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Demystifying digital editions

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The technology for creating digital replicas of print publications, which an increasing number of trade publications are using, has true believers among b-to-b advertisers. It also has its extreme doubters.

"I think it will have legs, with new technologies like Wi-Fi and Tablet PCs becoming more pervasive," Mike Paradiso, global media director for Computer Associates International, said of the technology whose pioneers include NewsStand, NXTbook Media, Olive Software, qMags.com, Texterity and Zinio Systems.

Sarah Fay, president of Carat Interactive, was significantly less optimistic. "Personally, I think it's a fad that will go away," she said. "I don't see the audience numbers to support it in any major way."

Spencer Ewald, the founder of NXTbook, which is now a part of Reprint Management Services, said the nascent technology is on the verge of widespread acceptance, though he acknowledged, "If I'm the advertiser, at this point I'm skeptical."

Rich with possibilities

Ewald and others point out that the technology offers many advantages to advertisers willing to experiment. Unlike print, digital replica technology offers advertisers interactivity, trackability and the ability to run rich media ads or TV spots in a magazine format.

For readers, digital magazines provide searchability and archiving. The technology, which was originally PDF-oriented, is migrating to browser-based systems, which eliminate the need for reader software.

For publishers, every subscriber who opts for digital over print helps cut paper, printing and postage costs. In particular, it helps magazines, such as Fairchild Publications' Women's Wear Daily, get issues into the hands of international subscribers quickly and inexpensively.

But not all publishers are sold on the technology. In particular, many publishers and executives at International Data Group, while big believers in the Web, remain skeptical about the value of digital editions. IDG publishers have found little evidence that subscribers are actually downloading these online publications to read them.

"We're doing a lot of our own experimenting," said Bob Carrigan, CEO-president-publisher of IDG's Computerworld. "We're not satisfied with the results of our test."

Of the 850,000 subscribers to IDG's PCWorld, just 4,000 download the digital edition.

Jeff Edman, president-CEO of PCWorld, said advertiser response to digital editions has been tepid at best. "We have not met with any advertiser who would rather have their ad seen in digital form than in print," he said.

Carrigan seconded that thought. "What the publishers are experiencing is that advertisers are not creating specific ads for this media, but they are creating a ton of special ads for online Web sites," he said.

IDG competitor Ziff Davis Media has been much more aggressive with digital circulation, using subscription agents to solicit digital subscriptions paid for not by the recipient but by a third party. For Ziff Davis' PC Magazine, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reclassified about 350,000 of these subscriptions-nearly one-third of the publication's circulation-from "paid" to "analyzed nonpaid" for the December 2003 issue, not because they were digital subscriptions but due to the actions of the subscription agent.

Success stories

Other publishers are finding more success with digital editions. Advanstar's CADalyst magazine has about 14,000 digital subscribers among its circulation of 60,000, according to Publisher Dana Fisher.

Eric Shanfelt, VP-e-media strategy at Penton Media, said that publications such as Machine Design are having success with digital editions. "We'll have another 10 or more in the next few months," he said.

At PennWell Corp., which publishes Oil & Gas Journal, Gloria Adams, director-audience development, has found that digital subscribers behave similarly to print subscribers. A PennWell study found that 74.6% of digital subscribers say they read at least three of four issues; slightly more-78.0%-of print subscribers said they read three of four issues.

Digital subscribers spent an average of 39 minutes with the magazine; print subscribers spent 41 minutes. Perhaps even more surprising, more digital subscribers (84.3%) than print subscribers (69.8%) agreed with the statement the magazine "gives me information that helps me do my job better."

Up to now, Adams has found that advertisers remain wary. "They still seem to think it's not what they want," she said.

Kevin Arsham, associate director of strategy-b-to-b specialist at OMD, was ready to jump in for client General Electric Co. "I was planning on using one, but then they called me and said they didn't get enough sponsors and canceled it," he said. 

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