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Five questions with the MPA’s Ethan Grey

As magazines continue to transform from paper editions to multi-platform experiences, the magazine industry’s trade association is trying to make the transition a little smoother. The 93-year-old Association of Magazine Media (MPA) recently appointed Ethan Grey to the position of vice-president of digital. With Grey’s background in the technical aspects of digital magazine development, the MPA is sharpening their digital focus. I recently sat down with Grey to discuss his vision for the magazine industry’s transition to digital platforms. 

What do you think are the biggest trends in digital publishing?

First, the normalization and standardization of the processes. When smartphones and tablets were just coming out, everyone in digital publishing was building things differently – in a very ad hoc kind of way. There were many ways to build digital magazines and it was really hard to maintain. Over the last 12 months, it’s starting to become a standardized process. People are sharing more information with one another. It’s helping the industry to become more efficient and cost effective.

The second is that when iPhones and tablets came on the market, there was this push to make magazines more like apps – a lot of interactivity, a lot of engagement for the user. But what users have told magazines is that it’s really about the content. And the magazines have listened and are now focusing more on the stories, the videos and the photographs, instead of the flashy features and over-the-top navigation. It’s ultimately better for the readers and better for the industry.

How can publishers engage more with their readers on social media?

One of the things to really understand about social is that it’s about trust. The reason social media works so well is because users are sharing with people who they trust. Take a look at most trusted mediums, and magazines are up near the top. We are in a unique position to push out meaningful content to users that they’ll share with their friends.

What magazines could do to be successful is to look at how social serves their core business. So if you take a look at Spotify, it uses Facebook better than Facebook. They really use it in support of their core business perspective: subscriptions. And it’s one of the best Facebook apps to share content and playlists, which pushes people to the Spotify platform.

What would you say to an advertiser looking to put an ad in a magazine’s tablet edition?

I’d  really emphasize the level of engagement that you see on the tablet. People are really glued to them. Just look at the brilliance of the tablet’s singularity of focus. It pushes everything out of the way.You’re not multitasking; there are no other windows or tabs. You get drawn in by a very compelling piece of hardware. It’s a great new avenue for us in the magazine industry.

What’s ahead for MPA digital?

I come from a technical background, so we’ll really be upping the technology focus. We’re introducing a new series of professional development events that are focused on hands-on learning. We have an event October 30th on responsive web design, which is a beautiful way to put out cost-effective content to users on a variety of platforms. It will be a  half-day workshop where our members can learn about the fundamentals of responsive design and actually learn how to design a homepage. It’s something we’ve never done before, but what we need to see more of. We’re all in the software development business now – whether we like it or not.

Why is it so important for publishers to learn more about the technology behind their publications?

We’re an industry that’s really amazing at putting out content. I want to make it so that the technology is more of a canvas rather than an impediment. My experience has been in building magazine apps and websites  - and they’re hard to build. What I want to be able to do is let our members and the industry as a whole focus more on making content than on how the platform will be built. I want them to take their money and time and invest it in writing more things, more photography, more engaging conversation – and worry less about the nuts and bolts underneath.