Thanks to the relative ease and low costs of digital publishing, in the past few years there’s been a boom in high-quality online magazines.
The days where you needed a multi-million dollar The Devil Wears Prada-style office and a giant team of writers and graphic designers are long gone. With the right tools, and team in place, you can look after everything from the comfort of your own home.
That doesn’t make it easy—starting your own digital magazine is a lot of work. But if you’re willing to dedicate the time and effort it’s a surefire way to build new revenue streams and position your business as a leader in your industry.
Pumped to get going? Let’s get to it.
We promise this headline isn’t just here for SEO purposes. That would be cheap. No, believe it or not, there’s actually a bit of confusion about what constitutes an online magazine.
On the web, it’s not uncommon to see everything from blogs that self-style as digital magazines to Substack newsletters that are fully functional online publications with teams of writers, editors, and artists.
What we mean by “online magazine” is a digital version of a print magazine that you can read in your web browser, on a tablet, or on your smartphone. While they share some characteristics with newspapers and blogs, they’re their own unique platform.
“You might also see them referred to as ezines, e-zines, or eMagazines. All these terms refer to the same thing. So call 'em what you want, just don’t call 'em Shirley.”
Digital magazines do their best to replicate the print experience (minus killing trees and spending thousands on printing costs). There’s a suave front cover, a blend of images, feature articles and interviews, and even the ability to flip pages if you so desire.
Before you hire a content team, cold-email Elon Musk for an interview, reach out to potential advertisers, and spend hours on Canva mocking up a cover, you need to ask yourself one question:
Is creating your own online magazine the right move? Or are you just drawn to the idea like a moth to a candle, with no forethought as to whether you should actually do it?
Try to figure out three things:
Every magazine—print or digital—has a niche. GQ is about men’s lifestyle, Foundr is aimed at young entrepreneurs, National Geographic explores science and geography, and People is committed to bizarre celebrity gossip.
You need to decide what yours will be. Ideally, it should be linked to your expertise and whatever your business specialises in. There should be synergy with the rest of your company’s services and content.
For example, it would make no sense for Paperform to start a digital magazine about fast food. Sure, we think it’s delicious, but we don’t know a thing about it.
We would want to create engaging content about a topic we know—startups, remote work, and design—all of which we could talk about with authority. You should have the same goal.
Once you have identified a niche, the next step is to see if anyone else is doing it. If there is, don’t retreat into the corner with a box of Kleenex just yet. Take a look at their product and see if you can identify things you could do better.
A few things to look out for:
Think you can compete? Go for it. Of course, you can skip this step if there’s no one producing a digital magazine within your niche. But if that’s the case, keep in mind there may be no one doing it because it doesn’t have a large (or interested) enough audience to justify the trouble.
Make sure you’ve done the research and have a business plan in place, so you’re not about to create a digital magazine only your mum reads.
A conversation about money is like Thanos: inevitable. While the startup costs of digital magazines are relatively small, there’s still plenty to shell out for. Plus, you won't be raking in the cash any time soon thanks to the fact:
That’s not to say you can’t. Vogue, Wired, and The New Yorker are all swimming in cash. Feel free to chase your publishing tycoon dreams. But if making money is your primary goal, it takes a huge investment of time, as well as a fair bit of luck.
If you’re purely wanting to maximize profits and generate money, creating a digital magazine isn’t the right move. You would be better off doubling down on marketing and social media strategies.
Instead, we recommend you think of an online magazine as part of a multi-platform strategy alongside your other content offerings, whether that’s a blog, social media, a podcast, or all three.
Why? Because digital magazines aren’t just about writing cool content and living out your Andy Warhol fantasies. They are complex tools that appear simple at first, but actually kick a number of your business goals, including:
Sounds awesome, doesn’t it? It has the potential to be. Just remember that getting up and running is pretty much a full-time job, and you’ll only reap the benefits if you’re willing to put in the hard yards (and cash.)
Before you put pen to digital paper, you’re going to want to develop a business plan. This forces you to think through your ideas, define your mission and come up with a set of goals (and how you will achieve them).
We won’t go too deep into the process as it’s similar no matter the business you’re starting, and we’ve covered the subject in our How To Start A Charity article.
Coming up with a business plan is like plotting a road trip in the days of physical maps and street directories. It shapes your journey and helps you figure out how you'll get where you need to go.
Most importantly, it forces you to shape random thoughts and ideas into a coherent structure. By doing this you can make sure your new digital magazine will deliver on its purpose, whatever that may be.
Here are a few questions to consider:
During this process is also where you can do the fun stuff, like come up with a name for your new online magazine. Just on that—once you’ve got one, snatch up social media handles and a domain name to make your life easier.
Also consider price. As part of your competitor analysis, look at what other magazine publishers charge. Check out an array of examples, calculate the average, and think about how you could structure your pricing.
Your mag needs to do two things above all else: look spectacular, and be filled with great content. Even if you think you’re a jack-of-all-trades, trying to do this yourself is a recipe for disaster.
Creative work is time-consuming and difficult. In just about every circumstance, it’s best to put together the right team and leave it to the pros. Your digital magazine will thank you for it—and so will your brain.
Magazines are driven by quality written content. In its heyday even Playboy, a print publication full of pictures of beautiful naked women, was full of memorable articles, interviews, short stories and long-form journalism.
If you’re lucky you might already have an in-house writer you trust, otherwise you’ll need to reach out to freelance writers or hire new staff. Whatever you pick, this isn’t the time to try to save a few bucks.
When it comes to written content, we’re of the belief you get what you pay for. You can’t expect to hire cheap freelancers and get anything worth publishing. By offering fair payment you’ll draw skilled professionals and be rewarded with quality content.
Editors are like cookie dough chunks in ice cream—they take something that’s good and make it great. They find mistakes, fix grammar, hand out stylistic feedback, and give articles an all-round polish.
Most importantly, they help maintain a consistent style for your new magazine. This includes how you spell words (e.g. “a lot” vs “alot”), heading and title copy, creating a style guide, and making sure each article hits a certain level of quality.
Don’t skimp on your editor. Readers have razor sharp senses and it only takes a few errors and inconsistencies to start losing authority (and subscribers.)
We’ve all heard the saying “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover”. Well, surprise! Folks do. All the time. And the reality is, if your digital magazine doesn’t look great, people just won’t buy it.
Beautiful design is part of what subscribers are paying for. A pro can help you come up with a unique design that fits your brand, gives an aesthetically-pleasing reading experience, and draws the eye of potential readers on digital newsstands.
Behance and Dribbble are two great online platforms to find remote designers. You can look through portfolios to get an idea of their work, then contact them to set up a meeting.
It’s just not cost-effective to have unique photos on each page. We suggest that you hire a photographer for tent pole content like large features, covers, and interviews. That way you can make sure you capture the shots you need.
The rest of the time you can use platforms like Unsplash to source photography. You can also team up with indie artists to promote their work, use a content creator from around the office, or ask brands you’re collaborating with to share their press shots.
When it comes to setting up your magazine tech stack, your main choice is whether to go web-only, or follow the app route.
There’s no “right” answer. Mostly it comes down to personal preference and the kind of experience you want to deliver. However, there’s a few key benefits that come with going the app route.
Foremost is you get your own app on the App Store or Google Play. Folks can get the app, subscribe to your magazine and flip through each issue, whether they are on the couch at home or the train to work.
Even better than your own app? Apple and Android platforms look after the billing, subscriptions, and digital delivery, plus a lot of the marketing by displaying your mag in the relevant sections of their online marketplace.
Just keep in mind that the Apple iTunes store and Google Play take a slice of your revenue. The cost is:
You’ll have to crunch the numbers and decide if giving our resident tech giants a cut is worth it the benefits they bring. But even with these costs, we tend to veer on the side of creating your own app.
They simplify your job and free up time for you to concentrate on creating. On top of that, having your digital magazine as an app is a bit more official than one hosted on your own website.
We put together some of the most popular digital magazine creation tools below:
With FlipSnack you can transform a PDF into an interactive magazine that you can upload to a website. It comes with a bunch of tools for everything from design and data analysis to helping define your personal brand.
Like FlipSnack, Issuu is a web-only magazine publication tool. Their magazines look fantastic, integrate well with tools like Indesign, Dropbox and Google Docs, and have built-in tools for marketing and distribution.
MagCast empowers you to create your own full-featured digital magazine app. Build and import your magazine, then publish it straight from the dashboard. Let MagCast take care of the rest.
Mag+ makes it easy to build, distribute and monetise your magazine with your own app. Their tools cover every part of the app-publishing process, from design through to distribution, and it's used by names like Harvard Business School and Tag Heuer.
Paperform isn’t a platform to create a magazine, but it can help you distribute it and manage your subscriptions. Just set up your own landing page and send subscribers a PDF straight to their inbox. You can take payments, set tiered pricing and automate the whole process.
Keep in mind that you’ll need a few different tools. Depending how large your team and subscriber list is you may require things like a product management software, a CRM platform, a task manager and, of course, an collaboration tool like Google Docs.
Now it’s time to figure out how your digital magazine will look. This means on an aesthetic level, as well as what types of content you’ll publish and what recurring sections you’ll have in each issue.
We’ve already touched on the importance of design, but the work isn’t done once you have an eye-catching cover—it has to look great throughout. You’ll need to blend your fantastic articles with gorgeous visuals, and give readers an experience that’s both a) beautiful and b) readable.
You’ll also need to define what types of content you’re going to fill those pages with, as well as where it will be placed within each issue. For example, it’s common to have a letter from the editor and correspondence before getting into the main content.
Traditionally, magazines are split into four sections:
To get ideas look at notable publications from any industry. Take a read through and look at how they organize their content. How long are their articles? What’s the tone and point of view of the articles? Is there a theme?
There’s always room for innovation. If you think there’s a better way to do things, go for it. You can always make changes in the next issue if things don’t quite work.
Great team? Check. Beautiful design? Check. Layout? Settled. It’s time to fill those digital pages, so get together with your editor and brainstorm what types of content you want to produce.
Take a look at Fortune for example. Their goal is to inform readers about events in the business world, and help set them up for success.
We recommend that your content is helpful and actionable in some way. People want to feel like they’ve learnt something they can apply to their own life. It’s about giving value to your subscribers.
The golden rule of digital magazine publishing is variation. Your small business blog might do fine with one type of content, but that won’t cut it in the mag biz. Add a mix of short and long-form features, Q&As, opinion pieces and interviews.
A quick note: Interviews with influencers are a great way to grow your magazine. Big names not only bring their audience, they act as a form of social proof and raise your publication’s profile faster than even the best marketing strategy can.
So find relevant PR people, or head to LinkedIn and connect with prominent people within your industry. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, and you never know who may say yes and skyrocket the status of your magazine.
If a magazine is published and there’s no one around to read it, is it even published? You’ve done all the hard work and now comes the hardest part of all—getting people to read it.
Maybe you've got a huge online business and an active audience salivating at the idea of a magazine published by you. But the chances are that’s not the case. So how do you build a readership and start generating revenue?
The usual marketing strategies apply. Spread the word on social media, share it with your existing community, ask early adopters to leave reviews and get influencers you feature to promote it within their networks.
A common growth approach many digital magazines adopt is:
By making your app free to download you get people in the door. Then you can offer one or two free issues to get them hooked on your outstanding content, and convert them into dedicated subscribers.
(If you go the web-only route you can echo this by offering an issue outside the paywall.)
Thanks to the decay of old ad-based revenue models, and an unprecedented demand for high-quality content, digital publishing is bigger than ever. And it's only going to grow in popularity.
Now’s your chance. The stage is set for savvy folks like yourself to take advantage of this new and exciting media landscape. As the old saying goes, “fortune favours the bold”— so get out there and get started today.
Don’t want to spend money on a dedicated magazine platform? Set up a landing page with Paperform and start collecting sign ups in minutes. With our handy tools you'll be able to take subscriptions and distribute your fancy new magazine to subscribers all from the one platform.
Take it for a spin today with our 14-day free trial—no credit card required.
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