Canadian Magazine Industry News
26 October 2011,     TORONTO
COPA+ speakers ask, 'Where's the money?' in digital publishing
While advertising dollars may not be free-flowing into digital magazine editions yet, the door of opportunity is opening, said speakers during the COPA+ conference Monday.

The day featured a full slate of digital publishing experts that agreed there are challenges, but that it's only a matter of time before tablet and mobile platforms really catch on with readers and advertisers.

Staffan Ekholm of Stockholm-based Moving Media+, who opened the day of presentations, shares the accepted industry belief that "people pay for good content" and that also applies to tablet magazine editions. But as far as drawing in advertising dollars for tablet publications, "It's not really happening yet", he said.

Staffan Eckholm, CEO of Moving Media+, speaking at COPA+
Staffan Ekholm, CEO of Moving Media+, speaking at COPA+

However, there is a huge opportunity with the tablet to create ads that are as interesting as the content, he added. "I think [publishers] are having a hard time to know what to do with this space." Ekholm acknowledged publishers haven't had much time to catch up with the technology. "This is just the early stages, we need to learn. We're in the age of experimentation," he said.

While users expect content on the web to be free, tablets are a different ball game because it's a "packaged and controlled" product. "The tablet can and will deliver a richer experience," he said.

Kunal Gupta of Toronto-based developer Polar Mobile, another featured speaker, said there are 6.6 million smartphones in Canada — and that 50% of those aged 18 to 34 own one. In addition, there are 1.5 million tablets in Canada.

The key to success?

"The [digital] content has to be real-time and accessible," said Gupta, who added decision makers shouldn't be too selective in the digital edition game. "We see publishers trying to decide which device to be on. That doesn't make sense, we can't predict which one will win."

Consultant Bob Atkinson reminded the audience that consumers expect web content to be free. And because there's upwards of two billion free websites out there, "you need great content and user experience" to stand a chance with a paid-access site.

Atkinson's monetization strategy for web-based publications also includes learning everything about your core audience and "measuring everything" to determine how your online publication is faring. "Focus on those with five or more visits per month, don't worry about the drive-bys," he said. Have a "smart website" that can detect the device the visitor is using and format content accordingly, he added.

Asking visitors to your site to pay is a tricky proposition, explained Atkinson. "If you ask for pay, what is the value of your content? Don't just add volume, add content [your audience] likes the best."

Publishers had better be prepared for hardship if they ask for money up front with no return, he said. "A hard paywall is a disaster for publishers unless they have unique, high-value content and a strong, established brand," he stressed. With a pay site, you run the risk that "other [sites] will stop linking to you ... and most search engines stop indexing you. Social media strategies are off the table."

He outlined a "metered" approach — allowing a certain amount of visits before asking for cash, and then giving options at that point.

During a COPA panel discussion entitled Where's the Money? Seeking a Digital Publishing Model That Works, Megan McChesney of St. Joseph Media Digital noted one approach is "lots of sponsored content and wading into sponsored social media." But part of the St. Joseph strategy "is looking for ways for editorial and advertising to work together, and where the line is."

She later added, "We all need to be thinking about the bottom line. Editorial may have awareness that ad sales[people] do not ... partnerships can make a campaign work."

McChesney noted St. Joseph's Quill & Quire website charges for access, but since the content is directed at a certain group (book industry), "people are paying".

Reader loyalty and offers of rewards to drive ad clicks will be important going into the next phase, the panel agreed. "It doesn't have to be a physical reward, it can be [something like] the chance to get published," said Candice Faktor of Torstar Digital.

Panel member and National Post's vice president of digital media, Duncan Clark, added, "Everyone's looking for the golden ticket ... I'd love to say it will be easy for everyone. But I can't."

This was the first year for the COPA+ conference, which preceded the Canadian Online Publishing Awards Monday evening. 
— Jeff Hayward
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