Publishers cross the digital divide

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The Popular Science Genius Guides feature interactive, clickable elements
The Popular Science Genius Guides feature interactive, clickable elements

New technologies have seriously altered the publishing landscape, giving consumers more ways than ever to access their favorite media brands. This creates new challenges — and opportunities — for publishers as they try to build and define multichannel audiences. However, transitioning sales and marketing strategies from a print focus to a multichannel focus requires flexibility, ingenuity and extensive research into your audience's needs and desires.

"The definition of the word publisher right now is so much broader than it was ten years ago," says Gregg Hano, publisher of Popular Science. "We are publishers of content, and that content finds itself in every single form [of] media. You have to make great content that goes cross-platform so that anybody can come to you and get the best and be willing to pay for it."

Popular Science is one of the many publications that has embraced this cross-platform, multimedia approach, with offerings ranging from its monthly print magazine to its blog-style Web site to an iPhone app and a Kindle-based RSS feed. The brand also partnered with Zinio to create two "Genius Guides," online magazines with flippable pages that also use video and interactive features to play up the content in this new medium.

"We wanted to connect the print brand with new technology because that's what the magazine has been about for 137 years," Hano explains. "With our Genius Guides, the goal was not to recreate the Popular Science magazine that we all love, but to create a totally different product."

The first Genius Guide, which came out in the Spring of 2009, was distributed on a paid model. The second, released in June, was offered in exchange for the reader's e-mail address. Readers were also asked for feedback once they reached the end of the digital magazine. The June Guide saw more than four times the audience of the first one, and the company is considering a third issue for the holidays.

The main idea behind the Genius Guides is figuring out how to serve new audiences through new channels. In addition to the magazine and Web site, Popular Science also has content on the Kindle, iPhone and Blackberry.

"Our goal is to introduce consumers to our content on the devices they want and ultimately get them to either subscribe to a regular package or to buy content piecemeal," Hano says. "We have a lot to learn about how to deliver content on these devices, how to engage the audience and how to monetize the content."

The Wall Street Journal, which offers paid subscriptions online as well as in print, also views new digital content as a means for audience growth. Gordon McLeod, president of the Wall Street Journal Digital Network, points out that more targeted content that digs deeper in niche areas can pull in new readers and further align casual readers with a brand — a trend that is driving the Journal to experiment with "premium products," like paid subscriber newsletters in core areas like politics and investing.

While multichannel content is critical for a publication's success, the real key is balancing free and paid content across the channels, McLeod says: "Paid Web sites help drive circulation for print and mobile and other aspects of the business. They go hand in hand."

He credits the Journal's mix of paid and free content for the publication's growth online and in print: WSJ.com has more than 1 million paying subscribers, and its print circulation has also risen this year.

The Journal also offers a mobile edition for BlackBerry and an iPhone app, and is beefing up its online content with videos, blogs and interactive features. Between these moves and the continued growth of branded Journal Web sites, including Barrons.com, the Journal has put together what McLeod calls, "a self-reinforcing digital network." The sites share content and direct audiences to each other to build the brand power and the Journal audience.

A strong, multichannel content strategy helps boost audience numbers, because audiences online tend to differ from print readers.

"Without a strong online presence, the likelihood of success for an offline product is diminished dramatically," notes Jim Spanfeller, president and CEO of Forbes.com.  "People go to the Web for different reasons than they go to print, and a lot of that has to do with what the Web's immediacy, interconnectedness and multimedia."

Spanfeller reports that the Forbes magazine material that is available for free on the site generates less than 1% of Forbes.com's overall page views, but it generates a "huge amount" of subscriptions for the print magazine: "The two work hand in glove."

Both Hano and McLeod describe their brands' growth patterns as the product of "cross-pollination" between multiple forms of content.

"We think a lot about who sees what content, what is free, what applications it should be found in, and in each case we try to adapt our content to the device and the audience we're trying to reach," McLeod explains. "You really have to create what I would call a custom innate environment for each usage."

"We need to be able to give consumers what they want," Hano agrees. "We really have to look at the individual, the content they want and the lifestage they are at, and try our best to understand how they want content delivered."

In the cases of both Popular Science and the Journal, having a strong brand is more crucial to audience success than a focus on any particular medium.

"Publishers are brand managers," Hano declares. "We are publishers of content, and that content does not need to be specific to one form of media. Each medium needs its own strategy, but once we have consumers in our brand, we can introduce them to other products."

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