Media Analysis: Forum - Can consumer titles ever tie the knot with the net?/Publishers seem to have no clear vision of what to do with the internet, contends Alasdair Reid

Consumer magazine publishers, like most media owners, talk a good game when it comes to the internet. They’ve heard the one about content being king and they could be justified in thinking they might have some internet-friendly content. So it’s surprising, perhaps, that their online efforts to date have been so underwhelming.

Consumer magazine publishers, like most media owners, talk a good

game when it comes to the internet. They’ve heard the one about content

being king and they could be justified in thinking they might have some

internet-friendly content. So it’s surprising, perhaps, that their

online efforts to date have been so underwhelming.

In fact, you could argue that last week’s events at IPC Electric were

symptomatic of a sector that hasn’t managed to get its vision of the

future in focus. IPC Electric, which was launched last year with

start-up funding of pounds 25 million, has plenty of resource behind it

- but it has yet to prove its mettle. It is an umbrella for the sites of

individual magazines such as NME and Loaded, and will act as a portal

for products and services related to its magazine brands. We have yet to

see its first fruits, although the women’s portal,, launches

this week, and we have been given a taster of IPC’s web theory with the

launch of through its TV weeklies division, IPC tx. So

far, observers have not been overly impressed.

Last week, IPC Electric’s managing director Rene Carayol resigned. Some

observers weren’t surprised - there have been persistent rumours of

friction between Carayol and the publishers of individual titles. One

insider says: ’The publishers thought he was the techie barbarian at the

gates. They were scared that he’d take their beautiful magazines and

mess them up online. The attitude was: ’What does he know?’ He didn’t

have the easiest of jobs.’

This is IPC Electric’s second senior loss - its commercial director,

Julian Hardy, left in November citing ’a difference of opinion over the

strategic direction of the company’.

To lose one online guru is careless, to lose two starts to look like a

strategic direction in its own right. Kevin Kerrigan, IPC Electric’s new

managing director, disagrees: ’It is not exceptional in a volatile

sector like this to see individuals move on. Carayol was instrumental in

getting electronic publishing on the agenda. We’ve taken that on board

and are implementing it. We are true to the strategy.’

Other companies will not be tempted to gloat - few have come anywhere

near getting their online acts together. They have also struggled to

develop coherent business models. Should their sites be marketing

initiatives for their traditional publishing businesses? Are they to be

seen as an offensive or a defensive resource? Should you make money by

setting yourself up as an internet service provider or concentrate on

title-specific sites?

And if so, is subscription or advertising the most promising revenue


Jon Wilkins, the joint managing director of New PHD, would advise

publishers to forget these last two. ’It’s clear that advertising won’t

be a huge source of revenue,’ he says. ’Clients question the value of

banner advertising so I don’t think anyone can expect to build a

profitable business based on ad revenues. All attempts to charge for

internet content have failed. So you are left with retail. With the net

you can be inspired to buy immediately.’

Wilkins adds: ’We never advise any of our clients to try to operate

outside their core competence. Retail isn’t easy and you have to

question whether publishers should try to become retailers. Media owners

have to seek alliances. They won’t all be on the scale of AOL Time

Warner, but content owners have to be canny in seeking partners.’

Kerrigan recognises the value of retail as well as advertising. ’The new

properties will become hybrid media/retail initiatives and, as a

company, we are stronger at deriving circulation and ad revenues than

retail,’ he says. ’Our track record shows we are comfortable when it

comes to producing online content. It’s feasible and appropriate for

media owners to invest in the development of their own e-tailing skills

but it’s likely that we will seek partners sooner rather than


Others disagree about the funding model. Nicholas Coleridge, the

managing director of Conde Nast, says: ’Authoritative niche sites based

on magazines - for instance, NME, Vogue, FHM, Conde Nast Traveller - are

gathering serious momentum, page impressions and advertising. We have

seen a 60 per cent growth in page impressions at during

January and advertising is up by 72 per cent. I’m more sceptical about

the all-things-to-all-women sites, including IPC’s Do women

want to be lumped together? IPC doesn’t publish a single generic print

magazine aimed at all women, so why an internet site?’

Duncan Edwards, the deputy managing director of the National Magazine

Company, is convinced that retail is not the issue here. ’We’re

publishers and we will always believe in ad sales,’ he says. ’I know the

doubts there are about banner ads but it’s a question of whether the

advertising is good enough. Perhaps advertisers should think more

carefully about what the viewer/reader visits sites for. If you get the

advertising right, you can do fantastically well.’

Edwards concedes that publishers are still feeling their way. He’s also

sceptical about some of the simplistic views people have about internet

content. He says: ’You can’t just transfer a 2,000-word feature. You

won’t be able to reach readers in the way that you can with a printed

magazine. You can develop an experience that is as influential within a

woman’s life. You can give them information. That might have an awesome

power but it won’t act as the emotional best friend that a magazine is.

Also there are very few magazines that are true brands - true brands are

those that have an equity with consumers that exists beyond the physical

product. True brands have a real opportunity in this area. The truth is

that nobody really knows. We’re still at the stage of making it up as we

go along.’


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