What Is “Interactive” Anyway? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this blog, I lamented the lack of consensus on what constitutes effective interactivity for digital magazines. Since then, I had the opportunity to ask more questions during my Gilbane Boston panel session on Mobile App development “from the trenches.” The panelists represented both business and consumer titles.

The real question, it turns out, is less about embedded multimedia than it is about personalization, relevance and immediacy of content. For magazines, interactivity has always been about connection with the story; digital media has merely made that connection more complex, raising new technical and economic challenges for publishers.

The Gilbane panelists each discussed the pros and cons of developing interactive content. They praised the new, tablet-friendly design tools from Adobe (Digital Publishing Suite), Zinio, WoodWing and others — recently augmented by the QuarkXPress 9 announcement. They also expressed concern over rising costs (designing for multiple screen layouts, video production, etc.) vs. the unknown circulation and advertising benefits on a new, untried platform. Beyond that, however, they each expressed the notion that embedded media alone was not the answer.

Geoff Shaw of The Sporting News discussed their recent tablet app, The Sporting News Daily. Video and photo gallery embedding are standard fare, although user-generated content is limited by NFL and other content policies. Social media tie-ins are also prevalent. (Commenting has had to be curtailed to avoid endless “Yankees suck! No, Red Sox suck!” exchanges.) Beyond that, however, what has proven more successful is the delivery of time-sensitive, magazine-quality content to readers. Readers want the depth of storytelling that magazines offer, but they also want immediate gratification. While RSS and Web feeds can provide the latest scores, Shaw feels that a digital magazine edition can provide such data in a more satisfying, engaging manner — quality as well as quantity.

The next stage, according to Shaw, is to customize content still further — according to individual user preferences for particular sports, teams or players. Interactivity at that level would mirror the Daily Me concept theorized years ago by the MIT Media Lab. Difficulties still abound, not the least of which are privacy concerns and the reluctance of readers to even create such profiles. Nevertheless, Shaw feels that the model holds promise for truly interactive magazines.

Automation and XML were cited as cornerstones of cost-effective interactivity. Shaw envisioned a data-to-template workflow that would be essential as more tablets with differing screen sizes are introduced. Another panelist described the use of a centralized XML repository of content, from which users could customize their own content, whether viewed on a device or even printed on demand. Needless to say, publishers will need to get creative with content licensing before this model can extend beyond a single title.

Paul Michelman of the Harvard Business Review summarized the interactivity dilemma nicely. While rich media and customization can certainly boost reader engagement, through “nonlinear storytelling,” the idea of an enhanced magazine is too often constrained by arcane circulation rules and publishing norms — not to mention unproven revenue models. While social media tie-ins are intriguing, there are no guarantees that their use will create the same lasting engagement that good writing and design has done in the past. To make things worse, technology is outpacing consumers’ ability to use it well — or predictably.

In short, true interactivity in a digital magazine is hard. However, as Michelman noted, we need to do it anyway.

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

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