In April, all eyes in the magazine industry will be on the iPad, as publishers hope that owners of the latest Apple status symbol use their shiny new toy for a very old pursuit: reading. If they do, those glossy pages might exist only in a virtual space, but the digital magazines will be as good as real.
Tuesday, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) expanded its criteria for counting digital versions of magazines in its circulation count.
"With the growing plethora of new devices coming to market, [the bureau] recognized that they needed to augment their definitions, especially with the iPad coming up," said Neal Lulofs, the ABC's vice-president of communications. "The previous definitions were really confined to essentially, a PDF of the magazines."
That's because the organization keeps track of each magazine's rate base (the minimum circulation guaranteed to advertisers) If an ad does not appear in a digital edition, it's of no value to the advertiser.
"We don't want to see digital divisions where advertising is hidden behind a tab … it needs to still be part of the reading experience," Mr. Lulofs said. "But there's some latitude to take advantage of new technologies."
That expansion is good news for magazines, said Jeanniey Mullen, head of marketing for San Francisco-based Zinio LLC, which helps magazines format their issues for desktop computers, laptops, iPhones and other digital devices.
"Until this announcement, you had to make the choice: Do I design for what's beautiful, or do I design for what's audited, which is counted and brings in advertisers and supports my company and keeps my job," Ms. Mullen said.
In September, Zinio designed a digital newsstand for Magazines Canada to sell digital editions online, mostly for reading on a computer screen. Currently, those digital versions of Maclean's, Chatelaine and Canadian Living, among others, look like copies of the print editions. They will now have more room to play with the digital design.
As publishers gear up for the release of the iPad, the phones have been ringing at the Audit Bureau with questions about how to prepare digital versions that will be counted toward paid circulation numbers. Wired magazine has already worked with the ABC to evaluate the format of its upcoming designs for the iPad.
GQ magazine, which in November launched the first iPhone app to be approved as a digital replica by the ABC, is having success with its digital version. According to ABC's rules, all the advertising that appears in the print version must also appear in the digital edition, so GQ has no negotiating power to charge for ads in its app. But it can charge to enhance those ads by including a link to the product website or to play a video inside the ad. In the December issue, 79 per cent of advertisers chose to pay for one of those extras, even though the app's popularity was still to be seen. In the March issue, that number has expanded, and now 88 per cent of advertisers are coughing up cash for digital extras.
If magazines can continue making their digital editions more interesting, and find ways to bring in revenue in the digital space, it could be a way to help the ailing industry.