Why Most Magazine Publishers’ Websites Stink

mens running arghI have recently been consulting for a medium-sized publishing house who produce a range of printed magazine titles. As is the case with many print magazine and newspaper publishers, they have noticed a significant drop in subscriptions, retail sales and advertising revenue.

Because of their history as a print publisher, their websites have always been viewed as secondary to their print titles. New content is initially published in the printed magazine and then released to the website a month or so later. Very few resources are made available to the website. Articles are posted to the site by the same team that work on the magazine with little thought given as to how visitors may want to read, search or navigate their way through the articles.

Take a look at these charts showing the 5-year trend of people searching for popular topics on Google relative to the people searching for magazines on the same topic. Note, we are not comparing the number of people searching, only the trend of one compared to the other:

fashion


economics


celeb


fitness


It is as clear as day that while fewer and fewer people are searching for print magazines, there is no less interest in the topics those same magazines cover. This same trend is seen on almost any topic you might care to research. How much more evidence do publishers need that the public are interested in their content but increasingly less interested in buying it in paper form?

Take a look at this fairly typical example of a website from a magazine publisher who stubbornly refuses to see the writing on the wall:

 

mens running

The website has little content of any real value. It serves largely to promote subscriptions to the printed magazine. The only real editorial content is a few aged articles written for print with titles that give little thought as to how people might search for, browse or access the content online. The design and usability of the site is poor. Even the most basic SEO techniques have been ignored including a lack of Meta descriptions on the article pages. Each page is plastered with obtrusive, animated ads that distract from the content. The reader’s forum resembles a ghost town where some of the “most recent” posts took place over 6 months ago.

I don’t wish to pick on any individual title or any individual publisher. The ‘Men’s Running’ website is pretty typical of many small to medium-sized publishing houses in the UK. What does upset me is that working within each of these publishing companies is often a devoted team of writers and editors producing excellent work who care deeply about the future of their industry.

The owners of these companies watch their circulations decline month after month and become paralysed with the thought of investing additional resources in their websites. Some mistakenly believe that converting their print titles to PDF or In-design versions for tablets is the magic solution. Perhaps they still live in the misguided hope that their print circulations will eventually recover without requiring them to take even a single step outside of their comfort zone?

Just take a look at what happens when a publisher becomes truly enlightened:

esquire

The Esquire website is a quality product arguably better  than the printed version of the magazine. The plentiful content is adapted for the medium, the advertising is unobtrusive, the design is clean, uncluttered and discoverable. The site is fully responsive; it reads equally well on a 30” monitor or a 5” smart-phone display. As a result, their organic search traffic has more than doubled in the past 12 months:

esquire traffic

Your readers want to access your content on their laptops, tablets and smart-phones. Your advertisers want to promote their brands in a digital (and more measurable) format. Your writers want their creative content to be accessible to a global digital audience.  Shnitzel Crespigny Shulman

This isn’t a decision about whether or not to invest in digital. It is a decision about whether you want your company to survive or die.


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  • Danny Coyle

    Interesting piece Danny. I recently left the editor’s chair (of the printed mag) at MR. You’re right about the dedicated, hard- working folk who do care about the industry. Small publishers do face a huge challenge to cover all the bases with small teams, so while I’d agree the MR site needed and will get a revamp, it’s a little unfair to compare it with a site that enjoys the resources of one like Esquire, which I agree is excellent. The good folk at Wild Bunch all see the potential for their online platforms to go up a few notches and I hope to see them doing just that in 2014.

    • Thanks Danny. Really appreciate your comments and insight.
      I realise that comparing Mens’ Running to Esquire isn’t entirely fair. Although, I don’t agree that it necessarily requires a huge investment to make a title perform better online. It takes a little education and an awareness of the problem. There are a ton of small changes that would have a huge impact on the MR site and others like it.

      I really don’t mean to pick on any individual company. I just get frustrated with the head-in-the-sand attitude of some publishers who sit around waiting for this issue to magically resolve itself. I really feel for the editorial teams and just wanted to do my bit in shaking things up a bit.

  • Kevin

    One gripe of mine regarding many magazine websites is when I go to the homepage and can’t find anything about the latest print edition. Often for magazines, I see the latest cover on third party sites days before the mag’s own site is updated.

    Any mag site that makes it hard to find out what’s in their latest issue and access the main articles quickly is a pain and hurts print sales too I believe.

  • Dave Bell

    One relatively recent change in all this is that tablet computers have broken away from the relatively immobile options of electronic reading. Print used to be the easily portable format. Now, with mobile phone networks carrying the data I can read a web page anywhere, with several choices of screen size and weight.

    This does make web design a little more complicated, but I no longer have to be tied to my desk, or to stay within range of a wifi node.

    I can also remember when magazines were valuable for the adverts. A magazine such as Railway Modeller provided the connections between retailer and buyer that are now provided by eBay, Amazon, and company-specific websites. Why advertise in a web magazine when Google can as easily bring customers to your own website?

    I expect you have plenty of answers to that question. I do know a few websites which are very highly rated by Google, and it seems rather obvious that a magazine site could profit from its reputation. But could that turn into the suspicious art of paying for a good review?

    Good content, and making it easy to find, are the easy parts of the problem. How do you monetise reputation without wrecking it?

    One aspect of websites which only a few magazines have managed to sustain is the reader community. That is how the phenomena of science fiction fandom started out in the 1930s: people reading each other’s letters in the pages of magazines. Those printed letter columns were controlled by the strictures of printing costs. Now we are mostly on the internet, and readers’ forums, a sort of social media rather than a strict analogue of the printed letter column, can become dangerous places. Yet despite the dangers, connections can be made, in and out. Good readers, with their different experiences, can add value, seeing connections that a journalist might not.

    No, my name is not distinctive enough. But I wonder what my reputation appears to be on a search engines. I wonder if my comments can be monetised…

    No, that is silly. But I am a reader, I am a target for the advertisers, and so a magazine can profit from me. Good websites are now the way to do that.

    • Thanks for your contribution Dave. All valid points, intelligently made.

      There are various ways to monetize content without having to jeopardize the perception of the brand. Perhaps I might use this as the subject of a future post.

      Publishers that come from a history in print seem to struggle much more with this. They often see the website as just another version of the printed title rather than an entirely different medium requiring a fresh approach. We are just starting to see the first glimpses of this realisation now with publishers experimenting with interactive content, online tools and content personalisation.

      I believe there is still a place for advertising in publishing. Sites such as Amazon and Ebay are of little use to a company trying to increase awareness of their brand. They respond mostly to consumers with some existing idea of what they want. Consumers still need a way to be made aware of new products and services. As long as the publisher maintains an authentic division between editorial and advertising there is no reason at all to struggle with generating a financial return from their content.

      A great example of this is moneysavingexpert.com. Martin Lewis has always been completely up-front about how he makes money from his site and very successful at monetizing the online content having now sold the business for a substantial sum to moneysupermaket.com.