What Is “Interactive” Anyway? (Part 1)

As publishers go through the five stages of grief over dying media, I’m struck by the bargaining phase. For many, it consists of attempts to insert interactive components into their digital editions, hoping to strike a deal with advertisers headed for the door. “Just wait. Your ad will be next to a video that everyone will be watching.” As new systems and e-readers proliferate, we seem to think that magazines will magically revive once we figure out how to make static content interactive.

This belief begs the question: What does it mean for a magazine to be interactive? Technically, embedding a Web link in a digital edition qualifies, but the result is rarely satisfying — especially on a small-screen device, or over limited bandwidth. Email or phone links fare better, but are intrinsically boring, and subject to platform limitations. (A phone link that works on a smartphone may fail on a tablet or Flash-based applet.) That leaves most publishers with the standard alternatives: galleries, audio and video.

Photo galleries are making the transition from Web to digital editions without much fanfare — but also without substantially raising the fortunes of magazines. Conventional rights and usage limitations have restricted the potential for legal image sharing, via an iTunes-like sales mechanism. There is lots of unmet potential here, on both the editorial and advertising side of things.

Audio and video seem to be what most publishers mean when they use the word interactive. Entertainment titles would seem to have the edge here, since they already have tracks and footage to insert. Few other magazines have such resources, however. As a result, we’re seeing some truly terrible media inserted into editorial and advertising e-pages, mainly because it’s possible.

Keep in mind: there are already strong media venues for audio and video; let’s call one “TV,” just for fun. Most of them are preferable to listening and watching inside a digital edition. As bandwidth improves, the video experience in a digital edition—and on mobile devices in genera l— will also improve. But the video medium itself is not intrinsic to the magazine oeuvre, and so will not automatically draw new subscribers or advertisers.

There are exceptions, like the live Webcast of a satellite launch carried exclusively in the digital edition of Via Satellite magazine. (The advertiser bought a special supplement designed around the Kazakhstan event, which was replayed when you viewed the publication post-launch.) However, in many cases audio and video only work as shorter clips, promoting the real thing on another medium.

A lot of CG animation and even gaming interactivity has emerged recently, creating big splashes for some publications. Beyond the initial wow factor, however, these raise serious concerns for magazines. As with audio and video, there are better venues and bigger budgets for CG. Making a really cool 3D animated magazine feature might be possible once or twice, but what do you do every month after that, and at what cost?

The real answers to the question of interactivity — and whether it can really save magazines — are inherent in the medium itself. “It’s a magazine, stupid,” should be our watchword when someone says “interactive.” So, what does that mean? What are magazine-appropriate interactive features? Some already exist, sort of, while others are still glints in developers’ eyes. All will take time and money to implement – without guarantees.

Many of them, dear reader, will be discussed in my next blog.

John Parsons (blog originally published in
Publishing Executive
; re-posted with permission)

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