Digital competition

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As the digital world continues to expand, new digital edition providers have been popping up across the business landscape to offer less expensive options to publishers, including solutions from various printers. Texterity, Zmags and Nxtbook are all established brands, but what should publishers look for in the new crop of providers? What are key elements to have in place before striking a new deal?

When FMA Communications began producing digital editions, it got sucked in with a company doing "e-brochures" and video for one of its advertisers, said Kimberly Clothier, director of circulation. The plan was for FMA's sales reps to upsell its advertisers to create e-brochures and video, but the result was "a nightmare," she said. "People don't have a clue how complex the backend reporting aspects are," Clothier said. And while finding the right vendor, she said, isn't particularly difficult, it can be very time-consuming. "It's really a matter of asking lots and lots of questions to potential vendors," she said.

Clothier now asks potential vendors several questions, including: What kind of platform is it? How fast do pages load? Are there search features? Does it cost extra to make links hot? Can you embed rich media ads, video, etc., and what are the costs? What is reported, and how deep does the reporting go? Are undeliverables provided back to you automatically?

Gloria Adams, corporate director of audience development at PennWell Corp., said the most important information a publisher needs to receive from its digital edition provider are open rates, download rates and bounce rates. "Whatever reports you want, be sure the provider can create them for you before you sign the contract," she said. "But it should be fairly straightforward."

However, Adams said, it is vital that someone on staff at the digital edition provider understands the circulation world. "When we first started with Texterity, they were [also] just starting and had no idea about what we needed," she said. "A digital issue would bounce back to us when we had a wrong e-mail or something like that and Texterity would say, `Well, just cut them from the list. We won't send to them next month.' And we would have to say, `No, no, that's our call; we can't do it that way.' We can't just cut random people from the list. We have lists to adhere to. They got the point pretty quickly."

Eric Rutter, VP-audience development at Reed Business Information, said it's important to do your research and find the vendor that best fits. Some questions to ask: Is there a formal business plan in the budget? Have you figured out what your costs and savings will be? Does everyone know their responsibilities? Is there a work flow created? Are there quality control systems in place? Can the vendort accommodate special sizes like gatefolds, and belly bands and barndoors? Can your fulfillment system handle it? How will you work with the audit bureau on it?

Rutter said every department in the company needs to support and understand digital editions. "You can't just flip a switch and be digital," he said. "We're sold a little bit of a bill of goods from the digital magazine industry: `Oh, it's easy, we'll do it all for you.' Well, it's not always that easy. It's only as strong as the weakest link. Nothing can break."

One benefit Christine Oldenbrook, director of marketing and e-media at Bobit Business Media, sees is using digital editions for sample issues for promotions, advertiser comp copies or to get digital versions of magazines to paid subs while they wait for print editions to be sent. In general, though, Oldenbrook theorizes that use of digital editions could go down once the novelty wears off.

"I fear they may be a product developed for printcentric folk who are trying to make a new medium [digital] look like the old medium [print]," she said. "If publishers devoted more resources to their Web sites and high-impact, traffic-building strategies, maybe they wouldn't need a digital edition of their magazine at all."

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