Why aren’t Digital Magazines Working?

New data from the Alliance for Audited Media shows that only one magazine has made digital subscriptions work. Are current solutions wrong, or was the end of print overhyped?
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Earlier this month, Nicholas Carr put out a great piece on the massive slowdown in e-book sales growth. In it, he mused on the reasons why the category “may fall short of expectations”, especially as substitute to hardcopy books.

It was thus with great interest that an AdAge piece published on Monday caught my eye. Reporting on data from the Alliance for Audited Media, the outlet discussed that digital magazine subscriptions, too, are far from meeting expectations. I love magazines. I read and subscribe to them religiously. Yet, while I never read print newspaper, I primarily read magazines in hardcopy. There’s something more rewarding about moving through a hundred hardcopy pages and the medium also feels more conducive to contemplation versus inevitable multitasking on my computer or tablet (though this may just be a generational thing). I also do a lot of reading in places I can’t or don’t bring my iPad, such as when I’m taking off on a plane or on a beach.

It seems I’m not the only one.

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I’ve done some quick visualizations of the aforementioned AAM data. Game Informer appears to be the only publication to have really succeeded in the medium. In fact, its digital circulation is so large that the next 24 largest publications have only 70,000 more subscribers combined. However, over 99% of these subscriptions are bundled for free with the company’s premium loyalty program.

Interestingly, 38% of Game Informer‘s circulation now comes from digital subscriptions, compared to 3% for the industry as a whole and 4-8% for other leading digital publications, such as Cosmopolitan and ESPN.

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As the medium develops, functionality improves, or prices more strongly encourage digital subscriptions, these numbers will likely increase. However, the major publishers have already invested quite heavily in their digital offerings (Condé Nast in particular). Their tepid performance must be cause for concern – especially in light of the e-book slowdown and while facing a 2% annual decrease in total industry circulation .


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