It's no secret that the magazine world is in what can kindly be described as a state of flux, with publishers constantly being tasked with finding ways to adapt to the shifts in consumer behavior on both print and digital properties. In the face of declining ad revenues and drops in circulation, some titles have decreased frequencies, now repositioning as premium, luxury products with higher-quality paper stock and larger page sizes. But magazines are also keen on boosting audience engagement by generating daily clicks on their websites in an effort to both win over the existing print consumers as well as reach new audiences. Many publications still dedicate real estate in its print products to its respective websites, mostly one or two pages highlighting online-only stories and videos in the hopes of integrating the reader across all platforms.
However, as magazine publishers continue to evolve its business models beyond the core print medium, one media strategy in particular stands out: the digital-only magazine cover. So much of today's industry talk revolves around synergies across social platforms, or pivots-to-video, or mobile optimization — but producing a full-on digital cover is notable in that it looks to capture the print magazine's tangible essence. While not all media companies utilize this all-digital strategy, there are several brands that have, including Nylon, Complex and DuJour, each to varying frequency and effect.
Nylon is the most recent of the three to have embarked on this effort with two digital covers already under its belt, the latest featuring actress Alison Brie. Having shuttered its print edition in September, this marks a new chapter for the title long associated with its downtown aesthetic and cool-girl readership. And in a crowded online landscape where competition is fierce, digital covers make sense for the brand, says Gabrielle Korn, Nylon’s global editor-in-chief. "Our readers have been predominantly digital for some time now, so creating a digital cover represents us meeting them where they're at," she notes via email. "We know they still love Nylon covers, so we had to think of a way to keep giving readers the content they want in a format that they'll actually consume."
Indeed, the unveiling of a new monthly cover, particularly on Instagram, serves as any magazine's embodiment of a new issue and can generate a significant amount of comments and likes compared to other posts in the feed, particularly if the stars align and the right cover model is under the spotlight at an opportune time. "The most-liked Instagrams we put up are our covers," said GQ Style's editor-in-chief Will Welch on an episode of the magazine's "Corporate Lunch" podcast. "That's pretty amazing given that you can take any image and put it up, but it still matters to people and I think it matters to the people that follow what we're doing and the culture at large." Recent examples of a cover's high engagement include British Vogue’s much-lauded December issue starring model-activist Adwoa Aboah, which also marked Edward Enninful's debut. The same can be said for GQ’s December/January issue, on which one of the covers featured former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and ignited a flurry of conversation online and off. It's no wonder that some digital-only publications would want to capitalize on that sort of reach with a strong, impactful "cover" image, even if it's not on a physical copy.
But while a print magazine rolls out its cover on social media to be timed with the release of the physical issue as whole, digital covers live solely on social media and tease a single feature that's linked to the website, usually an interview with the cover star and accompanying photographs. The image itself is configured to look like a typical print magazine cover, with the name of the publication visible along with the month or season. Calling it a cover, then, can seem confusing, especially when most print publications already have digital issues of whole magazine available for download. "There have been websites that try to do like, 'We do cover stories now,' and, 'We’re gonna give you this whiz-bangy cover'...but the truth is, only magazines have covers," said Welch on the same podcast. "Websites do things magazines can't do and vice versa, and so that, to me, has never worked, although it's interesting."
Welch affirmed during the podcast that for celebrities, magazine covers carry a lot of weight and that they reflect a certain milestone in their careers. The same impact holds true for Nylon, says Korn, when asked about the reactions from celebrities and their teams about being booked for Nylon's digital-only covers. "No one has balked at the idea of it being digital rather than print, which is amazing — we don't have to explain to people the value of digital anymore, they already get it," she says.
This is also evident in the roster of talent Complex has managed to book for its own digital covers, which includes music industry heavyweights Lana Del Rey, Eminem and Chance the Rapper. (Complex closed its own print operations in late 2016.) Perhaps looking to monetize these digital covers, Complex has them available for purchase in poster form on the website. In the case of DuJour, the New York City-based media brand is still producing a quarterly print product, but has been committed to putting out digital covers in the months that it doesn't release a print issue. Its social feeds consistently announce a new cover star each month, despite only four of those instances being pegged to an actual hard copy.
As such, it still remains vital for magazines that adopt this strategy to approach the creation of a digital cover the same way it would for print, and maybe with even more creativity if it wants to garner the same kind of attention online as there is no physical newsstand to spark an impulse purchase from a passing consumer; all the right elements still have to come together to create a much-talked-about piece of imagery. Nowhere is this focus as evident as in the The Fashion Spot's magazine forums, where a large community of fashion-obsessed readers meticulously analyze a myriad of magazine covers each month. "[The Fashion Spot] forum members are obsessed with magazine covers — and highly critical of them," writes Jennifer Davidson, the site's editor-in-chief, in an email. "For many, the cover sets the tone for the content inside. A creative or boundary-breaking cover entices readers to see what else the issue has to offer. Likewise, a lackluster cover doesn't bode well for the rest of the editorial." This same viewpoint can be applied to print consumers, where the right cover can make or break a single-issue purchase.
What's interesting, though, is that many readers have voiced interest in purchasing a copy once the all-digital covers have been unveiled, not realizing its physical form isn't available. Nevertheless, titles like Nylon understand that digital covers only make up a part of its overall vision and content strategy for its online operations. "Before we closed our magazine, our readers were more likely to see a cover image on Instagram than in-person anyway, so not being able to pick up a copy physically does not hurt the attention it generates," says Korn. "We had always run our print covers online, and now that they're digital-only, that process is essentially the same, only with more content related to the cover star across platforms throughout the month."
While media brands utilize digital covers in ways that are similar to its print predecessors, some characteristics can stand to have a unique approach for online. "Digital covers are often an opportunity for publications to be adventurous and take more risks than they would with a newsstand cover," says Davidson. "There's no need to bog down a digital cover with a lot of text, which allows for more creativity when selecting images. They can also use digital-only gimmicks, like moving images, to add interest to a cover." Davidson adds that Net-a-Porter's Porter is one magazine that does well with The Fashion Spot's readers for its digital-only covers (like its Fall 2017 cover featuring "Game of Thrones"' Sophie Turner) despite also having a print edition.
Net-a-Porter does have an online-only magazine, The Edit, which promotes a new digital cover each with week on the Net-a-Porter homepage. But The Edit also works as an entirely self-sufficient digital magazine, featuring shoppable market stories alongside your standard features and sharply styled fashion spreads. For those editorials, The Edit also features advertising that directs traffic to the label's own page on Net-a-Porter or to the label's own website, a format that contrasts quite differently from the traditional publications that list shopping credits in separate editorials and directories. In a similar vein, Yahoo Style underwent its own transformative period when it launched as a digital fashion magazine under the purview of then-editor-in-chief Joe Zee in September 2014. After Zee departed the site last summer, though, it appears to have abandoned that format in favor of standard online news and features under the name Yahoo Lifestyle.
It remains to be seen if other, more traditional publishers will adopt digital covers, but with many legacy media brands reducing print frequencies or discontinuing altogether, could they be the next to embrace this approach? As Korn states: "It will ultimately boil down to each publication figuring out how to translate their own brand for the web."
Homepage photo: Chance the Rapper for "The Complex Cover" video series in March 2017. Photo: Marcus Hyde/Complex