I admit that I have been a longtime skeptical observer of the digital magazine format, although 6 or 7 years after its introduction the platform is getting some traction with readers and publishers. Generally designed as facsimiles of printed periodicals, the digi-mag always seemed to fill an unnecessary niche between old and new media, between physical magazines and websites. It has the interactivity and rich media potential of a digital product (hot links, embedded multimedia), but it retained the lush design sense of print. But was this a solution in search of a problem?

How many people actually read the digi-mags they get (usually announced in an email reminder with a link) is another question. One vendor recently told me that the email reminders of new issues have wildly diverse “open rates” of between 30% and 80%, and the “reading rate” of those who click through to get the edition can run from 10% to 60%. I can only speculate that uneven performance like this reflects the different levels of support from the publishers in marketing the platform and the audiences’ uncertainty about the format.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some real advantages to the platform. The first iterations advertised themselves as downloadable media that didn’t require those pesky web connections that were a bit more elusive in 2001 than they are now. You could bring stacks of your favorite magazines onto an airplane. For professional publications, a digital version gives you a full archive in very little space, and it is searchable. Digital distribution is a godsend for publications with international subscribers because it eliminates the postal cost and lag time. One of the pioneers in the space, Zinio, claims that about half its usage now comes from overseas.

In an age of bottomless web data, gushing at us relentlessly in real time, print has an increasingly important editorial function. It filters information and presents it in a more scannable, digestible form than most websites. This filtering function may be one reason the digital magazine is enjoying a bump, if not a boom, in popularity. Vendors such as Zinio, Texterity, and Olive Software say that some of the business pubs, especially in the tech space, are seeing up to 15% of their readers now opting for digital versions of their pubs. In some cases, the take-up comes from surprising audiences. For instance, at Reed Business Information (RBI) 35 of its U.S. titles have digital versions, and its line of electronics and engineering books gets the highest digi-mag subscriptions. At the same time, the books serving hospitality and food service industries see up to 14% of controlled circulation readers taking the digital version. Almost all of these B2B brands have websites as well, but loyal readers are still looking for that sculpted weekly or monthly distillation by a strong editorial hand. That they are willing to read a print product on a screen is a testament to how far we have come in evolving user habits.

Publishers are also starting to see the flexibility in this format. It is not just about digitizing a print magazine. RBI, for instance, now uses digi-mag technology for custom publishing products, for media kits, or one-off special sections for sponsors. Another new advantage of the format is that it can help get print material into the search ecosystem. Many print publishers still resist simply pouring their print product into a standard website, and so there is no opportunity for search to point to the brand as a source. Now that more digi-mag solutions use a web-based approach, often with XML, the magazine content can be exposed to search spiders and then even reformatted and combined into other products that pull the content out of the original print format.

Publishers are starting to see ROI from digital magazines, but this is the kind of platform that will be leveraged in oblique ways that don’t always have a direct revenue stream. For customer relationship management, a digital version gives current subscribers greater flexibility with their content yet another way to access a branded data stream. It has great potential as a promotional and sampling tool for the print product that I haven’t seen tapped yet. These companies are only beginning to digitize print media into formats that work on mobile, in RSS, and in more personalized versions. Ultimately, this platform will thrive when users are finally convinced that digitized print can solve problems of flexibility, portability, and personalization that they didn’t realize they had.