Media Forum: Do print mags grasp digital?

Are magazine publishers sufficiently innovative online?

Jellyfish by name, Jellyfish by nature. Jellyfish is - or rather was - a digital magazine, launched on a trial basis by The National Magazine Company on 20 March, and originally aimed at teenage girls. It was set up in a similar fashion to Monkey, from Dennis Publishing, in the sense that readers were invited to sign up to receive a weekly e-mail that would direct them to a site hosting the latest issue.

Readers were able to "turn" pages onscreen - and these pages contained not just words and pictures, but embedded video content, too. It attracted much curiosity in the media business and in the wider world - but it wasn't long before Jellyfish was wobbling. In June, the initiative was relaunched with entirely different, more celebrity-oriented content, in an attempt to draw in a different audience - 18- to 25-year-old women.

Last week, though, NatMags put Jellyfish out of its misery. The company line was that this had always been intended as an exercise in testing the water, never a full-blown launch. It was all about learning lessons - and that, on this basis, the project had been a success.

And it's true - in many respects, this sort of initiative is thoroughly commendable. Because, while conventional media owners have rediscovered their enthusiasm for the digital domain in recent years, for the most part (arguably) they've been content to do what they know best - set up brand extension websites to "repurpose" content already developed for their print products. Yet, while it's encouraging to see magazine publishers experimenting, this latest project is surely an alarming reminder that they're running out of ideas.

Not so, Jessica Burley, the managing director of NatMags, says. She explains: "Testing really new things is absolutely part of what we do. But Jellyfish aside, we launched seven sites last year, including, that have all the things like user-generated content and video that you'd expect from a leading website. This is just generation one, and soon generation two will be coming into play - the Cosmo site will be announcing a makeover soon. Then there is our acquisition of netdoctor and And in Nancy Cruickshank (the managing director of Handbag), we have one of the foremost experts in the field."

However, Mark Gallagher, the executive director, press and online, at Manning Gottlieb OMD, says: "It's always going to be difficult for magazines, which have always sold themselves on the one-to-one relationship they have with their readers and the way that, when a reader is engrossed in a magazine, he or she shuts out all the rest of the noise. That's the antithesis of what happens on the internet."

That may have been true until fairly recently, Neil Robinson, IPC Media's director of digital, responds. But no longer, he argues: "Magazines often have a history of creating very engaged communities. To do that, you have to know and respect your audience. Look at, which has been around for more than ten years and is the centre of an unbelievable community. We can always do more, but I think publishers can point to many magazine brands that have been fully engaged with their online audiences for a long time now."

Well, perhaps, Robert Horler, the managing director of Diffiniti, who confesses that he doesn't really read magazines, concedes. And few magazine brands, he reckons, have managed to impinge on his online consumption patterns. He concludes: "I'm not convinced they have been innovative - certainly not to the extent that newspapers have. I suspect that magazine companies see themselves as having strong, lucrative properties that they're nervous of destroying. With magazines, their online content has been a bit of a cut-and-paste job. The pace of change has been phenomenal in the past couple of years. Maybe they've been caught out. So, yes, they need to be worried. Just look at the latest ABC figures. There are a lot of strong magazine properties arguably in trouble."

YES - Jessica Burley, managing director, NatMags

"What we bring to the web are substantial brands - so we have the opportunity to be brave and are determined to take that opportunity, but we have to accept not everything will work."

NO - Mark Gallagher, executive director, Manning Gottlieb OMD

"The intimate relationship between a magazine and its readers is the antithesis of what happens online. Some publishers don't get why they can't replicate the leverage they have in print."

YES - Neil Robinson, digital director, IPC Media

"Recent launches from the better publishers are certainly innovative. We're exploring the balance between talking to consumers and UGC, and we have a heritage of creating communities."

NO - Robert Horler, managing director, Diffiniti

"Magazine publishers have struggled to innovate. Broadband has changed the emphasis from information to entertainment, and magazines haven't really been able to find a way to capitalise on that. And their advertising models tend to be rather old world, too."

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