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Magazines make the move to responsive websites

With the introduction of the iPad in 2010, publishers rushed to create stunning, interactive iPad apps to showcase their digital editions. We’ve covered many of these iPad apps in detail on this blog, from National Geographic’s use of video to Vogue UK’s high-res images. Yet as money and time flowed toward the development of apps, many publications’ websites were left behind.

Yesterday at the Association of Magazine Media (MPA), the industry association for magazines, publishers gathered to learn how they might refocus parts of their digital strategy on websites, making them responsive across devices in the process. Time.com, New York Magazine’s “The Cut” blog and Glamour.com have all recently completed responsive web redesigns and shared some best practices and lessons learned.  

Why responsive?

When websites aren’t responsive, you have to perform the annoying “pinch and zoom” on your phone or tablet to make the page fit on your screen (I’m sure most of you know exactly what I’m talking about). Designing a responsive website guarantees that a site looks beautiful across different types of devices, from a desktop to an iPad to an Android phone.

And as mobile usage grows, more publishers are finding that readers are accessing content on their mobile devices. “Mobile accounts for 25 percent of traffic to Glamour.com,” Mike Hofman, digital magazine director at Glamour, remarked. “Only 18 months ago, it was 5 percent.” Other publishers reported similar numbers. Craig Ettinger, general manager of Time.com, noted that when Time.com began its responsive redesign, 15 percent of Time.com users were accessing the content through mobile. That number has since risen to over 25 percent.

Another reason for the move to responsive design, publishers reported, was the increasing popularity of social media. “A good part of social media takes place on mobile devices, so you want to make sure when people click on your content through social media, they have a good experience,” Ettinger said. Glamour, for instance, wanted to create a seamless sharing experience on all devices. A reader could share a Glamour.com link via Facebook’s mobile app at night, and the next morning, her friend could click on that link on her PC and the webpage would look just as dynamic.  

Many of the publishers pointed out that responsive design doesn’t just make a better reading experience for consumers, it also streamlines editorial workflow on the back end. Instead of an editor having to push out content on multiple platforms, often requiring different types of coding and content management systems, editors can “publish once, update everywhere”. With diminishing resources at most magazines, this back-end efficiency is particularly appealing.

But challenges remain….

The reasons for creating a responsive design site seem persuasive,  yet the process is not without its challenges. One of the most common phrases uttered throughout the day was “learning curve”. As Scher Foord, executive director of design at Condé Nast Technology put it, “responsive design doesn’t solve or ease actual business and editorial requirements, it amplifies them”. It took 14 months to create “The Cut’s” new site primarily because of the steep learning curve for responsive design, New York Magazine‘s director of design Steve Motzenbecker noted. Other publishers expressed frustration at finding developers and designers skilled in HTML5 and CSS3. And though the savings of moving to responsive design will certainly accrue over time, there are steep upfront costs.

And even after moving to a responsive site, the publishers reported that advertiser dollars didn’t necessarily follow, as many agencies lack the capability to design responsive ads. Until ad agencies start building responsive creative, many publishers must turn ads into responsive ads on their own, which drains resources and time. As one publisher (whom I’ll leave unnamed) remarked, in terms of technology, “advertisers are always a year or so behind.”

There’s also the issue of whether these mobile sites compete with a magazine’s iPad app, which often features a shiny “digital edition” of the print product with bigger (and thus often more valuable) space for ads. Will readers stop downloading the digital edition in favor of a mobile browser experience?  At least for Glamour, the answer is no. “There’s a distinct audience at Glamour.com. We  publish 70 pieces of content a day on Glamour.com that’s not magazine content,” Foord said. “These are two different audiences that we’re trying to reach and two very different–but complementary–reading experiences”.  

A mobile-first strategy

Despite the many hurdles, moving to a responsive website is undoubtedly necessary for publishers who want to capitalize on mobile traffic — and considering that by 2014, there will be more mobile internet users than desktop users, publishers will be forced to capitalize on mobile traffic whether they like it or not.