Posted May 9, 2011 3:49 pm by with 9 comments

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Hearst, Time, Inc and now Conde Nast are all jumping on the digital train, with deals that allow subscribers to buy their most popular magazines on the iPad. Sports Illustrated, The New Yorker, O, the Oprah Magazine — it’s a wide reach, but are readers ready to pass on tearing out articles in favor of a digital bookmark? Magazine publishers hope so, but magazine advertisers aren’t so sure.

Right now, this whole digital subscription idea is rather speculative. We may find that business people love having all that information at their fingertips, while casual readers prefer having pages to turn. The trouble is, ads have to be priced and paid for now, before the data is in.

There are three options:

  • Digital ads cost more than print ads in the same magazine (not likely).
  • Digital ads cost the same as comparable print ads in the same magazine (the publisher choice).
  • Digital ads cost less than a print ad in the same magazine (the advertiser choice).

You could say, obviously advertisers want to pay less, but that’s not what this is all about. Advertising prices are set based on circulation numbers and we know that out of the gate, circulation on the iPad isn’t going to be even close to print numbers, so why should ad prices be the same. Like social media, it comes down to the lack of standard metrics. Once again, we built it, but we don’t know how to count the number of people who come.

Robin Steinberg of MediaVest was quoted on the subject in a recent New York Times article. She says;

In a tart reminder that these are the early days of the process, she wrote that for media buyers, it was “critical that we determine how copies are qualified and counted when served either traditionally or digitally.”

In other words, if her clients want to buy apples, they will buy apples (print subscribers) and if they are in the mood for oranges (digital subscribers) they expect to make a separate and presumably lower-cost purchase. And she stressed that buyers were keeping a close eye on digital subscriptions to make sure that they did not become the electronic equivalent of a New Jersey landfill, a place where unwanted copies were dumped to make the numbers look good.

Publishers want advertisers to believe that a New Yorker subscriber is a New Yorker subscriber and his eyeballs are worth the same chunk of change whether he’s reading the magazine on paper or on a screen. I’m not so sure. It seems to me, that if you want advertisers to get on board with what is little more than an experiment at this point, you have to cut them a deal.

Hey, is there such a thing as Groupon for advertising?

What do you think? Is a digital subscriber worth the same as a print one?

  • Good question. I have to believe that an eyeball is an eyeball unless the interaction with the content is that much different on the tablet or otherwise digitized format.

    If publishers were smart they wouldn’t charge ANYTHING yet for the additional tablet advert and use the time to determine the difference in the two deliveries THEN price them separately later if it merits such an action. The idea of getting paid right out of the gate without a track record is presumptuous and pretty arrogant but that’s the way magazines have always been.

    These days magazines should be happy that anyone is reading them in any format so to get nit picky on pricing is pretty silly.

    My two cents.

  • It’s unfortunate that the digital/interactive mentality is that it somehow has less value than a printed counterpart. If a digital medium can provide the same number of eyeballs looking at it (read: circulation) AND provide tracking, analytics, interactivity, ties to social, etc., why would it not have a greater value, and hence, higher price tag?

    • Cynthia Boris

      I don’t believe it has less value, but as Frank says, it’s a question of where we are now. Asking advertisers to drop large amounts of money on an untested delivery method doesn’t seem wise. If they believe that digital is going to fly, then take less money, get these advertisers in then prove that it’s a more profitable channel.

  • Veronica

    Well, digital copies don’t require printing, paper, or postage, it seems to me publishers should be able to make the same profit on digital while lowering the price.

    • Digital copies, especially when done right, require web programmers who can create content with UX and UI’s that people actually want to read. Keeping readers engaged requires specialty web content, that still has to be written by quality writers, photos from paid photographers all optimized for speed AND style. Digital media, simply put, is not just a crappy, freebie page flipping version of your magazine. Digital copies require maintaining a digital e-mailing list, and acquiring e-mail addresses, a much more difficult process, even today, than coming across a basic snail-mail list. So magazines doing digital correctly will still have similar overhead. If you’re a publisher just regurgitating your print copies and automating RSS feeds, yes, you’re probably right, it could be cheaper.

  • Kristina

    Yes, digital and print does have the same impact but charging the same for both at this point in time is foolish. The publishing organization I work for has had significant traction based on our app alone. Those companies we have choosen to do stories about, have had significant hits on their website, facebook and youtube sites. The first two months we ran our new iPad app, we hardly had any advertisers inclued so we could get some sort of basis of interaction. If response rates can increase with content alone, advertising in theory would do the same thing. The real question should be repositioned as: Does a consumer viewing a digital ad versus a print ad have less buying power or influence on their family’s purchases? Absolutely not. I agree with Jeff. If an advertiser can track the effectiveness of their ad faster, recoup their ad expenditure faster and potentially reach a more targeted audience with digital ads faster, why wouldn’t digital ads cost more?

    • It could even be argued that a consumer looking at ads on a $500+ device (essentially a luxury item by economic definition) probably has more disposable income, and hence a greater influence on purchasing decisions. Publishers stuck in the sell print first mentality will not be around in the not-so-distant future. Same rings true if they aren’t pricing digital at what it’s truly worth for fear of “stealing from the print side”. I like to rant about this stuff and welcome feedback and others’ opinions. Follow me on Twitter @ThreeLakesWI

  • Ron

    Buyers just want cheaper rates so they try to justify a difference in eyeball value. As this market matures and publishers show higher engagement levels and larger response rates to ads, as we are seeing even early on in this process, then publishers will get their rates.

  • As compared to a paper magazine the price of a digital magazine is low thats why the ads price should also be low.