Posted on December 20, 2013 in Archive

Digital publishing strategy lessons from Encore

20Dec

For readers of Mumbrella, the go-to site in Australia for media, marketing, and entertainment news, the announcement that Encore would close was met with calls of “It was my favourite magazine,” “That’s a shame,” and, in some cases, “What’s Encore?”

Encore was Mumbrella’s sister publication; a weekly digital magazine app featuring some articles from the website and some original stories. It had an experienced staff who worked side-by-side with Mumbrella – the 2012 Small Publisher of the Year. So what went wrong?

In his announcement, Tim Burrowes, the content director for Mumbrella and Encore, gives an impressively candid analysis of the entire project, concluding that “the failure came in the business and publishing strategy.” Although on the whole he’s right, there are several implicit lessons in his story that desperately need a spotlight.

Liquid State - Digital Publishing Strategy (encore logo)

This isn’t about scoffing at the Encore staff, or seeming wise in hindsight. Encore is by no means the first publisher to have made mistakes in digital, but it is an excellent microcosm of the challenges of digital publishing. There is a lot publishers can learn from its story.

Lesson 1: Marketing your digital publication is entirely your responsibility

Credit where credit’s due: Encore was certainly aware of this. Their marketing team did as much as they could with the resources they had, but perhaps more resources needed to be directed their way.

Judging by the comments, several Mumbrella readers were either unaware of Encore, or unaware of its existence on their platform of choice. Encore launched first on iPad, then expanded to Android tablets and finally went to iPhone. Each one of these events was a perfect opportunity to feature Encore heavily throughout the Mumbrella site.

I’m not saying no marketing was done for Encore, but if regular readers of a site are willing to pay for an app and don’t, purely because of a lack of knowledge, there may be a problem with the marketing strategy.

Unlike in print, no one – not even the app stores – is especially interested in helping you sell your publication. You have to direct every eyeball you can to the app download page, and provide incentives wherever possible. It is a truth universally acknowledged that app discovery is broken. Finding your magazine in an app store is certainly nowhere near as easy as finding your magazine on the shelf of a newsagent. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to sell a digital magazine, just that nothing and no one is going to sell it for you.

Encore magazine titles

A lot of hard work went into the magazine and despite its closure, that work wasn’t for nothing.

Beyond getting people to download the app is a bigger challenge: getting them to keep using it. Again, the downfall of Encore demonstrates that you need more than just good content and marketing to keep people coming back.

Lesson 2: Let the reader use the publication in a way that’s convenient for them

It sounds like a simple goal, but it’s easy to lose sight of. For example, if your magazine is on iPad, readers will expect it to be on iPhone as well. Regardless of how your pages might look on the smaller screen, as far as a reader is concerned, your magazine is an iOS app, so it should work on their iOS devices. Again, the comments show Encore missed out on potential subscribers by being late to support iPhone.

The same problem was even more pronounced on Android, where Encore was tablet-only. Without a neat distinction between small tablets and large phones, publishing only to tablet in this case seems to have meant setting an arbitrary lower limit on the screen size of supported devices. The result is that Encore couldn’t install on a Google Nexus 7 or 10 – two of the more popular and portable Android tablets! Worse than that, Encore appears to have been unaware of this limitation; they certainly don’t warn Android readers about it on the app’s download page.

Also, since each issue of Encore was over 100 MB, readers had to remember to download new issues at home or at work. It was a digital magazine that wasn’t fully portable.

Of course, many of these problems were simply limitations of the digital publishing platform Encore used. They didn’t have the resources to lay each page out both horizontally and vertically, either. Sometimes compromises just have to be made. That’s understandable, but still, you need to be aware of the compromises you’re making.

Lesson 3: Test, test, test

This is even more important when you engage an agency to do the technical parts of digital publishing for you. If you’ve kept the process of publishing at arm’s length, the best way to see what compromises were made is by testing on as many devices as possible. Get your friends and family to have look and tell you honestly what they think. It’s not the same as having a user experience expert in-house, but it’s better than crossing your fingers and hoping.

This is probably the most foreign concept for those used to print publishing – that the visual experience of the magazine can be so different for different readers. At certain times in the publishing process, it’s more helpful to think of the digital publication as a piece of software (which, of course, it is). Software can will have bugs and unexpected behaviours, and it’s much better to catch as many as possible early on. Even if some things can’t be fixed, you can least warn readers. And if you find the Android version is slow, clunky, and it crashes, you might consider holding off on that version altogether.

Testing like this gets you thinking about the reader, and getting inside their head is critical. You need to give people a reason to read your publication, as opposed to anything else.

Lesson 4: Don’t cannibalise your own audience

Obviously, you need to differentiate yourself from competitors, but if you already have a following in print or online, as Encore did, you can end up being your own worst enemy.

It’s difficult to get people to pay for content they know they can get for free (from your website, for example). One way around this is to fill your digital publication with as much exclusive content as possible. Of course, if your resources are limited, there’s only so much new content you can generate, but Encore did their best.

However, they shot themselves in the foot by publishing breaking news exclusive to the app. With so few readers, the best stories in Encore went largely unnoticed so, naturally enough, the team began publishing them on the Mumbrella site a week later. Big mistake. Only the keenest of readers would pay for content they can view for free after waiting a few days.

Breaking news should always be published wherever it can be most easily seen and shared – for now, that’s clearly the Web. Once you realise that, you realise that building lots of exclusive content wasn’t the best way to sell the Encore app. Encore would probably have been better off using something like The Atlantic Weekly model.

The Atlantic is best known for their monthly magazine, but they’ve been generating a big audience on their website over the past few years. Their latest digital-only magazine, The Atlantic Weekly, is published on Saturdays and consists entirely of content published on their website in the preceding week. And people are paying for it. The Atlantic Weekly hasn’t been laughed out of town because the readers aren’t paying for the content – they’re paying for convenience. Collecting all the best articles from across The Atlantic’s websites would take you hours, but the Weekly does that for you, so all you have to do is open up the app. By doing the exact inverse of what Encore did, readers start to see the publication as more than just a bundle of content; they see it as a service.

Good digital publishing strategy is about much more than where an article is published first. It’s about using the digital medium to give readers a truly valuable and distinctive experience.

Getting enough readers was always a challenge for Encore. They estimated that in order to get real interest from advertisers, they needed 5,000 downloads (sales) per issue. Sadly, they never came close to that figure, but download numbers for each issue were trending upwards. Burrowes rightly concludes that sweet success (or just breaking even) was a couple of years away. It takes a long time to build a following for a digital magazine. This realisation has a flipside which is worth emphasising.

Lesson 5: Keep production costs low

Since you don’t know how long it will take for the publication to pay for itself and you can’t directly control how many copies are sold, you need to lean on the part of the equation you can control. The lower your production costs, the longer your runway to get the readers and advertisers you need.

There are a lot of digital publishing platforms and agencies out there, so it’s important to shop around and think critically about the value of what you’re paying for. It’s always tempting to fill digital publications with all sorts of digital bells and whistles – videos, animations, interactive graphics and so on. Unless you’re a multinational publisher, you’re almost always better off creating something simple and sustainable at first, and saving the more time-consuming things for when you’ve built a large audience. Painstakingly-designed graphics are only one way of giving readers a distinctive experience. Making these decisions needs a lot of research, but it’s much better to have to do it before you begin than after you’ve burned through half the publication budget.

One of the reasons it takes time to build a solid audience for a digital magazine or book is that the market for digital publications still has a long way to grow. After all, before the iPad, digital publishing barely existed on most people’s radars. On the other hand, digital distribution means the audience for your publication is potentially global. The most successful digital publishers use the latter to offset the former.

Lesson 6: Cater to a global market, even if you’re catering to a niche

That may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true. Encore’s target audience was people in Australia who worked in the media and marketing industries and were willing to pay for the magazine. Before the internet, that niche may well have been enough to sustain a publication; nowadays, it may be too niche. If Encore had been about media and marketing in Asia, or even just in Australia and the UK, the potential audience would have been much larger. The money and effort that went into writing original articles for Encore could have been put towards researching or commissioning articles about the industry in other countries. By all means, publish for a particular niche but, especially if you’re publishing in English, try not to alienate the larger markets in other countries.

Encore was certainly a worthwhile experiment. Giving us all an honest look behind the curtain was a brave and admirable thing for Burrowes to do. I hope that, after licking their wounds, the Mumbrella team will return to digital publishing. For all their work on Encore, they may not be any richer, but they’re undoubtedly much wiser.