As the boundaries between lifestyle and technology break down, the specialist computer press is facing a fierce battle for future advertising.

As the boundaries between lifestyle and technology break down, the

specialist computer press is facing a fierce battle for future


‘Blessed are the geek,’ says Louis Rossetto, the founder of Wired

magazine, ‘for they shall inherit the earth.’ Open a newspaper, turn on

the TV, or even flip through the lifestyle magazines, and you will see

what he means. Computers, and computer advertising, are becoming ever

more pervasive as the hardware and software vendors push for the

lucrative home market. But as hardware and software manufacturers target

the mass market, they are beginning to turn to mass media. So where does

that leave the traditional geek medium, the specialist computer press.

Surfing the wave of a booming industry? Or marginalised as the

mainstream media muscle in and snap up the advertising revenues?

‘There will always be a place for the PC and IT press,’ Clare Barry, the

strategic head for IBM at the Network Europe, comments. ‘But as

advertisers move to reach the consumer, budgets will reflect that, so

the specialist magazines won’t get the volumes of ad space they’re used

to. Television and nationals are more expensive, so the proportions of

budgets allocated to the computer press will decrease - revenues are

going down.’

A glance at the Media Monitoring Service figures for display pagination

would seem to bear out that message. Taking a sample of the top 67 UK

titles, ad pagination showed a rise of 3.1 per cent in1995. Healthy

enough on the face of it, but compare that with 9 per cent growth in

1994, 10.4 per cent in 1993 and 29.5 per cent in 1992. It soon becomes

clear that the graph is levelling off and the computer press is now far

from the explosive growth of the turn of the decade when ad pages were

rising by 100 per cent each year.

‘Computer magazines deserve a bit of competition,’ Alistair Ramsay,

managing director of Dennis Publishing, says. ‘They’re traditionally

launched without research, and with little delineation between titles.

The computer magazine market is very close to a negative equity

situation - if you take the revenues and the costs of all the comp

titles it’s very close. In my opinion there are only about seven that

make serious profits.’ If Ramsay is right, the growing competition from

the mass media should lead to some of the weaker titles going to the

wall. ‘There has always been competition from within the area,’ he says.

‘Now it’s coming from without. The strong survive... it’s not

necessarily a bad thing.’

The process of natural selection is present in all magazine arenas, but

is particularly advanced in computing, where technical advances

completely reshape the geography of the market every few months. Windows

’95 helped up the ante a little last year, fuelling demands for more

powerful hardware and new software applications. Ironically, it wasn’t

enough for Reed’s Windows User magazine, the last of the UK Windows

titles, which folded in November.

Ramsay has no doubt about where the principal challenge is coming from.

‘The national press is where the threat comes from most, particularly

where the home market is related - 1.75 million homes bought a PC in the

last 12 months. In the past, the market was businesses buying off the

pages of computer magazines, now it’s the home buying from the

nationals. If you’re a first-time buyer you feel more comfortable with a

traditional medium where the brand is highlighted.’

In the case of Windows ’95, that point was forcefully made when

Microsoft took the unprecedented step of sponsoring the Times for the

launch day. ‘Yes, we have moved away from computer press,’ Madeline

Thomas Crabb, Microsoft’s corporate communications manager, comments.

‘It’s still a core part of our strategy, but our brand is very important

so that’s where you see a lot of activity on TV and other media, but

this is in addition to computer magazine advertising.’

Branding clearly lies at the heart of the matter, as advertisers fumble

to distinguish themselves in the eyes of a new audience with none of the

technical nous of the traditional market. ‘Marketing people in technical

companies are having to realise they can’t go on failing to

differentiate their products, and just going for one high-powered

audience,’ Anne Prendergast, advertisement director at Wired, notes.

‘It’s moving from that elite to anyone and they have to talk to those

people differently. It’s important for the media to explain the benefits

of long-term branding.’

The problem is that it’s proving something of headache. ‘What products

have come out of the business market and into the consumer market?’

David Fuller, a director of Red, the PR agency for Compaq and Microsoft,

asks. ‘Very few have done it, Caterpillar shoes, perhaps, so it’s virgin

marketing to a certain extent.’

Furthermore, there are still doubts about the long-term viability of

treating computers as consumer durables. David Craver, managing director

of Ziff-Davis, warns that rushing into mass-media marketing could prove

counter-productive: ‘Part of the problem is that when people talk about

consumer, they’re thinking mass, as if everyone buys PCs like they buy

radios. But the market is not mass and it remains a very complicated

buying decision. With regard to the move to the national press, men’s

magazines and the like, it’s not that it’s inappropriate, but if you put

all your marketing into that it’s hard to get valuable customers who

stay with you.

‘The masses buy the PC, find they can’t work it and burn up your

hotlines, and your 10 per cent margin into the bargain. Going for the

consumer is the right thing to do as it’s a very vibrant and growing

market, but it would be very wrong to abandon the business side, which

remains the jewel in the crown.’

In fact, nobody is likely to abandon the successful computer titles,

what is more likely is that the market will polarise as only the top few

(out of the 140 or so listed in Brad) will be selected as part of multi-

media schedules. Clare Barry sees mass-media advertising as a way of

seeding the idea of a purchase, which could then be followed down the

line as the consumer goes to the specialised press for more information.

‘It will mean a return to the ratecard structure,’ she predicts, ‘as

magazines will be on schedules for having good editorial, not for being

able to make a short-term deal.’

With most of the UK titles in the hands of giants like Reed, Emap, VNU,

Ziff-Davis and, with the purchase of Future Publishing by Pearson, there

will be no sudden thinning of the ranks. The pockets concerned are deep,

and examples such as Ziff-Davis’s pounds 16 million investment in the

first two years shows that publishers are happy to spend heavily in

return for market share. What’s more interesting is how those publishers

will strike back.

While some publishers are fretting about adspend being lost to the

consumer press, there are others looking to recapture that revenue by

poaching from the lifestyle titles. Wired, which this year ended its

partnership with the Guardian, represents a complete reversal of the

trend. ‘Wired is coming from a completely different angle,’ confirms

Prendergast, ‘talking to a technological elite that’s beginning to get a

life, and has realised that, as a result of economic power, the

technical industries are young, hot and sexy.’ Proof positive that as

the boundaries between lifestyle and technology break down, the newly

formed advertising landscape is very much up for grabs.