The problem with your digital edition is not what you think.

  • 16 September 2014

I often speak to publishers whose tablet publications are in trouble. (Most tablet publications are in trouble, so this should surprise no-one.)

The typical trouble is simple, yet devastating: no readers at all. None, or a figure that rounds down to none. Less than 1% of the publication’s print readership is very common.

Invariably the publishers in this predicament blame the product; most often the technical aspects of it. Should they switch to Maggio (the publishing platform I make)? If they’re our client, should they switch away from Maggio? Should they incorporate more interactivity? Or less? Video? Audio? What?

But none of that really matters. When the problem is an inability to convert readers from print to digital editions, the pertinent product quality metric is simple: is the digital product better or worse than the print edition?

Well, is it? Here’s a list of key factors to evaluate:

  • Simplicity. Is the digital edition simple to navigate? (The print version sure is.) Do readers need to consult a manual to master the navigation? Is it easy to read an issue all the way through, cover to cover?
  • Ease of access. Nothing could be easier to access than a print publication you’ve subscribed to: it will appear in your mailbox or doorstep, ready to read. That said, a digital edition doesn’t have to suck in this regard. Just make sure that the download size is reasonable; that issues are automatically downloaded in the background whenever possible; and that users are not made to jump through needless hoops when accessing an existing subscription or taking out a new one.
  • Fidelity. How is the quality of the digital edition? Do photographs look better than in print, or worse? Is the text legible? Is it beautiful, even? Can you see JPEG noise? Can you zoom without things getting pixelated?

Simple stuff. But, let’s say that you have a digital edition that measures up quite nicely against the criteria above, yet still doesn’t sell any copies.

What then?

I’ll bet anything that you have a sales problem. Not a product problem, a sales problem.

Adding a photo gallery, or an interactive infographic, or a set of video clips will not make your digital readership grow tenfold. Nor will swapping out your app platform or working on your long-neglected Android version.

If you have 200,000 print readers and 1,000 digital readers—these are not atypical numbers—the most likely problem is that you simply haven’t pushed the digital product much at all.

Sales. You need sales. Here’s a list of sales-y things to focus on:

  • If you are an established print publisher, you have a bunch of pros working on the well-established science of reader acquisition. Bet they’re not really pushing the digital edition! Why is that?
  • Is it because they can’t track the end-to-end ROI of their campaigns? Is it because they don’t know the lifetime value of a digital subscriber? Or is it because they think that the LTV of a digital subscriber is so small that it’s unfeasible to acquire them profitably?
  • Heaven forbid, is it because they’re physically unable to sell digital subscriptions because your app only supports In-App Purchase, not publisher-driven entitlement?
  • Is your per-reader income from digital worse than in print? Even though distribution should cost less and ads should earn more? This will need to be rectified, as otherwise your incentives will be too out of whack to ever make digital work.
  • Do you have a chicken-and-egg problem with digital ad sales? Did you pull out the print advertising from the digital edition but don’t have the critical mass to sell any digital campaigns? Why? What did that do to your per-reader economics on digital?
  • Do you actually expect the digital edition to work as a business? Do your print and digital businesses have their own P&L’s, making each protect their turf to the death? Or perhaps digital is just a strategic initiative for you? Oh, are you doing it just to learn about the future of publishing? Is your budget the R&D budget?

If you’re like most people working on digital editions, you have spent countless of hours thinking about how to improve your product. Next time, think about how to improve the way it is sold.