The 10-Year Publisher Throwback

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A Look Back at the Past Decade of Online Magazine Evolution, and Where Magazines Stand in an Age of Digital Transformation and Continuous Reader Engagement to Stay Relevant

Online magazines, formerly referred to as “ezines” or “webzines”, have penetrated the digital space since the 90s, growing in popularity over the coming two decades.

With the growing popularity of the Internet and increased use of personal computers, consumers have gradually transferred to consuming information online. Traditional print magazines had to consider the digital presence of their brands to stay relevant and retain their loyal offline audience.

Fast-forward to 2018, the web looks and works differently. Social media is a major source of traffic alongside organic search, mobile sites are the standard, advertising revenue is substituted with memberships and strategic partnerships. Here’s how the web changed over the past 10 years.


Desktop computers were the main source of consuming Internet content. While laptops were gaining traction fast, the average speeds of 3.6 Mbit/s in most corporate offices and homes were still prohibitive for mobile consumers (in addition to the poor user experience on the mobile devices to date).

AARP was a leading online player among consumer magazines, with National Geographic, Good Housekeeping, Family Circle, and People gathering large audiences in the millions of monthly users. Traditional magazines have switched from launching separate online versions supplementing their print issues to releasing their content online — as paid online subscriptions or releasing old prints for free.

Facebook went live in 2006 and some brands have started promoting through the social network in 2008 and 2009. Language and geographical targeting were announced soon after, helping publishers reach their ideal audience online.


A few major events have marked the beginning of a new decade at the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010.

The launch of iPads in 2010 has shaken the reign of desktop computing for good. While smartphones have been slowly making their way in the digital bandwidth space, tablets were the natural continuation of mobile devices with sufficient screen size for actual work.

Apple’s notorious brand and its loyal followers helped launching the first two iPad issues, Time in April and Wired in June 2010.

And do you remember Flash? Around that same time, Digital Magazine Awards was won by iFly Magazine, an interactive landing page with animations and floating buttons running on the proprietary Adobe Flash framework.

And iPhones have never supported Flash. But mobile traffic was merely 1% in 2010, and Flash was both a hatred toolkit and one of the few popular ways of building interactive online apps. And the world was split into purely web versions of magazines and an iPad-specific app for every brand.

2011 – 2012

Monetizing online content was hard, especially when hiring professional journalists and writers. The New York Times announced their premium subscription in 2011, along with a wave of other media outlets launching paid plans or freemium reads.

Jakob Nielsen’s report on the usability of websites and tablets released in 2011 outlines multiple problems with iPad editions of online magazines building specific apps for the iPad:

  • Touchable areas in many apps are too narrow
  • There’s a high rate of incorrect activities due to wrongful touches
  • Discovery isn’t intuitive due to poor UX
  • Inconvenient writing on iPads compared to computers is affecting the registration process

Suddenly, the growth of tablet use was questioned. Poor UX was leading to lower adoption, and insufficient writing capabilities made the sign-up process (and certain forms of payments) obsolete or simply cumbersome.

2013 – 2015

Thus, Mashable announced 2013 the year of Responsive Design, strongly suggesting that all websites can (and should) go mobile-friendly with little to no effort thanks to technological advancements over the past years.

The ad-driven model has become wildly successful and ruled the world, but facing additional oppression by ad stoppers. AdBlock was first introduced in 2009, it wasn’t as popular yet and Internet Explorer was still a dominant browser for a few years, but Google Chrome took over and became the leading browser supplementing the #1 search engine with a powerful collection of free browser apps (extensions).

Publishers kept mixing ad-driven content with premium subscriptions or donations, sometimes with additional reads and private articles available for premium users only. Luckily, hosting fees have become more affordable over the past years, making scalability a slightly cheaper process. The peak of guest blogging for SEO and personal branding reasons was also a secret trick into releasing more high-quality content at little to no cost from external contributors — a concept that was barely touched on during the early years.

2016 – 2018

As compared to 2010, trends have evidently shifted into a new realm.

While Internet Explorer accounted for 60% of all traffic in 2010, it struggled retaining 10% market share for long. The 1% mobile traffic use in 2010 grew to 40% in 2016, and TechCrunch reported in November that mobile traffic surpasses desktop for the first time.

Google Chrome replaces Internet Explorer and accounts for 66% of all browsers in the latest months. Research in 2016 reports over 600 million devices using Adblock, many of whose mobile as well. Magazines relying solely on ad revenue have been struggling to retain the same revenue and grow slowly with steady traffic but a wider adoption of different ad blockers.

Medium, one of the largest publishing contributing networks, announced a paid membership model in early 2017.

The U.S. presidential election of 2016 brought a mix of uncertainty in social networks like Facebook followed by a set of crisis PR questioning the authority and privacy of content and users hosted on the social network. Coincidentally, Facebook step on the wrong foot with its trial experiments for launching a separate “Explore” feed for pages that users like, sinking the traffic of groups and pages with loyal following.

This led to a strategic shift to membership mixed in with other creative advertisement techniques. The New York Times announced over 3.5 million subscribers, with 300,000 added early in 2017. After the Trump election, other media sources like The Washington Post and The New Yorker have all reported a positive influx of subscribers.

Uncertainties in social media exposure (and the reliability of fan pages) led to discovering new advertorial opportunities. Publishers solely relying on Facebook looked into other networks that work better, including Snapchat, Quora’s new advertising platform and link features, Taboola or Outbrain. Google’s DFP capabilities were pushed to the maximum, leading to a renowned update called Google Ad Manager.

Due to hefty charges on the ad front, header bidding gained popularity, with programmatic solutions like gaining adoption and hundreds of billions of ad impressions monthly on top of DFP or self-hosted ad platforms. This led to additional opportunities for sticky and adhesion ad units, implementing flexible layouts for galleries and infinite scroll pages, and other UX improvements supplemented with powerful caching mechanisms. This goes both for traffic arbitrage strategies by some and proven revenue generation for SEO-optimized publishers with plenty of organic or email-derived traffic.

What’s Next?

The dynamic evolution of publishing over the past years have brought technological, creative, and advertorial innovation to major digital publishers.

  • The growth of machine learning now allows for AI-driven opportunities for related posts, personalized newsletters, and customized user feeds.
  • Voice assistants like Alexa and Google Home, along with Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana, and Bixby, have significantly increased the voice search traffic, strengthening the importance of featured snippets in Google and content optimized for audio consumption.
  • YouTube took the second place among the largest search engines, increasing the importance of video content within posts, video slideshows, and video-first content transcribed as a post-factum.

What are your predictions for publishing through the coming decade?

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