What does going digital mean for publishers?

“Going digital” has been the publisher’s catch-cry ever since the web started to take hold but for many small publishers it’s always been a costly undertaking.

In the last few years, that’s all changed as low-cost, often free, products have once again levelled the publishing playing field.

Now, the problem is not one of cost but of overwhelming choice where analysis-paralysis and procrastination are the main roadblocks.

Options are many and varied

One of the biggest challenges for any existing or indeed new publisher is the sheer number of options for publishing online.

Whilst the Flash-based digital paper replicas, complete with authentic cute page-turning noises, have been very popular due to their easy integration with existing workflows. However, their use-by date is rapidly approaching as their incompatibility with most mobile devices starts to bite hard.

Savvy publishers are also realising that there’s more to online publishing than simply mimicking a paper product that provides an experience that falls well short of its offline cousin.

So, what other digital channels are available? Here’s 6 to whet your appetite.

Ebooks (.mobi, .epub, .pdf)

Publishing an eBook is a relatively straight-forward endeavour and can be an excellent way of reusing existing content, collating related material to form larger bodies of work.

Exposure is the other key drawcard with the capability of leveraging Amazon (Kindle) and Apple (iBooks) to reach potentially massive audiences.

Apps for reading both .mobi and .epub formats exist for all the popular platforms including mobile and desktop.

PDF is ubiquitous. Freely accessible on any platform it’s advantages are consistency across all platforms, plenty of low-cost and free software for its generation (Zeen101 has its own issue-to-pdf add-on) and consumption.

It’s also easy to add watermarks and security features and, above all, can easily be generated by InDesign and Illustrator.

But it’s not all plain sailing with PDFs. The simple generation out of the Adobe Creative Suite brethren often means that the PDF is formatted for print, not digital: okay on a desktop, only slightly annoying on a tablet but unusable on a phone.

Standard Website

The humble website is still a highly viable channel for the consumption of content. Traditionally this has been short-form but recently there has been a strong trend to step outside the incessant demands of the 24/7 news cycle and deliver long-form content that has much more in common with traditional magazines.

The most pleasing trend for publishers, though, has been the growing acceptance of paywalls, particularly as advertising rates continue to drop.

Issue-based web publishing

Issue-based digital publishing, such as Apple’s Newstand and Google Play, have not been the panacea that many publishers had hoped.

It can be an expensive business creating digital editions for tablets and the return on investment simply isn’t there for many small publishers.

Issue-based web publishing, however, has a much lower barrier to entry and although slow to catch-on, is gaining momentum as publishers and readers alike realise the benefits in expert curation.

Start-up and on-going costs are relatively low, the required functionality can easily be retrofitted to existing websites and the workflow is much more familiar and easier on resources than the constantly publishing model.

Apps

Apps have been making a lot of noise for quite a while, with the lure of having your icon prominently displayed on a readers screen and the truly massive advantage of notifications direct to the device.

However, much like their closely-related Newstand cousins, apps have always been an expensive proposition with an unconvincing ROI.

That’s starting to change as a steady flow of new app products are being brought to the market that are specifically designed to work with the most popular content management systems.

These new products provide publishers with a much lower-cost pathway to having their own app.

Specialised services (ReadyMag, Story.am)

Innovation has just been confined to the app space. New services, such as ReadyMag and Story.am are being regularly launched that allow the building and publishing of web-based magazines from a single interface.

On the plus side, they are often very inexpensive and produce pretty good results. On the downside, it’s yet another interface to learn, another repository for your content and you are reliant on the service staying afloat.

Email newsletter

Good old email. It pre-dates the internet yet is still the primary mode of communication and information consumption for many, especially those who remember a time before YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Many publishers still offer premium content via email – The Economist recently launched its Espresso product as both an app and an email.

And no wonder. With services such as MailChimp, delivering content via email is cheap, easy and highly trackable.

Combine to conquer

Perhaps the quandary is actually one of too much choice.

The best approach is perhaps to offer as many choices as your resources will allow and let your readers decide for you which is best.

If you’re astute, you will reuse content, sending differing detail down each channel to work out where the sweet spot is: summary in “news” app and email; longer on the web; longest in an issue-based web publication or ebook.

Digital actually offers a wealth of opportunity for experimentation and new products. The key is to know what audience you are going for, why you are going for them (retention or acquisition) and what the value proposition.

Again, to use Espresso as an example, The Economist is making a big deal out of being anti-continuous news cycle. This is a daily delivery of short articles covering the 7 most important stories that you need to know about. All for the monthly cost of it’s namesake beverage.

Making the most of meagre resources

Of course, no publisher is awash with resources, financial or personnel, so you also have to be smart about you launch into the digital space.

Workflows need to be as integrated as possible – it’s simply not feasible to have a separate process for each
channel.

Content needs to be created and managed in a single centralised location that allows you to publish to your website, your app, your email list as well as posting to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google+.

Generating revenue

It feels like publishing has turned a corner and that there is a growing acceptance by readers that they have to pay for online content, especially if it’s unique.

Paywalls (why have we allowed that term to become the de facto, surely “subscription” is far more friendly and accurate?) are now prevalent amongst major newspaper publishers and low-cost products can offer similar functionality.

One key aspect to bear in mind when considering a paywall product is the impact it may have on Google’s ability to index your content: if every page it visits is protected by a subscription form, then it’s not going to get very far.

This is one reason why metered paywalls are popular. They allow free access to a certain number of articles and this means that not only can Google regularly index content, it can be confident that when it sends someone to your site via a search engine result, that the content will be available.

And Google likes to be confident.

The other major advantage of the metered paywall is that it effectively lets your potential customers try before they buy.

Of course, there’s also advertising, from straight banner ads to sponsored content. With the fierce competition for advertising dollars pushing down the cost of display ads many publishers now look at such sponsorship as the icing-on-the-cake.

Setting-up Your Online Publishing Framework

So, let’s get practical. How do you set-up your online publishing framework? Well, there’s plenty of approaches but the most cost-effective will have WordPress as its foundation.

If you haven’t heard of WordPress, there’s just 2 things you need to know:

  1. It’s the most popular open-source content management system on the planet and allegedly powers 20% of all websites.
  2. You’re never more than a mile away from someone who can help you with a WordPress site.

Okay, so maybe 2 is a bit of an exaggeration but size and reach of the WordPress community is extraordinary. It’s also over 10 years old and has a very mature “after sales” market (the product itself is free).

WordPress offers a great opportunity for a creating publishing hub that can use a variety of methods to publish, even automatically, to multiple sources from apps to email services such as MailChimp to other websites.

It may not the best content management system but it is the best supported. And that is often what matters.

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