You learn a thing or two about what works—and what doesn’t—when you invest millions of dollars in the magazine industry. A private firm might prefer to keep that knowledge to itself. But the Ontario Media Development Corporation, an agency of the provincial government that has invested $8 million taxpayer dollars in projects over the last five years, decided it was high time to spread not just cash, but also the wealth of its knowledge to the industry.
Hence OMDC’s Best Practices event in downtown Toronto last Wednesday, featuring three publishers who’ve received project funding.
OMDC's Matt Hilliard-Forde, Spacing's Matthew Blackett, S-Media's Mark Kristofic and
Michael La Fave of Sharp. Background: OMDC best-practices rating chart
The first speaker was Matthew Blackett, publisher and creative director of Spacing, a magazine about urbanism based in Toronto. Spacing received $24,000 to help fund the launch of a national edition in 2011. The national edition featured four regional covers, a print run doubled to 10,000, and an 88-store nation-wide single-copy promotion with Chapters.
The results? Spacing’s single-copy sales for that issue doubled to 5,000, 25% of its subscriber base is now outside of Toronto, and the magazine’s popular merchandise program, which contributes 25% of overall revenues, got a big boost. The Spacing subway button program, which has sold 200,000 buttons in Toronto, expanded to Montreal with 50,000 new buttons sold there.
Importantly, the magazine, which ostensibly is a quarterly but really only managed to get out three Toronto-focused issues in a 12-month period, now has a more regular publishing schedule, alternating between a Toronto edition and a national edition. The national edition has cracked new advertising clients.
Among the lessons learned: audit your newsstand promotions. On tour across the country to promote the issue, Blackett would often drop into a Chapters store to check on his display. Many stores never followed the program. Blackett complained, and Chapters extended the program as a make-good.
The second case study focused on the digital publishing strategy of S-Magazine, published by S-Media of Collingwood, Ont. The magazine (“s” stands for snowsports) wanted to develop an interactive digital edition to boost overall circulation, explained Mark Kristofic, business development manager.
With OMDC funding, S-Magazine launched a digital edition using a replica format, meaning pages are flipped on-screen like a magazine. S-Media is the result of a 2010 merger between Ski Racing Canada Magazine and the World of Skiing TV show, so it has video assets. The new digital magazine was able to incorporate video from the TV show as well as less-polished video shot by editors with hand-held video cameras.
Kristofic told the audience of 45 publishers that it was a challenge getting the magazine’s editors and designers to “think multimedia”. For example, they had to learn to lay out the magazine with some photography at a 16:9 aspect ratio, so that video could be overlaid in that location on the digital edition. He also suggested the current digital edition format harkens back to ancient times of approximately 24 months ago. With advancements in digital magazine technology and formatting, the page-turning approach “is maybe a little bit old now,” he says.
Still, the digital edition added enough eyeballs to the magazine’s overall circulation that the company was able to raise the page rate by $1,000. The print magazine has a circulation of 21,000, while the digital edition is downloaded 48,000 times each issue (for free, released some weeks after the print.)
With 90% of the company’s revenue coming from ad revenue, being able to increase page rates is crucial. Kristofic said the value of the OMDC grant was quadrupled with additional revenue from advertising and some custom publishing business.
The third speaker, Michael LaFave, co-founder and creative director of men’s magazine Sharp, suggested his OMDC project had a somewhat bumpier trajectory. Launched with the help of the OMDC grant, “The Search for Canada’s Sharpest Man” has the ambitious goal of discovering the best-dressed man in the country.
LaFave described a program beset with problems, starting with a contest management supplier that didn’t work out, less than desirable support from a retail partner, and automated online voting systems that might have disrupted the integrity of the final outcome were it not for rules that called for a Sharp experts’ panel to decide the ultimate winner from a list of finalists determined by the public voting.
That said, the project will be completed when the winner is announced in Sharp’s September issue. (The bimonthly magazine is distributed mostly through The Globe and Mail, with a circulation of 140,000.) The contest garnered 400 nominations, led to a 35% increase in Facebook fans and generated 302 newsletter sign-ups and 103,650 site visitors. It also led Sharp publisher Contempo Media to hire a full-time social media manager.
The follow-up panel discussion focused largely on digital publishing. Sharp’s LaFave noted that 65% of mobile consumption is actually video, not text based. Publishers pursuing a text-based mobile strategy are probably doing the wrong thing, “including us,” he said.
LaFave also outlined the challenge faced by Canadian publishers competing against U.S. titles in the digital space, with American books able to afford expensive digital publishing platforms. He said Adobe’s DPS system, for example, charges $40,000 to be able to bundle both print and digital subscriptions, something Sharp can’t afford.
With 33% of his online readership coming from outside Canada, Spacing’s Blackett agreed there is opportunity outside the country’s borders. Spacing’s print magazine content is generally not yet available in a digital format, but Blackett’s team is exploring how to make that print content viable online. He’s leaning away from the replica approach towards something more like Flipboard, using HTML5 “responsive design” technology to present content on the web that adapts to the screen size of each reader’s device, whether it’s a desktop monitor, tablet, or the smallest smartphone screen.
“We think that’s where it’s going,” Blackett said.
The OMDC's James Weyman noted that the agency's $8 million investment in magazine publishers has resulted in $24 million in additional revenues for Ontario's magazine industry.