COMPUTER REPORT: Power of the Press - The specialist computer press is booming. But it is aware that, as well as competition from overseas, other media alternatives are becoming a viable option. The sector, Richard Cook argues, cannot afford to rest on it

Computer companies like to compare marketing their arcane selection of circuit boards and silicon chips to the process of selling cars. Consumers, they argue, might well recognise words like torque and brake horse power without ever being able to explain precisely what it is that these things do. But that doesn’t matter because what car advertising shows them is simply the end benefit. We don’t know exactly how we travel in a walnut-panelled, leather-clad, air-conditioned cocoon from 0-60 in less time than it takes to remember where it is we are going, but we know we like it.

Computer companies like to compare marketing their arcane selection

of circuit boards and silicon chips to the process of selling cars.

Consumers, they argue, might well recognise words like torque and brake

horse power without ever being able to explain precisely what it is that

these things do. But that doesn’t matter because what car advertising

shows them is simply the end benefit. We don’t know exactly how we

travel in a walnut-panelled, leather-clad, air-conditioned cocoon from

0-60 in less time than it takes to remember where it is we are going,

but we know we like it.



And so it is - or at least will be - with computers, they say. Most of

us don’t know or care whether our direct-drive, quad-speed, RAM-enhanced

CD-Rom comes complete with synchronous pipeline burst cache or just

relies on extended DMI support. We just want to be able to play the

X-Files or do our accounts on it.



’The car market in many ways is a really good analogy,’ Josh Fuller,

Walker Media’s planner who is responsible for the agency’s Packard Bell

account, points out. ’Not least because there, too, the consumer’s first

thought is where they can go for information about the product. And

that, put simply, is why the specialist computer magazines remain the

essential buy for advertisers - because they are still the easiest way

of reaching the vital opinion formers,’ Fuller says.



Certainly his contention appears to be borne out by both the readership

and revenue numbers. The specialist computer magazines’ display

advertising market increased by 17 per cent last year. And although,

according to the industry’s Banner Research, daily newspapers come off

far better in absolute readership terms, it pays for agencies to look

rather more closely at the readership returns.



An impressive 67 per cent of computing decision-makers in large

businesses, and 68 per cent in small businesses, read a daily newspaper,

with the Daily Mail pipping the Times and Telegraph. The trouble is they

don’t read the right part of these newspapers - as far as advertisers

are concerned at least.



When you turn to the specialist IT sections of those papers, the

readership figures are far, far less impressive.



Two-thirds of large company decision-makers, and nearly three-quarters

of small company ones, simply don’t bother with those. Of that same

highly influential and valuable group, on the other hand, 37 per cent

read both a monthly and a weekly computer magazine, far more than will

also confess to watching the average ten hours of commercial TV a

week.



’If you want to buy a computer at the moment,’ Fuller adds, ’even if you

use them at work, you will still talk to an expert and ask their

advice.



I’d go to our IT manager if I wanted one, despite the fact that this is

an area I’m interested in and I’m sure many other people are the

same.



However, as computers become ever more accessible this is likely to

change and there will be a need for more of the introductory titles like

Computer Active, T3, Stuff or Tomorrow’s World to excite consumers’

interest. But as things stand at the moment, there is a definite limit

to how far you can get in computer advertising simply by trying to talk

directly to the uninformed consumer, which is obviously a huge benefit

to the specialist press.’



In fact, Packard Bell ruled out TV in its advertising this year for just

that reason, relying on a radio campaign to do almost all the branding

work and on computer magazines to carry the bulk of the campaign

load.



’Actually, you could argue that a company like Packard Bell, which has a

small profile in offices and is really aimed almost exclusively at the

home market, has more need than most of brand advertising,’ Fuller says,

’because the brands that you see in your office every day, the likes of

IBM or Compaq, you don’t really need to be told about. The fact of the

matter is that the consumer computer market in this country is just not

sufficiently sophisticated yet. People still buy because they are

advised about product specification by ’someone who knows’ and, with the

best will in the world, you wouldn’t want to do a TV campaign to bang on

about what specification of motherboard you have. For that reason, at

the moment, you would certainly still have to question the value of TV

in computer advertising.’



And while there have been some impressive TV branding campaigns in the

sector over the years, they have tended to have the feel of luxurious

extras outside of the core campaign. A couple of years ago, for

instance, Toshiba created its award-winning ’flying notebooks’ TV

campaign. Toshiba is the brand leader in terms of portable computing,

and sufficiently confident in its product to produce a TV ad that

promotes the whole concept of portability rather than the Toshiba brand.

The TV work, through Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters, contrasted the ease of

movement of portable computers with their plug and lead-restricted

desktop counterparts. The ads were firmly targeted at the end user. The

TV work used the same computer-produced animation as in the film, Toy

Story, and was branded with the endline, ’To London, to New York, to

anywhere, Toshiba.’ But even in this pioneering brand work, most of the

hard selling was done elsewhere. The company hedged its bets by also

producing what the agency described as ’pack shots with a twist’,

executions for the consumer and specialist press using visual puns in

the press work and giving around a fifth of the ad to box copy of the

machine’s technical specifications. These were the ads that ran

extensively in the computer press which were entrusted with the main

selling job.



But if TV is currently too expensive and wasteful to play a real part in

the bulk of computer advertising, the internet is certainly one area

that is growing in popularity as a marketing tool for the IT sector. The

Trends in Internet Advertising Study, published earlier this month,

represents the first fruits of US market research company Intermedia

Advertising Solutions’s monthly InterWatch surveys. IAS has been

tracking 400 industries and a total of 300 websites during the past two

years and, as a consequence, has now been able to compile league tables

of exactly who is spending on the net and where.



The figures make for interesting reading. Not least because for the

first time they reveal the extent to which advertising expenditure on

the internet is propped up by the computer and software companies. They

- the likes of Microsoft and IBM - still represent more than half of

total adspend on all the sites tracked. The category more than doubled

expenditure in 1997 compared with the previous year, for example.



And computing still towers above any other sectors on the net. The whole

of the internet retail spend still lags behind the online budget of,

say, IBM. Microsoft on its own would represent the sixth largest

advertising category on the internet, spending more than the whole of

the media and advertising industries or as much as three important

categories -retail, hotels and leisure and games - all put together. And

whereas the internet is the destination for more than 11 per cent of

overall computer ad budgets, as a whole, online ad spending represented

less than 1 per cent of overall advertising budgets last year.



’The requirements of the computer market have changed, not least because

of the internet, but the problem is that many of the magazines in the

market are not yet adequately reflecting that change,’ Paul Clarke,

group publishing director at one of the market’s relatively new

entrants, CMP Media, warns. The US-owned IT publisher signalled its

ambitions for the European market when it acquired Emap Computing’s

titles last year. ’IT news is now much more readily available on the net

than through magazines and I think what the titles have to do

editorially is look at IT in the same way the companies do, as a means

of gaining a competitive advantage.



That is what we try to do at Information Week and that is the approach I

think will preserve the computer press in good health in the

future.’



At first glance this computer press seems to be a complex mass of

tightly targeted titles that compete in a variety of niches. Industry

insiders, however, claim to be able to simplify the market much further

and point out that barriers are coming down all the time as people

become computer literate.



’I think the magazine market nowadays breaks down into three discrete

categories,’ says the Computer publisher, Erik Hoekstra. ’There’s the

emerging group of titles at the entry level, the likes of Computer

Active that are taking advantage of the fact that computers are becoming

more and more a commodity. Second, there are the titles like PC Shopper

or PCW aimed at the mid-market, the small-to-medium enterprises or the

small office/home office market. This is comprised of firms employing up

to a couple of hundred people. And then there are large companies with

huge and very sophisticated IT departments, targeted by titles such as

Computing, Computer Weekly and Information Week.’



The prevailing market wisdom is that there are too many magazines in the

UK market - around the same number in all as in the US, which is a

market six times the size. But these titles exist as a result of the

continuing strength of the advertising market.



As far as the largest companies are concerned, demand is being fuelled

by the myriad problems posed by the millennium bug. Earlier this month,

Unilever warned that tackling the problems thrown up by the millennium

bug would end up costing it around pounds 300 million, while a Reuters

survey said it could cost Britain’s 100 biggest companies collectively

more than pounds 5 billion. Unilever pointed out that the challenge

posed by the bug was ’ a major business challenge which is extensive

because, apart from the information systems, the task involves

correcting information technology infrastructure, factory and process

control facilities and telecommunications networks for both voice and

data’. But the fact is that such difficulties are also likely to prove a

substantial boon for the IT advertising media.



’The Government has just embarked on a pounds 10 million advertising

campaign to warn firms about the problems of the millennium,’ Hoekstra

points out, ’and an awful lot more than that is going to be spent on IT

as firms continue to grapple with the issue.’



The mid-sized market is no less buoyant, not least because it is the

most difficult market for advertisers to reach. The companies in this

category have erratic IT requirements - they need PCs when they start up

and then tend to go quiet. Most exciting of all, potentially, are the

titles aimed directly at the consumer.



’There is a real convergence in the computer market and the more

consumer-oriented titles such as Computer Active are definitely now

helping bring a lot more people in,’ Catherine Gray-Bennett, VNU’s PC

Consumer Division publisher, says. ’The idea is that these readers will

graduate from the title - if they get interested - to more specialist

and detailed publications.



In the meantime, they are helping grow the overall market and speed

computer penetration. Around 60 per cent of Computer Active readers

don’t read any other part of the IT press so it has to be good that they

are taking an increasing interest. And, encouragingly for advertisers,

it’s just like the specialist car titles - they take this interest at

the moment when they are going to buy.’



The success of Computer Active will be watched with considerable

attention, not least because previous attempts by the specialist

computer press to launch titles for the computer ingenue have met

ignominious ends. In April last year, Ziff Davis closed Computer Life

after a difficult two years, pointing to problems catering for the home

computer market. But for computer magazines it’s a difficult balancing

act. After all, the more opinion formers that are required to shape

consumer demand, the more the specialist press benefits. Once

information about computers becomes more widespread, then we are likely

to see less attention paid by advertisers to product specifications and

more to benefits.



’When that happens it’s clear that there will also be opportunities for

other media,’ Fuller of Walker Media says, ’because people will feel up

to doing the research themselves. But the computer press has been

adaptable over the years and I suspect what will happen then is that

computer publishers will continue to plug any new market gaps. If they

have to, they’ll just come up with computer titles with girls in bikinis

or something - whatever it takes to hang on to their position.’





TOP 20 UK COMPUTER TITLES (BY ADVERTISING REVENUE)

Rank    Title                   07/97 - 06/98 in pounds

1       COMPUTER WEEKLY                       9,434,210

2       COMPUTER SHOPPER                      9,029,210

3       PC DIRECT                             7,857,469

4       COMPUTING                             7,714,644

5       MAC USER                              7,359,152

6       PC MAGAZINE                           6,578,513

7       PERSONAL COMPUTER WORLD               5,986,420

8       PC PRO                                4,831,367

9       ECONOMIST                             4,733,242

10      COMPUTER TRADE ONLY                   4,610,270

11      PC ADVISOR                            4,548,637

12      PC DEALER                             4,519,849

13      MICROSCOPE                            4,325,763

14      MACWORLD                              3,618,695

15      PC PLUS                               3,135,681

16      NETWORK NEWS                          3,057,151

17      PC WEEK                               2,808,402

18      NETWORK WEEK                          2,699,939

19      INFORMATION WEEK                      2,408,749

20      MANAGEMENT TODAY                      1,981,171

Source: MMS. Spend is calculated at ratecard.

TOP 10 ADVERTISERS IN THE COMPUTER PRESS

Rank    Title                   07/97 - 06/98 in pounds

1       IBM UK                                5,438,957

2       GRANVILLE TECHNOLOGY                  5,171,024

3       HEWLETT PACKARD                       2,602,944

4       COMPAQ COMPUTER                       2,099,475

5       DAN TECHNOLOGY                        2,087,215

6       DELL COMPUTER CORPORATION             2,083,760

7       TOSHIBA INFORMATION SYSTEMS           1,899,421

8       DIGITAL EQUIPMENT COMPANY             1,663,527

9       TINY COMPUTERS                        1,581,816

10      MAC SUPPLIES                          1,494,445

Total                                        26,122,584

Source: MMS. Spend is calculated at ratecard.



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