By Daniel de la Cruz

We love our glossy paper but our reality is digital. So how can you keep your content alive and relevant? What factors do you need to think about as you decide how to invest in your magazine’s future? Let’s look at some considerations when deciding how to address the print vs. digital dilemma at your organization.

Print publishing offers a vital tactile experience. Folding page corners to earmark favorite articles, cutting out newspaper clippings, flipping from page to page. The problem is that once you’ve tucked that important clipping away into a folder, you likely forget about it.

We love our glossy paper but our reality is digital. So how can you keep your content alive and relevant? What factors do you need to think about as you decide how to invest in your magazine’s future? Let’s look at some considerations when deciding how to address the print vs. digital dilemma at your organization.

Print Pros

Yours forever. One thing is certain about glossy magazines and periodicals: They’re yours forever. Hoard them, share them, lend them, or borrow them. They’re subject only to the time limits you set.

Sensory experience. Studies show that we retain knowledge and experiences better through physical interaction. Thumbing through pages, writing notes, and highlighting passages are all central features we are still finding ways to replace in the digital world. Miguel Cornejo, managing partner at Macuarium Network, adds, “Many users still appreciate the familiar format, especially if they can turn it into just one more channel of their content-consuming experience.”

Easy to pay. We still buy on impulse in the real world. Whether at the supermarket, on the street, or while shopping, grabbing a print magazine is a simple, low-commitment purchase when you’re out and about.

Print Cons

Can’t keep up. The 24-hour news cycle turned into the 24-second news cycle with the rise of social media, making it impossible for even legendary print publications to keep up with breaking news.

Readers now expect a full picture. Instant features, infographics, visuals, videos, and dispatches from the Twittersphere. Print alone just can’t keep up.

Scaling is difficult. Publishing a print magazine requires overhead, production, and material costs that digital publishing obliterated. A print publication is always limited to an audience of those who physically get their hands on it.

Limited feedback. When you publish a print magazine, you’ll never really know what your readers think about it. Sure, some may write you back with comments, but the more telling information is in the details: How long did they spend reading that article? What features did they skip entirely? These details are not just nice to know — they give you valuable information on what content resonates with your readers and where you are simply wasting resources. Without a digital site, you will never know.

Digital Pros

Spark discussions. In a 2011 cover article, The Economist announced that the digital news era would take us “back to the conversational culture of the era before mass media.” The distribution of digital news and media today enables us to openly debate and ideate the way they did in coffeehouses and taverns of the past.

Interactivity. New York Magazine didn’t merely shift its print content to its mobile app: it created a cool, value-added experience. As Apple Insider reports, “An article in one issue about former US Vice President Dick Cheney was merely a small sidebar in the print edition. But the ability to enhance the content on the iPad with larger graphics and interactivity led to a full-page item in the digital copy.”

Higher reader engagement. Give a man a print magazine, and he’ll read it once; give a man an iPad app, and he’ll read it everyday.

Paige Lester, US director of PR and social media at Mag+, offers the following example: “Popular Science is a brand that is doing the transition from print to digital the right way. It has an iPad app (called PopSci) that includes enhanced content, as well as an iPhone app that includes content that is best distributed through a smartphone. PopSci’s audio app for the iPhone includes several articles that are read aloud by editor Jake Ward, acting almost as a podcast. It is a great way to get additional content into readers’ hands and heads, and extend the brand’s reach to smartphones. It is also a nice complement to their other print and digital efforts.”

Social sharing and community. Users increasingly expect to interact with the content they consume. The goal is to draw visitors to your blog for the commenting community and entice them to stay for the articles. Your commenting system should give readers both platform and incentive to respond to and challenge both authors and one another. The result is a robust community of readers and contributors.

Ad-serving flexibility. When you enter the world of digital publishing, you open the door to digital advertising. Not only can you serve multiple ads in one advertising space, but also you can employ some of the latest advertising technology, too. Digital advertising enables readers to engage with ads — whether banner ads or more intensive sponsored content.

Tracking and analytics. The clearest benefit to digital publishing is the feedback that helps you optimize your product and content. Google Analytics shows you what kind of articles and features are grabbing your readers’ attention, how much time they spend on a page, what they do with it, and how they share it. This feedback allows you to better manage your team and internal resources, helping you decide what sort of content to create. Leverage that information to grow and maintain readership and attract viable revenue streams through sponsored content and ad revenues.

Readership feedback. Tracking user activity isn’t the only way to refine your digital publication. You can ask readers directly about their experience and opinions through well-formulated surveys. Find out what they’re enjoying, what their pain points are, and frustrations they might have in accessing your material. This is valuable insight that you can use to improve content.

Timing. Remember the Mitt Romney “47 percent” video that rocked the 2012 US presidential campaign? That was the work of Mother Jones, a left-leaning nonprofit magazine with a circulation of 200,000.

Mother Jones’ editors understood the game-changing potential of their video scoop and executed a carefully planned digital strategy to direct traffic to their own website. It worked really well; within the first 12 hours, they had received nearly two million page views, which was “double the magazine’s previous 24-hour record. Two days later, it had skyrocketed to 6.1 million. When the stakes were high, Mother Jones’ editorial team used its digital arm to grab headlines and capitalize on the news cycle while doing it.

Be discovered. Publishing platforms (aka reader apps) like Pulse and FlipBoard have designed beautiful and efficient interfaces to facilitate personalized reading experiences — like visually engaging RSS feeds. Take advantage of them as new distribution channels for your content when you sign up as a publishing partner.

Apple’s Digital Newsstand is like iTunes for publishers. With some additional requirements (issue cover icons, iOS standardization, etc.), you can secure a spot on this platform. Apple allows publishers to offer free trials and other self-promotion opportunities to facilitate discovery among right audiences. However, note that simply signing onto a platform is not a free ticket to increased readership. You’ll still need to market and promote your publication on your own to stand out from the crowd.

Access to free marketing channels. Digital provides access to Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and more.

Digital Cons

Online plagiarism. Digital publishers need to take additional steps to protect their written content, photos, videos, and other original works. Once the content goes online, you are open to the risk of others reproducing or altering your work with limited regulatory control.

Shorter attention spans. We’re heading into uncharted territory: Adult readers have shorter attention spans. Meanwhile, studies show school children today are able to resist distractions from work for about two minutes before checking their phones or newsfeeds. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts. Digital media has to work extra hard to keep its attention-deficit readers engaged.

Optimization costs. The cost of digital publishing can rack up depending on your organizational roles. A low-cost digital strategy using WordPress themes and free plugins tends to have limited appeal. Higher involvement projects that optimize the user experience for Android, Apple, tablet, and traditional desktop viewers can become costly — but can lead to a much higher payoff.

Print vs. Digital: It’s Not “Whether” — It’s “How Much”
When considering your publishing strategy, associations should first understand how members and other readers derive value from your content. For example, how does the iconic New Yorker magazine promote its digital offering without alienating its print subscribers? By offering them a lot more for just a little more. Readers can subscribe either for print or digital access at the same price ($59.99) or get the combo package with bonus access to its archives for just $10 more ($69.99). Rather than devalue its digital subscription as other magazines do, the New Yorker asks its increasingly mobile readership: “Wouldn’t you rather just have both?”

However, what works for the New Yorker won’t necessarily work for you. Your strategy may look different if your organization is a thought leader providing key reference materials versus a lean newsblog focused on high-volume publishing. In fact, introducing a niche print magazine in today’s cutthroat digital environment — especially one like Modern Farmer, which is matte-printed on thick stock paper — commands attention for its sense of gravitas and permanence.

Going digital presents the challenge of turning your articles, information, and resources into a valuable standalone experience and to complement your print counterpart (if you have one). Consider how to leverage your digital strategy for new avenues of growth. The question is not “whether” — rather, it is what level of digital investment you should make to maintain and grow your readership.