Why Social Magazines Aren’t “The Next Big” Thing For Marketers

Kipp Bodnar recently wrote a post at HubSpot’s blog titled The Next Big Thing for Marketers: Social Magazines.  In it he opens with the trend that tablets are here to stay.  He’s right, but let’s think bigger than tablets.  Tablets are just one type of device within the larger category of ultra-portable devices. Ultra-portables have steadily grown in popularity over the last few years in many forms, and will continue to evolve as innovations in the technology behind them advance.  But ultra-portables aren’t the trend either.  The trend is mobile.

After his introduction of the trend, Kipp goes through 3 reasons social magazines are important for marketers.  Kipp is a smart marketer and his articles are usually quite good, so I was expecting a thoughtful piece – especially with a title that promised so much (that Social Magazines are the “next big thing”).  But as I read his reasons, I’m not convinced — at least by these reasons in particular.

How much do software platforms within portable devices play a role in your digital marketing?  That all depends.  The apps that are catching on in popularity from a content perspective are those that build upon content that is already popular and already being consumed on the web.

All the closed/paid magazines/apps are essentially the reinvention of CD-ROM media.  We all remember how well that ended.  The media is quite obsessed with apps, but it’s a misplaced hope in a false savior.  The marketing industry is equally guilty and tend to get just as wound up about every new piece of technology (hardware or software).  Both need to think critically about how that technology actually impacts what they do vs. immediately declaring it the next big thing.

Speaking of next big thing, in Kipp’s article, he obviously is influenced a bit by Scoble’s reaction to the flipboard.  Aside from the fact that Scoble classically jumps to conclusions about apps he likes being revolutionary and “changing everything,” remember that Scoble is talking about consumer tech/content consumption.  This does not change the core aspects of content marketing.

Anyway, on to Kipp’s reasons — I said I’m unconvinced these reasons in-particular are why social magazines are the next big thing for marketers.  Perhaps for consumers (yet to be seen).  Let’s list them and discuss why.

1. Noise Reduction – Many marketers today are working to get social opt-ins on Twitter and Facebook in hopes of getting their content included in the information stream of prospective customers. The problem is that, for many people, their social streams are filled with too much content, and much of it gets lost in the crowd. Because social magazines help to filter and better display social streams, it is likely less content will be lost to noise and companies will have better opportunities to connect.

If your social stream is filled with noise, this is your own fault.  If you follow a bunch of people on Twitter or have a bunch of Facebook friends constantly sending noise, not signal – any app that helps filter it is just going to give you aggregated noise.  Facebook (who I’ve actually been critical of in the past) has actually been doing a pretty good job natively of filtering signal from noise for me lately (or maybe the ~1,000 people or so I’m friends with are being more interesting).  Either way, it’s our own fault if we suffer from a poor signal to noise ratio.

Further, these types of social magazines merely interact with content already within streams.  In other words – as a marketer, does Tweetdeck somehow affect what you should do on Twitter?  Not really, it’s just a way for users to interact with that content.  There are many potential tools, including a perfectly useful web-based version (the trend of apps does not denigrate or suddenly make less useful web-based versions).  Understanding apps and usage patterns are important, but they don’t necessarily change what marketers are doing from a strategy standpoint.  In fact, if you are already publishing/syndicating content in an open platform, (as you should be) you’re likely well positioned for shifts.  Startups who produce applications such as social magazines are always going to build them in ways that leverage existing content.

2. A Return to Visuals – Successful traditional print and offline marketing has been dominated by great visuals and tight copy. Today Twitter streams, RSS readers and online news sources are dominated by catchy headlines and bullet points. Social magazine prioritize the value of powerful images in online storytelling. Blog posts with powerful images that help illustrate the message of the post will translate well to this new method of media consumption. Pictures now have a greater impact on who reads your content.

A return to visuals?  I disagree — visuals never went away and are possibly the most popular content format on the web (and have been that way for a long time).  In fact, as I noted 2 years ago:  viral images predate viral videos, and have been around since the AOL and Prodigy days when there wasn’t enough bandwidth available for the everyday user to access video.  For success examples of visual-based sites, look at blogs like Smashing Magazine, digital newspaper sections such as Boston Globe’s The Big Picture or even images section of Digg, Reddit and 4chan.  Images have been vital to digital publishing before social magazines existed.

3. Social Segmentation – Many large companies still publish magazines and distribute them to their B2B customers as a method of nurturing and educating potential buyers. Social magazines allow potential buyers to create their own magazine that is most relevant to them. This relevancy means that potential customers are more likely to read the magazines they create instead of the magazines that marketers print and mail to them. Marketers will need to shift focus and make it easy for content to be included in social magazines by providing RSS feeds and aggregating content through social media.

Potential buyers can create their own magazine that is most relevant to them right now.  With just a web browser.  In fact, they’re already doing it:  it’s called RSS.  Bullet point #3 speaks to the importance of offering compelling content through a feed, which is true.  But success here has less to do with what types of apps are used to consume it, and more to do with publishing great content.  I agree with syndicating and letting users do what they want with it, but I’m far less concerned with how they subscribe.

As streams, aggregators and real-time services already exist do you think specific apps that offer variations on consumption and social features impact what you’re doing from a strategic standpoint?  We already live in a long-tail app and platform world.  People will continue to receive and share content in diverse ways and start-ups will keep creating interesting ways to do just that.

Understanding the variety of different ways content is being consumed is important, but the low level skill.  I wouldn’t call each new consumption device or piece of software “the next big thing”.  It’s all happening within a larger ecosystem.  The best marketers are fluent enough in what’s happening to realize it’s actually not about technology, it’s about ideas.