TECHNOLOGY AND ELECTRONIC MEDIA: The lure of online media for consumer magazines

As new online publications make an impact, how can they go about creating their own identity? Steve Shipside reports

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 Internet.

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

users are...gasp...women.

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

the sites.’

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

last year.

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.