Australian classic car magazine Retromotive publishes engaging, insightful stories and emotive imagery that can be enjoyed by anyone, whether a car lover or not. Here, Publisher Nathan Duff talks about the path to creating a digital platform for the brand that mirrors the print experience.
The reader-only revenue magazine recently received recognition for this as a finalist in the Mumbrella Publish 2020 Awards: Magazine Cover of the Year category (award winners are due to be announced on 5 November).
The magazine’s clean, uncluttered layout aims to strip everything back to reveal an intimate journey through beautiful imagery and engaging stories.
So when Duff recently launched a new digital platform for the Retromotive brand, his aim was to complement the quarterly print edition by providing an elegant design and clean user experience for the magazine’s audience.
NPN Editor Lyndsie Clark caught up with Duff to talk about his path to publishing, breaking traditional distribution models and the key aspects to creating a digital presence that drives continued engagement with readership while hero-ing print.
How Retromotive began
Duff, who had been working as a freelance photographer for the automotive industry for over 10 years, began Retromotive as a website for a hobby.
“I’d started my freelance photography career doing a classic car magazine called Australian Classic Car magazine, which used to be owned by the NRMA, then ended up working for most of the other automotive magazines in Australia.”
As the number of Australian automotive titles began to shrink, Duff found himself working more and more directly with the car companies.
“I’d do product photography, new model launches, a lot of photography for PR bits and pieces. The photography is very generic a lot of the time – it’s got to go across a lot of platforms, so there’s not a lot of creativity in it.
“I was missing the creativity element that came from working with the classic car guys. They always had really cool stories too, half the time I’d spend on classic car photography involved chatting to the owners.”
So, Duff started hunting down classic cars again and started a website to feature them.
“I got a collection of about eight or nine stories and had the idea of putting it all together into a magazine to use as a promotional tool for my photography.
“I’d always freelanced for magazines, but I’d never worked on the other side of it. So that was a pretty big eye opener. But I just Googled and then fumbled my way through it.
“I started really enjoying the process. And then I realised that there was a gap in the market, because the classic car magazine that I used to freelance with had since folded.
So Retromotive magazine was born.
“I thought, stuff it, I’ll give it a go. I don’t want to get to another two years down the track like I am now saying: ‘I wish I had done that.’ And it’s sort of snowballed from there.”
Reworking the distribution model
Duff says that one of his biggest challenges starting out was the distribution of the magazine.
“I had to come up with a platform or formula that was going to be cost effective for me, because I was funding the whole thing through the magazine sales, subscription sales, and through my photography work.”
He found the usual distribution options available to magazines cost-prohibitive for his niche publication, so he started selling the Retromotive magazine on his website and posting copies himself.
“I love newsagencies – the whole process of going in, picking up a magazine, flicking through it, having the agent eyeball you to see if you are going to buy the magazine or not…And Retromotive is stocked in a select few – Journals in Sydney, and it has been in Mag Nation in Melbourne.
“But as much as I love newsagencies, I think the bulk distribution method needs to change in order for niche publications to survive.”Nathan Duff, Publisher, Retromotive
Duff says that he’s constantly looking for ways to tackle the distribution challenge.
“I’m always looking for niche, contextual locations, like automotive-themed cafes, repair shops, car restoration places, museums, and thinking of workable distribution models that will service those locations well.
“It’s tricky, because essentially, you’re turning these locations into your newsagent – providing them with a cardboard stand that can be easily restocked, updating them with each edition, creating a standalone point of sale.”
Mimicking the magazine in a digital environment
Duff says that in some ways, using the Retromotive website as the main point of sale has made it difficult to market.
“Traditionally, people find and choose to buy your magazine by seeing a physical copy, picking it up, flicking through.”
He was left with a challenge, and set about developing a new website for Retromotive in February this year.
The result, launched in August, is a clean website with a sleek black and white background that highlights the beautiful automotive photography that Retromotive’s subscribers are used to seeing in the magazine.
“I kept going back and forth with the developers because I didn’t want to launch until it was a proper user experience. Particularly with the classic car guys, which is generally an older generation, you’ve only got one chance – if people come and click on links, and they don’t work – they’re not going to come back.”
Duff explains it was important to make the website simple and easy to navigate.
“I want the website to reflect the look and feel of the magazine – an experience that isn’t too loud without other elements vying for your attention.”
An easier renewal process
It was also important to Duff that he included a more advanced payment gateway on the website that offered a clear navigation to purchase subscriptions.
“I had created the original Retromotive website myself through Wix. It’s a pretty good platform, but there are limitations. At the time that I developed the original website there was no means of handling recurring payments, so I had been spending a lot of time encouraging people to renew their magazine subscriptions at the end of their 12 months.
“I found that there’s a fine line between reminding people and being a pest,” Duff laughs. “So I wanted somewhere where people could click an option for an automatic renewal.”
“I also wanted to reduce the subscription price into bite-size chunks for them because everyone is price conscious. The goal is to get it to a stage where it’s like Netflix – you pay a couple of bucks a month. You don’t miss the cash, but you get all this content.
Duff has created different levels of subscription to satisfy his readership:
- Magazine only
- Online only
- Magazine and online
- Membership level, which includes the magazine in print and digital formats, access to the digital back catalogue, and an annual special edition.
“Depending on your level of subscription, you receive the print magazine quarterly, and we’ve just started doing stand-alone digital magazine editions each month to keep subscribers interested between the print editions.
Duff says that in creating these subscription tiers, he’s been careful to hero the print magazine.
“There’s no denying that you do have to have some sort of online presence or some sort of online content to complement your print publication,” Duff says.
“So, for Retromotive, it comes as a package with print.”
Thinking strategically about print and digital edition content
So how do the digital editions work with the print magazine?
The Retromotive print magazine is quarterly, while digital editions are produced monthly.
The digital edition for the month that the print magazine is published includes the same content as the magazine with additional features, including videos, photo galleries and extended layouts.
“A good example of the additional content that we include is videos of the cars starting up or running, or historic footage of an old race car. It enhances the experience.”
The digital editions that are published in the months’ between the print magazines are standalone editions.
“They’re done in the exact same style as the print magazine and have the same quality content.
“The print magazine generally runs at 134 pages, while their digital version might run at about 150 pages. The standalone digital editions can run up to 200 pages depending on the content available.”
Duff says that the digital editions provide an opportunity to deliver more timely content, like car and product reviews, and information and reviews on events.
“The lead times are so long with print, that content like event coverage can sometimes feel a bit dated once published. I didn’t want to date the magazine – I want people to pick the print editions up in 10 years’ time and feel like it was printed yesterday.”
Structuring the content between the print and digital editions in this way means that Duff can easily run reprints of the print editions, which are seen as evergreen, collector’s editions.
“I haven’t gone as far yet as indicating in the print magazine that there’s additional content online, because like I said, I really want to keep trying to make an effort to sort of keep those separate, and just encourage people to go online and explore a little bit.”
Finding the right digital edition software
In researching the best digital edition platform to use, Duff found some of the providers didn’t provide the user experience that he was after.
“It would have been quite easy to use and embed a digital edition viewer on the website, but I didn’t like the user experience.
“You see quite a lot of online only magazines disappear into obscurity. I’ve never really subscribed to an online magazine. I’ll flick through one occasionally, but they’ve never really grabbed me in terms of the content, presentation, style and usability.”
“With Retromotive’s digital edition, I’m trying to keep the aesthetics and branding tight from the beginning – that way it’s easy to recognise, and carries across the clean interface and usability that I’m aiming for in the print magazine and website.”
Duff landed on exporting his digital editions as an e-publication, which he then goes through to include rich content.
“We can include videos and galleries that cycle through in the magazine page and don’t direct you away from the page.
“The next step from that will be an app that will take the user experience to the next level again.”
Retromotive reader feedback
Reader feedback on the new Retromotive website and digital editions has been really positive.
“People who are reading the digital editions are really enjoying the interactive elements to it,” says Duff.
“But in general, people seem to really like the magazine overall. We did a reader survey recently, and 99 per cent of the feedback was positive – which I wasn’t expecting, because the classic car guys can be really specific with regards to facts and how the photography appears.”
In terms of the future, Duff says that he’s pausing his freelance photography work over the next 12 months to concentrate solely on the magazine.
“I have a lot of fun going out and shooting, talking to people and finding stories,” says Duff.
He’s particularly excited about Retromotive’s recognition as a finalist in the 2020 Mumbrella Publish Awards.
“It feels a bit surreal to be up against people that have teams and years of experience, so it has been really cool to see Retromotive included.”