I love Google. A week ago my search stats had me trying to answer the question: “Why do digital magazine replicas suck?” This week someone is Googling “What do digital magazines do?”

Well gentle Googler, here’s the most important thing that I think think digital magazines do.

Digital magazines force publishers to think about the future
No one knows where magazines are going over the next five or 10 years but one thing is certain, they are not going back to where they were. Digital magazines today are making publishers consider alternatives; publishers ignoring digital magazines risk getting left so far behind they will never catch up.

Print magazines are not dead. Readers, especially B2B readers, still want print magazines. Earlier this year FIPP published the results of some research that showed B2B readers had ”an overwhelming preference for print publications” with 75 per cent selecting print as a preferred format, either on its own or as part of a print digital mix.

Unfortunately, what readers want doesn’t change the fact that print revenues are declining and unless publishers can turn this decline around there will be no magazines in 10 years time other than those published as marketing collateral by huge corporations or tiny niche titles and fanzines put out by hobbyists.

Publishers need to develop sustainable business models that integrate the best of print with the economics of digital. Getting started with digital magazines now, before print revenues disappear, is making companies test the emerging business models that will eventually support ongoing publishing activities.

Digital magazines are far from perfect. The technology – and more importantly the way publishers use that technology – is in a transition stage. Readers may prefer print because digital magazines aren’t good enough yet. But without publishers working the formats, experimenting, making mistakes, they will never get good enough. We will be doomed to a future dominated by cookie cutter websites, databases and firehose journalism. Real magazines, curated, designed and paced for readers will disappear.

Now is the time to learn the basics and get ready for the advances in tablet and e-reader technologies that will make real magazine publishing possible in a digital format.

Digital magazines do practical stuff too
Just in case, gentle Googler, you were looking for answers of a less philosophic nature, here are some practical things that digital magazines are doing right now.

Save money on print and distribution: Yes this is the obvious one, but it’s worth saying again. Printing and mailing a magazine is a costly business. Even at a dollar a copy, on a circulation list of 20,000, the monthly bills are stacking up. Publishing a digital magazines can be free, or  still come in around $250 an issue on a serviced platform. Even enhanced, optimised products will costs a 5% of their print counterparts.

If you manage your own email lists, distribution is effectively free and even where your list management is subcontracted, you are looking at a tiny fraction of standard mailing costs. This is the biggest reason that thousands of publisher already publish replica digital editions of their own products, hoping that environmentally or tech  aware readers will ditch their print editions and save them money on production or distribution.

Extend your reach cost effectively: Don’t tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Digital magazines allow publishers to distribute to markets where it is simply uneconomical to mail their print magazines. Imagine a UK based publisher trying to reach readers in Asia or the US, or switch it around, an Asian publisher keen to reach readers in Europe. Mailing costs would be prohibitive, email costs are nominal. Add to this the ability to be found by readers that you don’t know exist – through Google for example – and you have a powerful international audience development tool.

Deliver added value to your audience: OK now we’re getting into territory a little less familiar. Every print publisher or editor knows the compromises that have to get made every issue on what gets in and what gets cut. Your book sizes are determined as much by economics as by what your audience wants to read. With digital magazines, incremental page costs can be below $10 and you regain the freedom to publish what your audience wants not what you can afford. A digital magazine published alongside a print issue can extend the scope of your title, allowing you to publish material that would otherwise have hit the cutting room floor.

Digital magazines also give you a bigger toolkit. From words and pictures you now have audio, video, animation, forms, polls, external links and RSS feeds to play with. You can provide your readers with a rich interactive multimedia fueled reading experience that you just can’t deliver in print.

Deliver added value to your advertisers: Many publishers, although not actively selling advertising in their replica digital editions, will give advertisers added exposure thought their digital channel. Take a print ad, activate the URL that runs on the page and you have given readers a direct route to your advertisers’ websites and the potential for lead generation on top of their print spend, all for very little extra cost.

With digital magazines you also have the opportunity to re-engage your audience with online advertising. Banner ads are dying. Click-through rates and CPMs are falling faster than print revenues, but audience attention to ads in optimised digital magazines is robust. Take a look at Josh Gordon’s study, “The case for advertising in interactive digital magazines“, for some numbers.