I could have sat in on all the streams. Monetisation dominated the conversation, and everyone agreed that although digital magazines are at the stage that they’re really innovating, virtually no one is reading them, let alone paying for them.

Publishers were conspicuous by their absence. There were a couple dotted around, but the rest have missed out on some of the best minds coming together to discuss the industry, and there were plenty of take-aways to consider. Perhaps the fact that they turned out in force in the evening to collect their awards indicates that they’re doing something right, but as many said, the next couple of years will be sink or swim, and we’re all in this together.

The day was full of engaging, inspiring and sometimes frustrating discussions, and it was encouraging to see that there are some fantastic ideas being brought forward about the future of magazine publishing.

For those who weren’t able to make it and find the Twitter stream far too lengthy to battle through (#DMag15), here is a round-up of the day:


The summit was opened by Gerrie Hawes who set out the themes for the day: Revenue, Content, User Experience and Creating Our Future. These formed the framework for the keynotes and the Unconference discussions later in the day.

Keynotes

The first speaker was Ian Noakes from The Economist, who discussed how they used digital marketing to increase subscriptions. Like many other publishers, The Economist has always had its revenue coming from either advertising or subscriptions, but the enormous shifts this year have eaten in to profits. Ad blocking unsurprisingly came in to this, but so did the access through other platforms and the expectation of free content.

“We’re platform agnostic” said Ian, and their strategy with social and media channels is to ‘hedge’: try all platforms and see what works. “The opportunity to grow our reach outweighs the risks of cannibalisation” he continued, and by covering all platforms, they extend this reach as far as possible.

However, tied in with experimentation is the necessity for the results to be trackable. The Economist are exploring cutting edge technology and programmatic advertising, and big outdoor campaigns no longer feel right for the brand.

The Economist have realised that “bashing people round the head” with subscription paywalls and messaging is not the best way to convert. “Our subscription targets are still there, but our priority is now warming people up to the brand and the content” Ian explained.

Ian also delved into the advertising strategy of The Economist, although one or two ‘surprising’ and ‘provocative’ examples definitely raised some eyebrows in the room. “You constantly have to learn from innovators in the digital space” he added, and talked about using content as a hook. An interesting follow-on was that although these adverts had generated click-throughs, these prospects for the most part had failed to convert.

Free and social activity is driving The Economist’s conversion strategies for the future as they nurture prospective subscribers. Interestingly, desktop is still driving the majority of these subscriptions – whether that is because the mobile conversion is unclear or down to the audience remains to be seen.

Next up was Liam Keating from Conde Nast, exploring whether magazines should focus on a ‘content-and-distribution first’ approach. He took us through the history of digital publishing at Conde, including the laborious job of reformatting 8 print pages into 60 (landscape and portrait) digital pages. “No one cares if the digital looks exactly like the print” Liam confessed, but it’s difficult to change the habits of the people in charge when change has traditionally been slow.

Still, Liam was positive about some of the early processes they had anticipated at Conde, including early implementation of a web CMS to bring all the content together in one place. Other publishers have been slow to this and are suffering today as a result of fragmented processes. Liam also pushed to get content on Android – another call that is beginning to pay off as Android devices gain in ground really quickly.

Liam credited templating as the success story for getting the print teams on board. Templates were ‘overengineered’ to give Conde’s designers a ‘Magazine Lego’ building experience, primarily to cover detailed style requirements.

However, there should also be alarm bells ringing for large publishers. “We’ve been naive in assuming people will come to us because we’re Conde Nast” Liam said, and this is one of the reasons behind their drive to the free channels. Again, this revealed more internal debates about the proportion of content to give away for free, and the quality; something that was discussed at length later in the Unconference.

“Platforms hold a massive leverage over us,” Liam explained. “Bloggers in their bedrooms are competing with us…so how can we get people to come back and pay?”

One other concern was raised about Apple News. What if they adopt a Spotify-style paid subscription model next year? This would be great for independents, but would be very challenging for the big players.

The final keynote was delivered by Andrej Kos from Edition Digital; the headline sponsors. He talked about developing the ‘five pillars’ of digital publishing: Create, Manage, Distribute, Analyse and Monetise. “Be smart,” he said. “Don’t underestimate the value of compelling content at the right time in the right place”.

The Perspectives

These thought-provoking perspectives explored the future of magazines in six 8-minute presentations. Tom Beckenham from Specle opened with the bad news from the ad perspective. “Time has moved on, and the early pioneers in digital magazine advertising have moved on” he said. The good news is that Facebook and Apple offer new opportunities, particularly with the rise of mobile and programmatic. “Innovate, inspire and excite” was Tom’s advice to those battling with these challenges.

Next up was Iain Russel from Future Folio talking the problem of discoverability. He opened by reminding us that Newsstand launched just 4 years ago, and was heralded as the ‘saviour of publishing’. Iain urged publishers to be cautious about Apple News and the hope it really holds for discoverability. “Focus your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new” he concluded.

Carolyn Morgan brought everyone back to the original key values of specialist print magazines in her reader-centric talk. “Do these values really change in the digital transition?” she asked. Bringing together the core purposes of the website, the digital magazine and the print magazine are a necessity, and we have the ability to analyse these in details and find out what works. Carolyn even proposed that a stand-alone digital magazine is impossible without a social web presence and free content. “Maybe we should think of digital magazines as more of a service than a product; a living ecosystem” she said. Catch up with Carolyn’s talk on her LinkedIn post.

Alan Rutter from Clever Boxer came in with a strong opener: “What is the point in your existence?”. His editorially-focused presentation once again touched on the core principles of the content. “I’ve seen better magazines produced by brands,” he said, because they focus on telling unique stories rather than obsessing over ‘content’. Alan recommended paying for quality storytelling, and seeing advertising as only part of the solution, explaining that a digital magazine should be more a service than a product. “Kill the frills,” he concluded, “and stop calling it ‘content’!”.

The Summit reinforced how relevant and up-to-date its speakers were when Neil Morgan from Magvault took to the stage. “Snapchat has an audience of 1.5 billion users,” he said. “Magazines need to be queuing up to get on there!”. Neil discussed examples of magazines who were working with bloggers and who had clever commercial links, and how they created successful content without paying journalists.

The final ‘Perspectives’ talk was led by Tjeerd Hoppenbouwers from Dutch Giraffe, who looked at the power of relevance. “The future is not apps. Web based content is the key” he said, and this was a theme that was discussed at some length later in the Unconference. Tjeerd reinforced the importance of getting to know our audiences on a deeper level – only this way can we improve relevance.

The Unconference

The Unconference was essentially collaborative discussion and debate in different stables: the Revenue stable, Content stable, User Experience stable and Creating Our Future stable. I sat in Creating Our Future, and was impressed at the engagement between completely different groups of people about social channels, censorship, brand exploitation and unbundling.

At the round-up session afterwards, a debate started around the relevance of the PDF replica, with surprising justifications for continuing its existence. Others joined in the Apple News/Facebook debate: “It doesn’t matter how we see these companies, we’ve got to go where the audience is”.

“If you love magazine apps, put your hand up,” one person feeding back said. Awkwardly, only a couple of hands went up. This in itself is worrying, as it could be argued that we should be the die-hard fans…after all, we were at a digital magazine summit!

After a passionate debate over one statement that ‘the future of magazine is print’, there was general agreement that the future of a magazine as an issue is in print, and perhaps the concept of a bundle of monthly content is no longer working for digital.

The Awards

The keynotes, perspectives and discussions had given everyone a lot to think about, and it brought a real buzz to the awards in the evening to know that the finalists were truly at the cutting edge of digital innovation.

Before the awards, Peter Houston from the Media Brief gave a keynote offering his thoughts on the industry. He reinforced the idea that legacy print schedules have to be overhauled to make way for new, more efficient processes, but that we have to be wary of overwhelming users with content. “Spending 4 days on a page is not good business,” he said, to many nods in the audience, “so hats off to templates!”.

Peter put across an optimistic perspective on the industry, reminding us that publishing ‘moments’ have gone from 12 times a year (each time an issue is released) to pretty much every second with digital content. “The face that brands make their own magazine tells us something. They care.” He also reminded us that it’s not too late for anything: to fix, to experiment, to invent.

The team at Page Lizard would like to congratulate all the winners and finalists at the Digital Magazine Awards – it was truly a superb event, and we’ll definitely be there next year!


Have we missed anything? Misquoted? There was so much to condense – drop Esther a line and she’ll sort it out.

 

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