The Behavior of Magazines

Recently, I read an article by Khoi Vinh, entitled iPad Magazines Go to ’11, expounding on the failure of digital magazines. He suggested the problem is in the glossy presentation layer of the content.

Let’s not be duped into this, again. People love “glossy”. It’s why we pick the iPhone interface over any of its predecessors. Palm had been making quality, smart phones for decades before the iPhone’s release. It was the quality of the graphics, the glossy candy goodness of it all paired with the fully functioning smart phone that finally pushed it over the edge into mass WANT.

When it comes to magazines, we love rich photography and graphics. Editors have been aware of this for decades. They know what sells, and what sells is engrossing graphics. The aesthetics change from audience to audience, and from decade to decade but they serve a purpose. In our research for Mag+2, we discovered that the visual storytelling is as important, if not more important, that the text. It clues people into what they want to read, and also makes the story so much more engaging. It draws people through the magazine, and in general, readers spend more time with the visual stories at the beginning of the magazine, than the straight text at the back. It’s true that when we focus on reading a long-form article we want as little noise as possible, but even there, sometimes infographics are more successful in communicating content than text.

The problem is not that the editors are focusing on rich, visual graphics. The problem is the lack of functionality. People don’t just read their favorite magazines, they use them. Magazines are shared, saved, and used. All kinds of articles are torn out or photocopied; corners of interesting articles are dog eared and put on a shelf just for future use in case they somehow remember what issue that great article was in.

Current digital magazines have not yet tackled this problem.

Print magazines have acknowledged and tried to embraces this behavior. They don’t really have to do anything to enable it – I can physically tear or dogear or scan or sticker all I want – but yet they have taken steps to ensure this activity.

Encouraging sharing:

Encouraging Sharing

Mail in subscription cards, more than any one individual could use, because you might give your magazine to your friend.

Enabling organization of torn out articles:


Several magazines, such as Martha Stewart, know that readers tear out articles, and so they’ve developed special ‘tear’ sheets in a standardized format for their readers.

Enabling bookmarking:


Domino magazine provides readers with a sticker sheet so that they can mark those things they want.

Digital magazines give us an opportunity to push this even further. They are already apps, right? I should be able to do all those things I do with my current magazines, only better, faster, and with way more ease. I should be able to instantly tag, share/email, bookmark, rip out and organize my tear sheets. I should be able to look only at the things I’ve saved, regardless of their source.

This is not to say I think the Flipboard model is the future. I love Flipboard. It is a great aggregator of content. However, in doing the research on magazines, specifically talking to people who really do enjoy print magazines, we found that magazines are appealing because they are curated. The fact that the reader can rely on a trusted advisor (read: editor) to compile and deliver information on a given topic is a relief. They don’t have to go out and gather the sources, someone else did. Also, they like to see content presented in an orchestrated order. This method of delivery is innately satisfying. Additionally, readers appreciate that the content is not going to change from when they first sit down to read the magazine til they finally finish with it. The fact that in our rapidly-moving society something stays inert is reassuring and comfortable. People rely on magazines as an opportunity to tune out, as Bonnier calls it “Quiet mode.”

I know many of the publishers are working on the functionality issue. I’m excited to see what happens. In the meantime, we’re playing over here at Kicker Studio with some concepts on how it should be done. I hope I get to show you that soon.