As new online publications make an impact, how can they go about
creating their own identity? Steve Shipside reports
Webzines, if still a little self-conscious and awkward, are coming of
age. It’s a publishing puberty, the rites of passage for which are
marked by the increasing number of big-name consumer magazines taking to
The online versions of titles such as NME, FHM and Paris Match are
rewriting the rules for Net launches. In particular, they are refuting
the received wisdom of the World Wide Web, which tells us that its
denizens are the hardcore digerati, geek gurus who are only interested
in nerd-fest technical publications. The success of the online Elle in
France and the recent launches of Vogue, Tatler and World of Interiors
go even further by suggesting that a significant proportion of those
But perhaps the most important revelation of all is the idea that online
magazines may be more than just marketing adjuncts to their paper-based
stable-mates. Indeed, the word from Conde Nast, Emap and the French
publishing giant, Hachette, is that they may prove to be profit centres
in their own right.
The first indications of this disturbing trend came last autumn when
Conde Nast launched GQ Online and Hachette introduced the Web version
of Elle to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the magazine. Since
then, they have joined sites for IPC’s NME, Hachette’s Premiere and
Photo and, more recently, Emap’s online division - FHM, Empire and Car
World (an umbrella title based on several of its motoring magazines).
Webzines are immune to the rising price of newsprint, cost virtually
nothing to distribute and free their publishers from the spectre of
spats with W. H. Smith over their suitability and shelf positioning. In
addition, unsold issues never have to be collected and they transform
postal costs and distribution agreements into that particularly
satisfying breed of problems that only happen to other people.
On the other hand, with the notable exception of the pornographic
titles, they don’t generate sales revenue. Of all the online consumer
titles mentioned here, not one charges a subscription or reading fee,
which completely defies conventional publishing logic. Since much of the
content is identical to that of their paper-based equivalents, they
represent cut-price competition.
In fact, the whole issue of their relationship to the paper versions is
a potential minefield. All of the titles I have mentioned are strong
brands, so it would be commercial suicide to dilute them by releasing an
online version that did not match their quality and content.
Unfortunately, long articles are uncomfortable to read online and large,
quality images take such a long time to download that users get bored
and just move on. Simply shovelling all of a title’s content on to the
Web is counter-productive, so the new generation of Webzines have taken
a different approach.
Deirdre O’Callaghan, the online marketing manager at Hachette in Paris,
says: ‘The online information market has hopefully evolved beyond the
shovelware stage. Publishers that take magazines or newspapers online
today are less likely to upload the exact content of their printed
titles. Instead, they exploit the inherently different qualities of the
medium, such as interactivity. Users can search Websites for specific
information and, if they cannot find what they are looking for, they can
interact with the newsroom to get this information. In terms of content,
the newsroom will have to adapt to this two-way information flow, which
significantly reduces the distance between a magazine and its online
Jonathan Newby, new-media publishing director at IPC, sings much the
same song: ‘Websites take what the brand does well and extend it to a
new audience. NME is the voice of contemporary music in Britain, and
internationally, and we enhance that online with things like
downloadable sound and allowing people to create interactive charts and
gig guides. Putting that online makes it easier to look through, and,
for the first time, it lets NME’s readers communicate with each other
outside of the pub - something we will add to with chatty online
interviews [the Net equivalent of a party line].’
Similarly, readers of the online Paris Match can suggest locations for
shoots. And people browsing the Empire Website are invited to take part
in the creation of a new film script.
Car World browsers can, of course, use a database to find their ideal
car, but in their more offbeat moods they can also contribute to its
‘readers’ road kill’ stories. Emap’s FHM probably tops the bill with a
sexual position-of-the-week contest where you vote for your favourite
one and then it is demonstrated in an animated Barbie Doll and Action
Man photo-shoot where our genital-free plastic pals appear to fornicate
like crazed weasels.
In theory, interactivity also gives marketing departments plenty to get
their teeth into. ‘In terms of marketing, the online model represents a
unique chance to develop one-to-one relationships with users,’
O’Callagan says. ‘Customer service can be made more efficient, and more
Specifically, Webzines offer a way of finding out who your readers are
by asking them for some information in return for access to the site.
‘We launched GQ last September,’ Nancy Martin, the advertising manager
of the online version, explains, ‘and it’s been a huge success, with
2,000 users visiting the site every day. To date, we’ve had 160,000
individual users, and they’re all registered, which means we get their
age, sex and general demographics.’
In addition to registration information, it is also possible to count
‘hits’ on any one site or page element. So, theoretically, you can tell
advertisers exactly how many readers chose to look at their ad. In
practice, however, there is still some debate about the accuracy of the
software systems that count these hits. Some, for example, will count a
hit if the user reloads a page again because an error has occured.
It may be early days, but this kind of feedback is such a potent
marketing tool that a lot of work is going into refining it. O’Callaghan
comments: ‘We plan to test several audience measurement tools on the
Hachette sites over the summer. By September, all of the Websites will
be equipped with detailed measurement systems that will enable us to
gather market information on the users and their behavioural patterns on
Newby tells much the same story: ‘At the moment, we’ve got a
registration process in place that gives us the opportunity to track
usage in terms of demographics - where they come from and what they’re
interested in. When the data stream becomes more stable, then we’ll make
that available to advertisers. We’re not counting hits, although we can.
Right now, we prefer to look at the pages served and get people’s
impressions on them.’
Another weapon in the marketer’s arsenal is the embedded link to other
sites. This link can take the form of a simple button, or a banner ad -
the point being that when a reader clicks on it they load up either a
commercial Website or jump to another publication. ‘From a commercial
perspective, there is a ratecard that includes links,’ Newby says, ‘and
any advertising on the site would include links. But, outside of that,
there are also non-commercial site links. It’s part of a total media
package. We can include events we run, and jump to their sites, so the
opportunities are limitless.’
Shrewd marketing has allowed Hachette to do cross-title deals with other
online titles, which helps to control online traffic. For example, an
Eric Cantona interview in the French titles was translated and linked to
the Electronic Telegraph, which brought in a flood of English visitors
at the weekend - a traditionally off-peak time for the French.
You could say that Emap has taken this to another level. All of its
titles are published on the Web, but it has also struck a deal with the
proprietary service provider, Compuserve, so that, if you pay your dues
to Compuserve and use its service to reach the site, you get access to a
differently branded collection of the online titles. Called the Connect
series, these include Empire Connect and FHM Connect. Using a technique
called frames, the screen is divided up so that the magazine home page
appears in the middle but there are also two columns down either side.
One column is a collection of links to other exclusive Compuserve
services, the other takes the user on to a collection of sites that are
considered to be of interest to FHM or Empire readers.
It is an admirably clean interface, simple and, above all, fast, which
it should be because it is really aimed at enticing the people who are
new to the Internet. ‘We’re trying to balance content and layout with a
realistic awareness of the results most users can get with existing
equipment,’ Katarina Strupinska, Emap’s publishing director, says.
Keeping it lean and fast is essential, given the boredom and frustration
thresholds of new users, who are encouraged to experiment and move
around. In Web terms, this is the designers way of telling them they
should get out more.
‘The idea is to go beyond paper magazines,’ Emap’s commercial director,
Tyler Moorehead, says, ‘adding a further dimension - that of
interactivity - engaging the reader, thereby drawing them in and taking
them to the next level. We’re offering a service for the end users, but
as the brands themselves are strong market leaders, it’s also good news
for marketers who associate with it.’
The point is that by using the brand, not just for content but also as
an interface to navigate with, Emap’s online division is capitalising on
the brand awareness and the confidence that existing readers have in it.
Just as you trust your daily paper to bring you the mixture of news you
want, so you trust FHM Connect to serve up the elements you want from
both Compuserve and the Net. For Compuserve, the important thing is
getting new users (the Connect service costs no more than a standard
Compuserve subscription). For Emap, it’s a powerful way to reinforce its
But publishers cannot live by branding alone and the bottom line remains
advertising sales. To date, few online titles are making money from
advertising. ‘In terms of enthusiasm, advertisers are enormously keen.
But, within their budget structures, there is some confusion about where
to get the money from. A lot of clients are keen, but working out the
mechanics is still an issue,’ Newby says.
O’Callaghan comments: ‘While there was a trend in 1995 to be trendy and
advertise on the Web, both the agencies and the advertisers are looking
for a tangible return on their investment. It’s now the responsibility
of the publisher to provide the advertiser with more information than
just ‘hits’. Placing banner advertising on publishers’ sites currently
brings both context and credibility.’ It also pulls in some big names -
luminaries such as Chanel and Armani use Hachette’s sites.
But the most successful publisher in terms of advertising is probably
Conde Nast, which had a year or so head start. Its advertisers are
prepared to pay the pounds 3,000 it costs for a prime site. Martin says:
‘In advertising terms, GQ Online is already commercially viable, and
lots of big names have come on board, including Champagne Mercier, Nike,
Clinique, Eurostar and Aramis. Our best was Eurostar. Its brochure has
had 9,000 accesses, while another advertiser had 5,000 brochure
enquiries through us.’
Martin’s confidence bodes well for more recent launches. The Conde Nast
women’s titles, in particular, will take heart from the fact that big-
name perfume and cosmetic companies are keen to get in on the act.
It’s a young market, which still faces a long learning curve. But that
doesn’t mean it’s safe to take your eye off the electronic consumer
titles. You know how fast children grow up these days.
While the publishers of consumer magazines contemplate how best to
improve their existing Websites, customer magazines have only just begun
to explore the possibilities of how to exploit the Net to the advantage
of existing clients.
Ideally, the publishers of contract magazines should be able to draw on
their editorial and design expertise to communicate their clients’
messages in an innovative way.
Customer magazine Websites also offer publishers the opportunity to
present their portfolio to previously untapped audiences, offering
potential new-business opportunities and the possibility for a more
direct and sophisticated dialogue with the client’s customer-base.
Theoretically, this could contribute to developing a clearer image of
the customer, which would enable publishers to generate precisely
targeted customer loyalty and direct mail initiatives.
At the forefront of the contract publishing industry’s forays into
online media is TPD Publishing with the recent launch of the Microsoft
Magazine Website. TPD launched Microsoft’s end-user publication,
Microsoft Magazine, at the same time as the online version, in September
Julian Treasure, chairman of TPD and of the customer magazine
publishers’ trade body, the Association of Publishing Agencies, says
there are five major reasons why customer magazines should go online. ‘A
Website allows for more currency - a magazine is out of date as soon as
it is published,’ he explains. ‘Websites allow for more editorial
breadth and depth and encourages customers to talk directly to you. It
allows the creative use of multi-media, and global precision. The
possibility of a lot of worldwide one-to-one conversations occurring at
the same time is very appealing.’
To cope with winning the Microsoft business, TPD opened an office in
Seattle with a dedicated online team to handle the account. It plans to
launch a similar service in the UK next month.