Posted on June 12, 2013 in Archive

It pays to look to the Future (plc)

12Jun

With the announcement that Future Publishing has been named AOP Digital Publisher of the Year for the third year running, it’s probably worth looking at just what they’ve been eating and whether there’s any of it left.

Like so many stories in digital publishing, Future’s begins with the iPad. Don’t get me wrong – Future Publishing already had quite a stable of established mastheads before 2007, but it’s their transition to digital publishing that really marks them out. Surprisingly, Future Pubilshing weren’t quick to begin publishing on iPad until the announcement that Newsstand would be added to iOS 5. By the time Newsstand was released, though, Future Publishing had 50 titles ready for it.

This made them the biggest fish in an initially small pond.

The real key to the success of Future’s first Newsstand launches is that they were all simple print replicas – no interactivity beyond page turning and zooming.

This meant they kept production cost as low as possible so Future could afford to launch more titles at once. Having a digital edition available gave them a basis for collecting reader feedback and data on app reading habits. From this, they could determine which titles needed interactive editions, which should be more frequent and which were fine as replicas.

Now, Future’s magazines are certainly not in the general interest category. Each title is targeted at a niche audience Future Publishing knows very well. You could argue it was easier for them to categorise their publications than it would be for a larger publisher like Time or News Corp. Having said that, it’s becoming increasingly clear that finding a loyal niche readership is a highly viable survival strategy for magazines, so perhaps larger publishers have something to learn after all.

Niche publisher or not, the tactic of publishing a ‘minimum viable digital magazine’ and then improving upon it based on reader feedback is an ingenious one. You won’t be able to please all of your digital audience all of the time, but you’re guaranteed to disappoint everyone if you launch a digital version so elaborate you can’t possibly sustain it.

That was Future’s first Digital Publisher of Year award.

As for their second one, the next lesson from Future Publishing is that the real profit in digital publishing lies in opening up international markets.

The vast majority of Future’s print titles are distributed in the UK only. And yet, last year Future Publishing announced that 80% of their Newsstand sales were coming from overseas. Moreover, nearly 90% of their digital subscribers were new customers.

Those were some very impressive figures. Not only did they allay fears that digital editions would inevitably cannibalise print readership, they showed publishers that digital gives you a much higher ceiling to reach.

In fact, the success of Future Publishing proved there were serious markets for English-language publications in non-English speaking countries, like South Korea. In print, a publisher would have to make a huge outlay of time and money to break into a new (foreign) market. Future Publishing simply put their publications in the Newsstand and went along for the ride.

Again, once they knew where they were selling well, they were able to capitalise on that and fine tune the magazine.

Of course, by then, Future Publishing had also built their own in-house digital publishing system – something most large publishers haven’t been game to do and smaller publishers can’t afford. If they’d left it even a year later, they may well not have had the time or money to build the system they needed.

Once again, they were quick and didn’t miss the boat – win number 2.

Which brings us to their most recent win.

So far this year, Future Publishing has been doing very well from digital advertising, announcing that more than half its ad revenue now comes from digital. They’re also expanding their content marketing business and starting to focus on events as well.

Most interestingly of all, according to a recent interim management statement, Future Publishing is significantly increasing production of compilation titles, or ‘bookazines’ for Asia & North America. Although they’re not the first to do this, repurposing content from perishables, such as magazines, into a more timeless form has proven very profitable for other publishers.

In fact, mixing content from several publications in order to make something new will only become more common amongst publishers of magazines and books as the digital transition continues.

Future Publishing willingness to embrace opportunities even from outside the business model of a traditional publisher has earned them a well deserved hat-trick of accolades. Other publishers would do well to take notice.

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