Audience Engagement Digital Publishing Top Stories
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“Paper, pixels or – more preferably – both”: Building engagement in the mobile era

Every now and then there is news about print publications moving to digital-only versions. Some of the recent ones include newspapers like La Presse in Canada and Taloussanomat in Finland, and the magazines Marie Claire, Company and Glamour. 

Going online makes business sense as there is an overall decline in the circulation of print publications. Revenues from advertising have also fallen as ad spend on digital has surpassed that of print. Moreover, taking the online-only route allows publishers to shed the huge costs involved in print production and distribution. 

There are trade-offs involved though, as discontinuing print can affect engagement, according to a new study. But content consumption on mobiles continues to increase especially with the younger generation. And going online enables publishers to reach out to a much larger global audience, pursue a paywall strategy, and other business opportunities like e-commerce and events

“On their phones, in their pockets”

In fact, Glamour went primarily digital (it continues to publish 2 issues annually) although its print version was doing well. The move, according to Camilla Newman, Publishing Director for Glamour magazine, was to ensure the future readiness of the publication. 

“When we first began to consider the shift to digital-first, the print circulation of Glamour was really healthy. In fact in the first half of 2017, we’d seen a seven per cent year-on-year rise in circulation figures. But equally we knew that our advertisers were becoming really attracted to digital brands, and that there were a lot of digital only publications launching in the space. 

“We also knew that our largely millennial audience played out their lives on their phone, spending for example 2.5 hours per day on social media…and that’s just what they’re admitting to! So rather than shackle them to a 12 monthly print conversation, we wanted to play where they already were, on their phones, in their pockets,” said Newman at the UK Professional Publishers Association (PPA) Festival in London earlier this year.

Engagement: Print vs Digital

However, print has its advantages. New research suggests that publishers lose out on engagement when they replace print with digital. Researchers Neil Thurman and Richard Fletcher did a case study of the popular British music magazine New Musical Express (NME), after it went online-only. 

The magazine had been in print for 66 years, and its circulation was close to an all time high of 300,000 when the print product was discontinued in March 2018. According to NME’s publisher Time Inc., increasing production costs and a tough print advertising market led them to focus on the digital space. 

After analyzing quantitative audience data from official industry sources, the researchers found that post-print, the total time British readers spent with the NME, fell by 72%. They note that the fall is similar to that of The Independent newspaper, which went online-only two years earlier.

Total attention (measured by time spent reading) received by NME from its British audience (aged 15 and over) before and after it went online-only. Print reading time is a monthly average for the period April 2017–March 2018.

Source: Taylor & Francis Online

Thurman and Fletcher suggest, “We think that, in many cases, the temporal attention periodicals attract via their print editions is unlikely to immediately transfer to their online editions should they go online-only. However, we do not, yet, have enough comparable data to be able to fully generalize the effects of going online-only on net readership/reach.”

It’s important to keep in mind that the strategy probably ensured NME’s future survival. It was successful in making the title profitable again, according to its Editor, Charlotte Gunn. By November 2018, the number of unique monthly users was highest in the website’s 22-year history, according to the study. 

The habit forming routine

A key driver of engagement is habit, and where print trumps digital is in having a predictable publishing frequency which makes it easier to be accommodated into a habit. “We know a key benefit of newspapers is their regular publishing frequency: subscribers know when they can expect new content. It is this routine frequency that has made newspapers so habit-forming for many years. Every morning when you opened your front door, you would see that day’s newspaper waiting for you on your doorstep,” says Mary-Katharine Phillips, Media Innovation Analyst at Twipe.

However, when news went online, this product experience did not follow. Readers can pick from thousands of different news sources, with each competing to publish the newest first. Gone is the regular, predictable publishing frequency of the printed newspaper. This lack of routine in the digital news sphere spells trouble for publishers,” she adds.

Digital, on the other hand, allows publishers to engage through multiple channels, some of which are not available to print-only publications. Social media, email newsletters, app notifications, are some such engagement and audience development tools. 

Under-35s prefer social media and news aggregators

Moreover, we have to consider the abundance of content sources easily available to readers through their mobile devices and PCs. All this amidst falling attention spans, makes engagement a different beast than it was in the pre-internet era. 

According to Reuters’ How Young People Consume News and the Implications for Mainstream Media report, under-35s are less loyal to traditional news brands and mostly prefer social media and news aggregators to broadcast or print media

The study also shows that they tend to access news throughout the day, often via social media, but also pick up some habitual and direct usage patterns (especially in the mornings). Despite concerns about fragmented attention, a number of interviewees also described reading longer news items during the weekends, or listening to in-depth podcasts in the evenings.

Digital tracking of mobile phone activity amongst the study participants showed that maximum time was spent using social apps like Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. News apps mostly accounted for less than 1% of mobile time spent.

Source: Reuters’ How Young People Consume News and the Implications for Mainstream Media

“A mix that allows us to maximize audience engagement”

“For many publishers, the question is not ‘print or digital?’ It is ‘what role does print play in the print, digital and experiential – a mix that allows us to maximize audience engagement, cross-selling and revenue generation?” notes The Future of Media whitepaper by FIPP and UPM Communication Papers.

Ellie Cawthorne, Section Editor at BBC History Magazine at The BBC History magazine says, “The ideal scenario is not print or digital, but a print and digital mix, all of which are adding to the experience for the consumer.” 

She adds, “We start with an idea and what comes out of it is a relevant feature for print, an online video or podcast, and debate through social channels. That’s offering a full experience for all – and it demonstrates the value of a true print and digital mix.”

At Glamour, “print remains hugely important to the brand – but we now print biannually, the old format has gone, and we’ve shifted to a matte finish, providing more rare print incarnations of the magazine that act as keepsakes,” says Newman. 

It appears clear that digital media is poised to dominate in the future, as the number of purely digital media offerings is multiplying. But always remember: technology isn’t going to kill print media. When used effectively, technology can help digital and print in different ways, allowing both to thrive as we move forward in the ever-changing landscape of the media world.

Sergey Bludov, SVP, Media & Entertainment, DataArt

Referring to the present as the new golden age of publishing, Bo Sacks, President of Precision Media Group comments, “We have evolved and are using new tools and business models to thrive. The thriving thing is independent of substrate. 

“A lucrative future can still be successfully developed, and it doesn’t matter if it is paper, pixels or – more preferably – both. The only reasonable forecast to expect is continued change. I see this as an ever-changing era of tremendous opportunity and growth.”