LONDON (Adage.com) -- Speakers at the FIPP World Magazine Congress in London were optimistic about the huge potential for their brands in the digital space, even if they were divided about whether magazines would ever be able to charge for content online.
Didier Quillot, CEO of Lagardere Active, which created the Elle brand, is convinced that "the brand is part of the solution to the structural and cyclical crisis we face." He said, "The DNA of the internet is free. We have to reinvent a revenue model based on the brand: select the brands that are strong enough to survive and invest in brand extensions to transform magazines from monomedia into media everywhere."
The shift to online is an essential part of this brand-extension drive, building communities that attract advertisers, selling merchandise via e-commerce and signing up a paying mobile audience. "Elle is one of the most powerful brands in the world," said Mr. Quillot. "We are moving from a reading contract to a lifestyle contract, carrying customers on a full journey with our brand."
Jane Bruton, U.K. editor in chief of international fashion weekly Grazia, said, "The rise of the internet, Facebook and Twitter is a massive opportunity and always gets a fantastic response from our readers, who love to see everything through our eyes. I was recently sitting in the front row waiting for the Armani catwalk show to start, while reading about what was happening backstage on our website -- before the show had even begun."
Bringing people to brands
Grazia tests the popularity of some stories online before pursuing them in print, and invites reader involvement by publishing the best online reader comments about celebrity looks and street fashion in the magazine. There is also the Grazia daily e-bulletin, which gives behind-the-scenes glimpses that help make the fashion world more approachable.
BBC Worldwide Editorial Director Gillian Carter said she gives away BBC Good Food magazine content for free "because content is free out there." Its website has an archive of 6000 recipes, with new ones going online at the same time the print edition is published.
"The web has brought so many more people to our brand than print alone," said Ms. Carter. "Our website had 1.2 million unique users last month -- the magazine sells 360,000. You have to open your brand up to the web, you can't be frightened of it. The site is a tester for our brand and you couldn't ask for a better marketing tool. We've sold 7,000 subscriptions to the magazine from the site so far. I don't think the web impacts negatively on magazine sales."
Another BBC property, Top Gear, is also benefiting from digital possibilities. BBC Worldwide CEO John Smith said, "Top Gear is the No. 1 media-motoring brand in the world -- we have TV, websites, magazines, DVDs, books, games, clothes, toys -- and once you're in that place, migration onto the web is a good thing because of viral marketing. We produce quality content and make money."
No hard answers
Despite some interesting case studies, no one is claiming to have any hard-and-fast answers. Christie Hefner, former chairman-CEO of Playboy Enterprises (which gets most of its revenue from online video), said, "There is no one right way, it changes over time. It's worth trying different models and it's worth aggressively pursuing mobile with its existing pay models."
Hugo Shong, founding general partner of IDGVC Partners -- one of the earliest venture capitalists to enter the Chinese market -- agrees that few publishers will make money from actual content, but still takes the internet and mobile very seriously as a revenue stream.
"We should embrace the internet as a partner, not see it as a competitor. Internet people are young, hardworking and smart. It's a mistake that traditional publishers make to think the internet can't replace us," he said. "In China all the best writers want to work for the internet because the pay is better and there are stock options. The internet is a serious advertising wake-up, especially in China, where 311 million people are on the internet and 700 million on mobile.
"China Mobile newspaper service is already generating $2 billion in revenue," he continued. "It's become a serious industry. I love technology. If you make content that only you can provide, sure you can get paid for it, but the majority won't because there's limitless and frictionless competition online. But there are lots of opportunities for revenues beyond ad revenues. ... Our biggest challenge is ourselves."