PDF editions – why they’re rubbish, and why you need them

If you’re at all concerned with digital editions of magazines you should follow @david_hicks on Twitter. You do have to endure a succession of tweets about Man United (a once-successful association football club m’lud), but between these he says some very sensible things about digital magazines.

“Sensible” in this context means of course “stuff I agree with”, and his criticisms of PDF ‘page-turners’ are generally right on the money.

These ‘digital facsimiles’ were devised as a solution to publishers’ problems, not to meet any need of consumers. They allow a magazine to pretend they’ve ‘gone digital’, when in reality they’ve done nothing of the sort. They tie a publisher and a consumer to a publishing and content schedule that dates from the days of movable type. And I don’t care what your reader survey says, people don’t like reading facsimile editions – if they did you’d be selling more of them.

A ‘proper’ digital edition will have been built from the ground up so that it works in the way a user of a digital device consumes content. It wouldn’t be issue-based; it should be updated constantly and able to draw on all the content of the title. Your magazine might support several editions or apps for different types of content, or you might have one app that pulls in material from multiple titles. The key is to identify the need and build around that, not create a clumsy facsimile and hope to drag current readers across to it.

Having set my standard firmly in the ground, I’m now going to tell you why every title should have a PDF version.
For consumers who don’t want print, produce a proper digital experience rather than a rubbish compromise. But because page-turners are simply an extension of the print product, give them away free with a print subscription and leverage the marketing benefits that this allows.

If every new subscriber gets access to the digital facsimile you can start their sub immediately – at present new customers can wait weeks for their first print edition (I may have mentioned this once or twice before), a situation described as “prehistoric” by one customer in the recent Dovetail Subscriber Survey.

Yes, this means that a new subscriber is likely to get thirteen issues of the digital version and only 12 of the print, but how does this matter? Think about it, you can give a new customer access to the product they have just paid for – immediately. How’s that for delivering customer service, user satisfaction and all that warm, fuzzy stuff that makes a reader feel that they’re valued (and gets them talking about your great service and renewing their sub)? Better still, you can make this a USP of your own subscription pages so that you’ve got a distinct advantage over third party sites and other resellers.

This also gives your subscriber other ways to consume your magazine. PDF versions are horrible to read on screen for extended periods, but are fine for browsing, or finishing off an article you didn’t have time to read in print. Your print subscribers can grab ten minutes with it on their phone during their commute, say, or read it on their iPad when they’re pretending to do something else. All of these things deepen your readers’ engagement with your product and make them more likely to renew their subscription at a later date. It also delivers invaluable stats on who logs into their PDF version, when, and what they read when they do.

The second reason for doing PDF versions is to sell them as back issues. This is where Zinio makes a lot of the money it does, so shouldn’t you? Here the benefits of a proper app don’t apply, as you’re selling the product (a specific issue) that a customer wants to buy. You can also do it automatically, rather than having someone find it in the warehouse and put it into an envelope.

A third reason is to have a product you can put in one of the ‘all you can eat’ magazines services such as Readly. Think of this as the equivalent of that pile of magazines in the doctor’s waiting room, or the rack at an old-style W H Smiths. If anyone wants to buy a digital version of your title they’ll go for your new, ground up, app – Readly is there for sampling, or for people who buy other titles and see yours as the secondary (or lower) magazine in the roster. This will generate data on what articles are popular, produce a few pence of revenue and, more importantly, act as a sampling exercise that should generate more and better direct sales later.

PDF page-turner facsimiles are not fit for purpose – so you should be changing that purpose and making them work for you.

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