News that fashion magazine Scene is giving up its print past for an online future highlights the challenge the internet poses for magazine publishers.
While their print products may be mature business with established costs and, reasonably predictable revenues, the web allows newcomers to enter the market with lower costs and offers wider distribution than WH Smith and other high street retailers.
It also forces established publishers to fundamentally rethink the way they view their assets. It means changes both to the way they package the information they collect for their magazines as well as building new relationships with advertisers and brands as they attempt to become portals for e-commerce.
While many leading consumer magazine publishers have been involved in the web for years, the explosion of web users – now touching 18 million in the UK – has prompted some to reassess their digital strategy on a group-wide basis.
But consumer publishers don’t just have to compete with their traditional rivals and a bunch of newcomers online, they also face challenges from newspaper publishers (such as Associated’s CharlotteStreet.com) and niche portals (like Freeserve’s iCircle).
Such enhanced competition, means it is essential that consumer publishers get their online strategy right – getting it wrong could end up costing them millions.
One of the most active internet publishers has been Emap. Under the auspices of Emap Online, managing director Roger Green has helped developed a raft of well-regarded websites covering travel and music and entertainment with sites like bargainholidays.com and aloud.com.
Despite this successful track record, the company has still felt the need to establish a new unit, Emap Digital to oversee its internet operations, saying it was time to stand up and take online more seriously. According to Green, Emap Digital acts as an umbrella unit that will accelerate digital activity across the group.
By contrast, the National Magazine Company has so far done little more than develop a business-to-business site to showcase its titles. According to director of communications Siobhan Kenny it is taking its time developing its strategy.
“It’s important to get the strategy right because if you don’t then you could end up wasting millions. We want to be sure we have things right before we go public with what we’ve got planned,” she says.
However, observers expect NatMags’ online strategy to ape that of its US parent company Hearst, which has developed a range of successful websites, such as Women.com and Cosmogirl.com, in the UK.
The company to make the biggest splash in recent months is IPC with its £26 million investment in IPC Electric. The company says web publishing can be used to strengthen a reader’s bond with a magazine.
IPC Electric’s operations director Kevin Kerraghan believes IPC tx’s Unmissable TV model – matching daily, personalised content with selected retail opportunities – is equally applicable to IPC’s other markets.
“Media owners and retailers are rushing for some common ground but coming at it from different direction,” he says. “Many retailers are happy they are not going to be media originators and media owners are increasingly aware that once they can prove they can attract, retain and develop audiences and communities and turn them into customers, partnerships might be the most efficient route to grow that opportunity.”
Guy Sneesby, managing director of Dennis Interactive believes online publishing’s main objective should be to provide a magazine’s existing community of readers with fresh material and greater interactive involvement.
“Basically you can do a lot more stuff on the web,” he says. “Maxim has a virtual photo shoot, which enables users to control the images they want and add their own cover lines. This provides a dynamic element missing from print.”
Dennis plans to launch a glossy catalogue magazine and website aimed at women next year in which all products featured can be bought. Nevertheless, Sneesby believes publishers must approach e-commerce with care. “We do not plan to be a retailer ourselves because we think we would have too much to lose and not enough to gain,” says Sneesby.
The crucial factor is that magazine publishers have to change the way they think about themselves and reinvent themselves as content owners leveraging their key strengths. This is the general thrust of IPC Electric’s strategy, focused on developing separate brand sites geared towards different audiences, rather than straight-forward replications of existing magazines.
Condé Nast was also thought to be adopting a similar strategy, taking a leaf out of its US sister company Condé Net’s book and developing sector-specific sites such as popular US food site Epicurious.com. However, it now appears that Condé Nast Online has decided to focus on its strong brands such as Vogue.
Jill Thater, commercial director at Condé Nast, says: “We really are looking to expand Vogue, and by working with our US counterparts and other international companies, we’re working on creating a strong global network on the strength of the brand name.”
While the recent closure of Scene magazine in favour of just an online magazine was a surprise to some in the magazine industry, it is an example of the changing attitudes of consumer publishers towards the web.
The answer to the more complicated question of which company has got its strategy right won’t be known for some time.