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Are digital editions dead?

Digital editions have been around for a long time, going all the way back to the late 90’s. But in 2010 when the iPad hit the digital runway, publishers jumped on the tablet bandwagon faster than they could shout, “Hallelujah!”. The struggling publishing industry had found itself a saviour.

One shouldn’t be surprised given that a Harrison Group study that same year of 1,800 consumers reported that tablet users spent 75 per cent more time reading newspapers and 50 per cent more time reading magazines. Harrison also discovered in 2012 that 35 per cent of magazine subscribers paid more attention to the ads in the digital editions than they did in print.

But by 2013, analysts were declaring that the days of digital edition magazine apps were over, based on Alliance for Audited Media data that reported that the 25 top-selling digital replicas accounted for only 12 per cent of total subscriptions, on average.

When I saw that, I wasn’t at all surprised given that many publishers did little to market them, fearing they would cannibalise their print edition revenues. One really had to dig deep into magazine and newspaper websites to find their digital editions.

I remember when we launched our PressReader iPad app in 2010 and were ridiculed for continuing to support the digital replica presentation even though it was enhanced with digital features (e.g. translation, audio, social sharing, commenting, and text view, to name a few).  Pundits mocked publicly, “It’s like putting a blanket over a TV and calling it a radio.”

But we knew many of our readers enjoyed the enriched replica view – it was familiar, convenient, and engaging.  We also knew that another growing group of our users preferred a more fluid user interface, which is why we also offered them an endless horizontal stream of content from all our sources – a content stream curated by the crowd.

At that time there was also a growing fascination with bespoke, non-PDF-sourced solutions, which did not rely on the original print layout. Using software that changed or rather created the new layout of content for native apps, these apps required additional workflows and were quite expensive to build, which is why a lot of publishers moved away from DPS in favour of a digital edition template of RSS feeds or a simple PDF with interactivity layers on top of it.

Regardless of the technology used, I’ve always said that digital editions were a niche product in a fragmented market. It’s just one of many different ways users chose to consume content.

When publishers moved their free website content behind a paywall, it was very difficult for them to monetise what was once free.  But with digital editions there was, and still is, a higher willingness to pay because of the psychological connection readers make to the physical product.

These apps may not make up a large part of a publisher’s overall revenue, especially with more brands diversifying income streams, but they do appeal to a trusting audience that deserves special recognition and respect for their loyalty in a world where trust is so tenuous.

Four years later, the same debates about the longevity of digital editions continue, but here at PressReader we still see ours receiving a significant amount of traffic through our vertical channel partners – thousands of hotels, airlines, libraries, telecom operators, etc.

That being said, we are also witnessing phones overtaking tablet use, putting higher demands on publishers to offer digital editions that give users a more engaging reading experience on smaller screens.  Replicas just won’t cut it.

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