In My Opinion: Peter Houston: How do you talk about good digital content?

This article was originally published on January 31 2014…

WHEN Nikki Simpson, the business manager at the Professional Publishers Association (Scotland), called me a couple of weeks ago to ask if I’d speak at yesterday’s ‘Digital Group’ meeting in Edinburgh, I jumped at the chance – any excuse for an expat Scot to head north.

I’d just written a blog post asking, ‘Do we know what good is anymore?’, in relation to magazine content and I thought I could talk about that. Simples.

Then I sat down to write my half-hour presentation and I realised it is one thing to ask the question and another thing entirely to try to answer it.

I’ve spent the last half of my not-inconsiderable time in magazine publishing trying to figure out what good content looks like.

In the ’90s, as an editor-in-chief at Hong Kong-based trade publisher, Global Sources, I introduced an internal magazine awards programme just to try to surface the good stuff. Now I volunteer as a judge on several magazine awards programmes, partly because I think good work deserves to be rewarded, but also because it gives me the inside track on good.

It used to be much easier to spot what was good in magazine publishing. Back in Hong Kong, it was all in print and all about price, performance and availability. I was writing about products made in Asia, my readers were typically buyers on the other side of the world, and we mailed them a unique information resource once a month.

The internet well and truly screwed that up. Now, magazines are competing with Google and Twitter and Angry Birds for the attention of readers that once had nowhere else to go. And that breadth of competition is what makes it so difficult to nail down what good content looks like these days.

In my original post, I said magazine publishers seem a wee bit reticent to talk openly about the challenges of delivering good content; maybe because they don’t want to admit to having a problem with something they are supposed to be the experts in.

Marketing people, on the other hand, won’t shut up about it. They’ve all just discovered content marketing and native advertising and bang on endlessly about how to create and distribute good content. There are more ‘good content’ listicles written by marketing people than you can shake a content strategy document at.

Mostly they can be boiled down to making your content useful or entertaining, and make it accessible.

Good advice, but magazine publishers face an extra challenge. It’s all very well for a content marketer to infuse their projects with the latest digital trickery. They don’t have to deal with a decades-old print legacy.

Even the smallest magazine has legacy workflow, readership and revenue problems to deal with. Ways of working designed for print, don’t necessarily lend themselves to digital bolt-ons – look at how many magazines are still using the all-but-impossible-to-read flash replicas, if you don’t believe me.

In yesterdays’ session, I tried to describe some of the innovative ways people are delivering good digital content; entertaining, useful and accessible. I covered the waterfront – from YouTube videos, to image sharing on Twitter, interactive trouble shooters for analytical chemists, to a digital magazine cover that incorporates images of the reader.

Listing ingenious ways to deliver digital content is not difficult. The clever part is to make it work with your own audience; how to make digital content relevant to an audience that knows you in print; how to format digital content in ways that your audience is willing and able to access; how to make it pay in your market.

It’s only when you know the answer to those questions that you can really start to talk about good digital content.

Peter Houston has worked in magazine publishing for over 25 years, most recently with US publisher, Advanstar Communications, as group content director. The Scot now runs Flipping Pages Media Ltd, delivering training and consultancy to publishers making the transition from print to digital. He speaks regularly at conferences, writes for theMediaBriefing and MediaTel’s Newsline and runs the Flipping Pages Blog.

He was speaking yesterday at a PPA Scotland ‘digital group’ meeting, held at Edinburgh Napier University.

This article was originally published on January 31 2014…