Your print-to-digital strategy is terrible. Here’s how to fix it.

How to fix your print-to-digital strategy

Woke up this morning and hit the gym — motivated! — and while there, was thinking about a couple of posts I wanted to write. Something hit me out of the blue:

  • Why do I spend my time on the treadmill thinking about blogging? Does that make me weird?
  • Why have I never written a post about print-t0-digital strategy?

If you don’t know, the idea of print-to-digital strategy is basically this:

  • You work at a place that has magazines, catalogs, etc.
  • They want to reflect that content online (“digitally”) somehow
  • They need a “strategy” for doing this

When done right, this can be super interesting and effective. When done wrong, it’s a gigantic flaming ball of dung. I’ve worked on print-to-digital strategy at three (count ’em out, 3) jobs I’ve had. I figure I have a few insights. Let’s go for a ride.

1. Start here: Your magazine is important and probably makes more money than your website, but …

This right here is where most of these best-laid plans die in the river. Typically, a magazine — because it can charge more for ads — makes more money than a website. It’s also usually thought of as having more eyeballs, even though in many cases that’s not true. (The great promise of digital, which hasn’t been completely realized yet, is that you can actually track readership and connection to a brand; with a magazine, you have a circulation and everything’s based on that ad-wise, but if you’re 1.1 million circ, does that mean 1.1 million people read every article you put out? No.)

In short, then: your magazine makes money and is important. Yes. We get that. But you need a digital presence and you need a good, logical, easy-to-navigate one. Let’s say someone reads a great article you put out. Six months later, they remember something and want to reference it. Maybe they have the print copy in a bin in their house somewhere, but probably they don’t. So how do they find it? Probably via your website. Even if that’s the extent of your understanding of why a digital strategy is necessary — “Easier to find the stuff I write!” — well, that’s something.

2. Online, the magazine may not look exactly the same

Websites have style guides, as do magazines. But they don’t always look exactly the same based on the templates that your CMS (content management system) uses. Some old-school print people go nuts about this, and psychologically, that makes a lot of sense — they’re affiliated with the print brand, and spend a lot of time making that look just right, and they see it online and it’s not the same. I get it. So you need to come to terms with that.

3. Editorial Sensibility

Phrased in the most direct way possible, newspaper/magazine editors tend to deeply value process (like most professionals) and, in the case of magazines moreso, they like time to craft a story. Online works a little differently, and probably even more differently since the advent of social. Sometimes you want the ability to respond to things quickly and go off-script a little bit. Most hardcore print editors I’ve worked with (ESPN, PBS, current job) aren’t really in line with that. So you need to have a little bit of a Come to Jesus at the beginning of any print-to-digital strategy and explain to each side what their role is and how their role is executed and ultimately judged.

4. So, what’s the plan?

This should probably be a bit higher, but I needed to get some of those other points out of the way first. You need to think about what the plan is. Ideally this would be driven by someone high-up in marketing/editorial/wherever the magazine and website live, but in reality it can be driven by anyone with some background and some good ideas. Here are a few things you probably need to ask:

  • Do we want to repurpose the print content entirely, or only repurpose selected articles?
  • Are we going to use this for home page content, social media, e-mail marketing, newsletters, and/or what else?
  • Do we want additional media supporting some of the print articles (photo galleries, slideshows, podcasts w/author, videos, etc.)?
  • Do want to use online as a place to stash content that didn’t fit in print?
  • How many original items vs. items from print should we be posting a week?
  • Will there be a blog that kinda ties the themes and ideas of the organization together in addition to this content?
  • Who manages everything overall, and then who manages each piece (print XYZ and digital XYZ)?
  • How often should the two sides meet/e-mail?
  • Should the two sides have the same managers?
  • How are you going to make money on the digital side?

That’s a bunch of questions, not even in the right order, and I missed a few along the way. Apologies.

Print-to-Digital Strategy

5. A Couple Of Potential Recommendations

Here we go. Take ’em or leave ’em:

  • Last time I checked, you can’t embed a YouTube in the pages of a print magazine, so you should definitely enhance/bolster the reading experience for a consumer online.
  • If all you do is rehash the print content, that’s stupid — and you’re probably wasting headcount on some “digital manager.” (I think that’s my current job. Awkward.) Decide what story you’re trying to tell (comes from higher up) and tell it with original content too.
  • I hate print-to-digital throws (“Go to YourWebsite.com/funfacts for more!”) because I doubt anyone uses ’em, but it’s a good political win within your department.
  • Remember: a magazine is designed to be read a certain way, as a certain experience. When you isolate those elements into different webpages (different URLs), you can’t always keep the exact same headline, the same sub-head, etc. Because when you encounter that headline in a magazine, it makes sense in the context of what you’re reading. If you encounter it off a Google search, it might not. So remember: even if you’re copying over article after article into your CMS, you need to change a few things along the way so that they can potentially make sense in isolation.
  • Phrased another way: focus on SEO and metadata. How might people find this stuff? If new people find it, that might mean new print subscribers! Everybody’s happy!
  • Don’t view digital as “the dumping ground for stuff that couldn’t fit into the print edition.” That demotivates everyone. Honestly. Who’s gonna work hard if their job is about “getting shit that couldn’t fit in the thing everyone seems to care about?” This happened to me at ESPN all the time. After a while, I stopped caring. Sorry, but that’s life. That’s how motivation works (or doesn’t). 
  • Have the print and digital sides meet twice a month. Schedule it around print deadlines, because print people often get super harried with deadlines.
  • Make sure a process is in place that benefits all sides; this is where it’s helpful to have everyone managed by the same person/persons.
  • Keep an editorial calendar for online, noting print articles that will go online and at what times.
  • Show people what their print stuff will look like online before it goes live.
  • Bottom line: have a story you want to tell and a way you want to do that. But incorporate original/ran-in-print and incorporate media that can’t run in print (like videos, audio, etc.)

6. Monetize

This part is hard for many people. You can usually (a) do something subscription-based or (b) sell ads. Marketing is (hopefully) going to continue to evolve, so perhaps new revenue plays will emerge. I’m definitely not an expert on monetization; I personally have about 600 bucks to my name and I’ve never managed that section of a website, necessarily. Thing I would say here, though, is that you can ignore an ad, but it’s much harder to ignore a relationship. So, if all you do is chase ads and revenue from the start, it will make you some money — and that’s always nice! — but it will turn off a lot of other potential consumers/readers, and that’s less good/nice. The immediate revenue play doesn’t always work in print-to-digital strategy. Sometimes you need to take a little time and build up trust with your readers so that they keep coming back, and then you can jam some product down their throat. Isn’t that how your magazine got to be so awesome?

7. Any thoughts?

This probably only scratched the surface, and maybe not even that. Any other thoughts? Leave ’em in the comments.

Ted Bauer


  1. I’ve never thought there was so much to think about regarding print content vs. digital content. Color me ignorant. Since the advent of social media and all things digital, I’ve thought that companies could choose either to have their digital content mirror their print content or have their digital content overlap with print with the addition of some ancillary “fresh” content that is exclusively digital — a sort of “but wait, there’s more!” approach.

    After figuring all that out, I would think the next phases involve implementation via the technicality of coding (HTML/CSS/Javascript/etc.) and the creativity of graphic design. The next phase would be performance measurement, including but not limited to A/B testing, and the stock metrics available in Google Analytics or Adobe/SiteCatalyst/tool du jour.

    Rinse, lather, repeat…no?

    • Yes, you’re right … also a major problem I didn’t address is that silos kill the whole thing, because tech/coding is under 1 area, design is under another, actual content/photos is under a third, etc. You know how that ball bounces, baby!

Reply If You'd Like