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Jul 18, 2012 | Comments

Traditional magazines have momentum on the iPad. Hearst and Conde Nast each report about half a million subscribers across their magazines, and both expect to surpass a million subscribers by the end of the year.

This momentum isn’t sustainable. While print magazine subscriptions continue to hold strong, magazine publishers cannot expect a comparable revenue stream from tablet subscriptions.

That’s because magazines’ initial success on the tablet parallels the same circumstances in the early days of the web. 15 years ago, traditional magazine sites were part of the back-bone of web content; the future seemed promising.

But success was short-lived. Over time, new publishers—the Gawkers, Huffington Posts, and Buzzfeeds—provided a far superior web experience by evolving in ways that magazines didn’t. Even now, 9 years after the creation of Gawker, publishers are finally beginning to adopt web-based standards in publishing rather than porting content from their printed magazines.

Lessons from the Web: Evolving Mechanics

There’s one crucial lesson magazine publishers should take from their past experiences on the web.

The way we consume media today is strikingly different from even two years ago. We now spend our “bored at work moments” on Tumblr looking at animated GIFs and beautiful photos. We stopped visiting mass media sites. Twitter is a better functioning homepage for links. In 12 months, over 2% of all web users visit Pinterest.

For magazine publishers, these changes represent new mechanics in the software that powers the web. From the late 90s to today, emerging mechanics sprouted a new breed of digital media companies. For example:

  • The mechanics of blogging software dicate that the newest items goes at the top of the page. As a result, we changed how we value news and content. New beats high-quality, in-depth, and reliable content. Audiences are wired to get a rush from novelty.
  • The mechanics of Twitter transformed why we share. Media consumption became a form of self expression, and publishers optimizing for a social network’s news feed won.
  • The mechanics of Pinterest are transforming our media diet around collecting things. A constant stream of images is more valuable than a million-dollar photoshoot with only a few resulting images.

The lesson of the web wasn’t simply adapt to the Internet, but rather adapt to new mechanics. Throughout the history of the web, mechanics continued to produce new behaviors, and, in-turn, changed what people value about the media that we consume.
Losing with Editorial Quality

Magazines assumed that 
editorial quality, the standard for traditional channels, was the winning value proposition for online channels.

On the web, editorial quality continues to be a difficult point of differentiation. Only a few traditional magazines can compete with remarkable content on the web, like The New Yorker, The Economist, and Monocle. For these reasons, magazines publishers wouldn’t dream of placing their web content behind a paywall. Puzzlingly, the current magazine paywalls on the tablet seem sustainable.

Kottke.org, one of my favorite sites, is produced by one person and surpasses the traffic of many major magazine sites. Grantland.com is on track to eclipse Sportsillustrated.com while only launching six months ago. A small team of writers, or even one individual, can compete on editorial quality in ways that a large magazine portal profitably cannot.

To win on future platforms, including tablets, mobile, and the web, publishers must identify and adapt to new mechanics as they emerge. With the right approach, publishers can pioneer the next evolution of media behavior on the tablet.

Something to think about: while media companies must adapt to changing mechanics, its audience is fixed. How will new mechanics affect the content that each magazine’s audience finds most addicting? How do publishers evolve their content to match its audiences’ changing media habits?

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