Thought Leadership Brand Management

March 2017

Strategies of Growth for Niche Magazines in the Digital Age

How publications can expand their audience while staying true to their editorial voice.


by Austin StonePartner at Beck & Stone

There’s been much talk about the challenges facing traditional publishers; in everything from magazines, newspapers, trade journals, to books, the refrain is the same: print is dead. No doubt, audiences have thoroughly shifted their attention spans to the web and mobile, leading to a loss of sales, subscribers, and eyeballs on content. Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes in the publishing world, no one-size-fits-all solution to survive the competition and disruption caused by audiences moving away from print and choosing instead to get their content online. So how can traditional publishers pivot towards the digital space?

Understand the current online publishing trends.

Austin Stone

Online publishers (and indeed “traditional” ones as well) can only continue publishing from reaching a critical mass of readers or viewers. An obvious observation, of course, but an advertiser or donor will be much more willing to put money towards a publication if they can guarantee a million impressions online opposed to a thousand, just as a million print issues in circulation would be infinitely more attractive than a thousand of the same. Except on the internet where a click is easier to obtain and therefore of lesser value than a subscriber, web traffic becomes a double-edged sword as survival largely depends upon the loyalty of random (and often fickle) internet strangers.

For years, the big play was SEO (search engine optimization), where everyone played by the exact rules (or gaming the rules) of Google/Bing/Yahoo in a bid to get their content at the top of search results. Then came social media as a publishing platform. People will like or follow you if you produce content they agree with, or write unintelligible angry comments directed at your writers (on the internet, any attention is truly good attention). If you want to cut through the noise, then you must be the loudest one on your readers’ timelines. Now, the trend is getting big enough to partner on social and become native to their apps like on Snapchat or by creating your own apps and rich media including podcasts and short videos. Even news stories and so called “features” are trending shorter to better keep the attention of hyper-active and precocious internet-goers. The content and the dissemination of that content may change, but the strategies largely remain the same: Be agile and make a heavy investment in a talented digital team that can quickly adapt to the next trend of content consumption and utilize analytics to make recommendations.

But what about the traditional publisher that’s still deeply tied to print? How do they survive in the age of 30-second videos, Snapchat publishing, and clickbait garbage?

Pay-to-read digital models are here to stay.

First off, managing an online presence is not an all or nothing proposition. The clients I work with, some of which have been around for longer than I’ve been alive, understand the potential in expanding their online presence. The issue is that their teams are too small to handle the workload, resources get stretched too thin, or there’s no one within the organization knowledgeable enough to handle these duties. For a client of ours with an editorial team that consists of five people with a monthly output of pages and pages of dense, extremely thoughtful content for example, they’ll likely be performing a balancing act to dedicate resources to both print and online that can lead to a dip in quality. A dip in quality, or even small changes, may mean shedding subscribers. They rightly understand that their subscribers are their bread and butter. What I’ve learned, and continue to confirm, is that people will pay for quality content.

Niche publications can build loyalty if they can demonstrate expertise.

Beck & Stone Manager Icon

Their reach will comparatively be smaller than general interest magazines, but using the right digital publishing strategies can serve as a supplement to your print subscribers.

One of my clients has a storied reputation as a leader in art criticism. The readers are affluent, well-educated, and some have been subscribers to the print magazine for years (some even decades). These readers resubscribe because the content is consistently well-written and well-researched; the result of a strong editorial team. How do we create a deeper digital experience to attract new subscribers while maintaining (and even exceeding) the quality content that current subscribers expect?

We have found that these questions that are often viewed as marketing problems are in fact, more closely related to monetization and operations.

For one of our clients, the approach was to implement article-specific paywalls that could be bypassed with a micro-transaction. Non-subscribers would receive a small preview of an article and they could choose to purchase access. Instead of hiding everything behind a paywall, we would publish some stories as free to access. The goal here wasn’t to get non-subscribers to purchase articles a la carte (but that’s a plus). It establishes the value proposition of subscribing, and it allows the quality of the content itself to do the selling for you.

All roads lead to editorial.

Austin Stone

Beck & Stone’s approach when dealing with a publishing client is to have a startup mentality: doing a little bit of everything. Designing and building a responsive website, making issues available on PDFs for download and through app stores, leading initiatives for videos and podcasts, running social media on all channels, and heading up customer service for an audience that expects a high level of care.

This system of high-functioning, multi-disciplinary professionals wearing many hats helps a niche magazine or a growing web publisher accomplish more with less. An account manager can go from planning the logistics of a launch party to dialoguing with a fulfillment house in order to resolve a conflict with a print vendor. A copywriter can jump from writing a direct mail piece for a marketing campaign to replying to a customer service email. It takes hard work and many years to build up such a team, but whether it is an agency partner or internal staff, everything must be focused on supporting, promoting, and protecting the content.

The soul of a publication is the editorial team. By freeing up editors and writers from the management of daily operations or the performance of perfunctory duties outside of their specialty, you can keep them focused on what they do best: telling stories. Invest in their support, promote their efforts, and protect their time. You will see your brand grow and your content spread without losing your soul.

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Austin Stone

Austin Stone has been leading diverse projects for organizations since 2010. He is Partner at Beck & Stone, a brand management consultancy in New York City, where he heads the client management wing of the agency and continues to spearhead major endeavors. He can be found on LinkedIn and in clients' offices around the world.