The digital question for independent magazines

The digital question for independent magazines

The indie mag scene has always prided itself on creating a stunning product. With smaller budgets and less name recognition, creating a magazine with high production values and brilliant writing is the best way to gain recognition. But that doesn’t necessarily get the eyes on your work that your title deserves. 

The power of digital content and marketing can be the solution for finding more readers. However, many smaller publishers don’t know where to start, let alone leverage the bevvy of low-cost tools and strategies at their arsenal. 

We interviewed experts from both ends of the spectrum: innovative new titles which have embraced digital marketing, and magazines such as Kinfolk, whose belief in the primacy of print is shared by many publishers, and adored by many fans.

In doing so, we uncovered a number of simple, actionable steps which can be implemented by indie publishers seeking to grow their digital savvy and do more with digital tools.

Making the most of an engaged audience

At a recent Park webinar, we invited a number of experts in the indie magazine industry to discuss the future of the format as a business model. 

One of the key themes of that conversation was the appeal of smaller titles against the behemoths that had dominated the market for the past fifty years. The allure of a niche subject or concern, high production values and the sense of belonging they engendered were all cited as advantages for small publishers over legacy outfits. 

Nick Chapin, the publisher of LIMBO magazine, summed it up perfectly: 

“Magazines are no longer a mass-media format. They are something very different. 

“They are community, they are ideas. They’re somewhere between a club and a book. They’ve evolved into a very different sort of product.” 

This presents difficulties to the established model of selling advertising in mass-media publications. Look at the music scene for example. In the past 24 months, stalwart titles such as NME and Q have either had to revert to a digital-only format or cease operating all together. Peter Kessler, Q’s editor, remarked, “the pandemic did for us, it’s as simple as that”. Once ad spend decreased and there were no gigs to list, the music press’s traditional revenue dried up. 

Many indies, however, have proven rather more resilient.

Also speaking at our recent webinar, founder of magCulture, Jeremy Leslie, cited Electronic Sound as an example of business success in the indie publishing scene. 

The monthly title, started in 2013, bridges the gap between electronic music’s past and future, and offers a unique, specially pressed vinyl to buy alongside each issue. Completely independent, it has built a fierce following through its commitment to its key subject matter. using its pages to detail the history of the theremin, rather than adverts for next year’s Reading Festival. 

This illustrates the unique opportunity for smaller titles. By better understanding the wants and interests of their readers, they can tailor their content, or indeed find opportunities to advertise trusted and relevant products to an engaged audience.

The opportunity for this level of precision would be a goldmine for digital marketers.

There has historically been some reluctance within the indie scene to leverage their audiences using digital tools, as a large media group might, either due to a fear of losing credibility or alienating readership. For some titles, maintaining a small readership base that sustains itself, without thinking of an extensive marketing strategy, will be enough.

For others, reaching new readers and growing is the goal. After all, publishing groups such as Vice and Dazed started out as plucky indie titles. The key for any marketing effort is to fit the right balance between the quality of the content, and chasing sales. 

So: how does this tension play out at ground level amongst indie mags?

Feedback loops

“I think there is understandably a reluctance to feel like we’re bombarding our audience,” says Dan Crowe, editor and publisher of biannual lifestyle title Port Magazine. “We can all feel like we’re being bombarded by advertising or reader’s offers.”

 

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While independent titles will always focus on creating a stunning print product, there are a number of digital tools at their disposal to better understand and leverage their audience, without assaulting their base with unwanted content. 

The Tonic Magazine is a new biannual title, focusing on the history, customs, and joys of alcohol. Founded by a small team of journalists (stemming from a conversation over a few drinks, naturally), they’ve founded their digital strategy on using social media to build brand awareness. 

The team have shared the process of making the first issue of the magazine extensively on LinkedIn and Instagram, offering a ‘glass-box approach’ that they hope to engage prospective readers and potential business clients. Musicians will also be asked to put together a guest playlist on Spotify. Ultimately, the goal is to use these methods of audience engagement as a feedback loop, driving higher engagement, sales, and reader deals for the products featured within the magazine’s pages.

 

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The Tonic Magazine team review proofs of their first issue at Park earlier this year

“Our objective was simply to raise awareness of our brand in advance of the magazine launch,” says Benita Finanzio, co-founder and financial director of The Tonic Magazine. 

“The digital world has offered us insights, encouragement and an audience who have so far shown us that we are on the right track and we are creating something that they are interested in.”

Port magazine creates feedback loops through its social presence in a similar way. Using Facebook advertising tools, they determine which of the features repurposed from its print issues are performing well. They also track Google Analytics and use sites such as Buffer to gain an understanding of the makeup of their audiences. 

Hallowed turf?

A focus on digital content may not be entirely necessary for all indie titles

Kinfolk, a leading lifestyle magazine in the UK, is steadfast in its belief that their print product is its preferred method of delivering its content. 

“Founded at a time when most publishers were moving away from print, Kinfolk is a brand centred around print,” explains Kinfolk’s distribution and sales manager Edward Mannering. 

“Our creative team commissions content specifically suited to print rather than online. Whilst a digital subscription is available, we believe content viewed on a tablet or computer does not – indeed cannot – match the experience of the printed edition. The physical allure of a luxury magazine cannot be replicated online.”

Crowe also points out that his new Kickstarter-funded literary magazine Inque will be an ‘anti-digital’ product, with no digital version or content distributed on social media. 

“I believe there is room for every iteration of what a magazine can be as long as it has its own well executed focus,” he explains. 

“We will keep people updated on the launch of the premier issue via our website. For us, it was about having the print magazine as the only experience of the content we make, and not diluting it.”

Not every publisher, however, necessarily views the use of digital channels as a dilution of the print product; indeed, some are burnishing their reputations through coherent and authentic digital strategy. For some, increasing their online presence by effectively targeting new audiences, and turning those readers into paid customers is the way forward. 

Digital strategy for print magazines

gal-dem has gone from strength-to-strength since its launch five years ago. They’ve carved carving out a space as the go-to publication for black and minority ethnic women to challenge misconceptions around race, gender and politics. 

Front covers of gal-dem’s un/rest issue

Earlier this year, it announced a tiered digital supporter model, similar to third-party services such as Patreon. Members will be able to access exclusive content and WhatsApp groups, receive free copies of the magazine and attend writers’ workshops. At time of writing, they are 86% of the way to their goal of 3,000 members. 

For a title so steeped in the concept of identity, extending the sense of community around the magazine seems a natural fit. It also allows for a better understanding of their most fervent readers, and indeed, their audience as a whole. 

How else can a title further this understanding of their readership? While many legacy mass-media publishers have been slow to adapt to the demands of new media, some have produced impressive digital case studies which can easily be scaled down for independent titles. 

Take The Economist for example. While their budget will certainly dwarf the average indie mag’s marketing budget, there are lessons to be learned. Their content marketing strategy, based on audience segmentation, won them several industry awards over the past five years. 

Segmentation is the process of creating sub-divisions within an audience, collected around differentiators such as interests, gender, location or job title. It allows for a more personalised approach to your marketing messaging, serving your readers with a piece of content that is tailored to their preferences. 

The Economist’s strategy was predicated on serving their 50m+ social followers with messaging around key editorial topics, including LGBT inclusion and the future of work. Once the reader had clicked on a link, they would be prompted to browse other relevant content on a subject-specific hub. The audience would then be asked if they wished to sign-up for a newsletter regarding that topic, creating segments that the marketing team could then target for paid subscriptions and app downloads. 

Social media visual asset promoting The Economist’s Pride and Prejudice conference

Speaking to What’s New In Publishing, David Humber, then Head of Conversion at The Economist, said: “The lessons have been around being able to create custom audience segments cost-effectively through the use of social media, email, push and web, and how to follow up with tailored messaging. By adding in the content marketing layer, our marketing campaigns become really powerful.”

What can a smaller publisher take from this example?

It could be as simple as an online form that asks your audience to vote on your next print cover, to specify what newsletters they’d like to receive, or tracking your website users preferences through the use of cookies.

There are specialist online publishing platforms that have these features built in, but for a faster solution with less friction, low-cost or free CRMs such as HubSpot will allow you to better serve the needs of the niches within your already niche audience.

Collating this data may also create opportunities for accessing other, unexpected revenue streams. Founded in 2002, Complex started out as a quarterly magazine, covering hip hop and streetwear. It still has a print presence, but has leant into a digital-first strategy. 

In 2012, it syphoned off 10% of its budget to focus on video. By 2016, this budget had increased to just over 80%. The reason behind these evolutions? Tracking the data of its users, and reinvesting in the methods of storytelling that were generating more clicks, and in turn more revenue. 

Complex has also successfully leveraged its online presence into additional revenue streams. ComplexCon, its annual conference, now generates upwards of $40m in revenue, while its extremely popular video interview series ‘Hot Ones’, wherein celebs answer questions while having their taste buds assaulted by increasingly spicy chicken wings, has spawned a best-selling hot sauce. Complex’s food vertical generated 85% of its revenue outside of ads in 2018

These types of numbers will be out of reach for the majority of indie publishers, but the principle – of using data and audience feedback to tailor your messaging – is one that can be applied by titles of all sizes. 

Complex’s first issue. September 2002

Getting started in digital 

An effective strategy building a digital brand through tools such as social media, newsletters, website analytics and audience segmentation, are all possible on a shoestring budget. So how do you get started? 

Both Crowe and Finanzio suggest implementing easy to set-up feedback loops through social or email marketing, while keeping an open-mind about what it is you’ll find. Both Port and The Tonic Magazine started their digital journeys by experimenting with content on social channels, primarily on Instagram. 

“I would suggest making short content bursts for Instagram and even Twitter and see what the engagement is like, listen to the feedback, and go from there,” says Crowe. “It is always a mistake to have an idea and assume it’s going to work in a certain way in terms of marketing.”

Above all else, ensure that the authenticity of the product isn’t sacrificed by your digital content or marketing efforts. Finanzio emphasises that any gains made on other platforms cannot sacrifice the core product, for fear of losing that key connection with the audience. 

“We focus on what we do and what we love, on bringing people into the conversation and building a community,” she explains. 

“We want subscribers, naturally, but any good long-lasting relationship is based on reciprocity and building a strong foundation where sharing and storytelling is at its heart.” 

At the very least, indie publishers need to give serious consideration to their digital presence, even if the outcome of that exercise is a conscious decision to be print-first. 

Many independent magazines are kitchen table projects which never make it past a few issues. For some, that may be achievement enough; but the experience of seeing your title go out of print – not to mention returning to your day job – more likely leaves feelings of regret for the founders of the magazine.

Some may say that the recent success of titles such as gal-dem – not to mention the contrasting fortunes of gal-dem and Q – has alerted the industry to the importance of embracing a digital strategy.

Really, though, 20 years of digital disruption across every industry has clearly signaled the resilience and agility that derives from challenging your own orthodoxies, and building on established business models.

What’s clear is that it’s eminently possible to grow your independent magazine online, without sacrificing the integrity of the print product. 

Whether it’s possible to weather any storm, without doing so, would be a question of knowing what the future holds. 

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Magazine printing with Park

Park is proud to print Kinfolk, Port, The Tonic Magazine and over 130 other independent titles.

With an unparalleled range of printing technology under one roof, we’re experts in helping publications stand out from the magazine rack for any budget: from corporates such as Facebook and Unilever, to new independents printing their editions.

Our work repeatedly scoops prestigious industry accolades – most recently, PrintWeek Bespoke Magazine Printer of the Year 2019.

Find out more about magazine printing & reprographics with Park.

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