ALL THAT GLITTERS ON SUPERHIGHWAY MAY BE ONLY MAGAZINE FOOL'S GOLD

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For many magazine publishers, the presumed cachet that accompanies "going electronic" is proving hard to resist, and magazines are feeling the pressure to slip into drive by going online with their services. But is there money to be made in going electronic?

Hershel Sarbin, president-CEO of Cowles Business Media, Stamford, Conn., warns magazine publishers to keep it in neutral.

Speaking at the annual Folio:Show in New York earlier this month, Mr. Sarbin offered a suggestion for those feeling the pressure to merge onto the information superhighway: Cool it "unless the economics are right-or you can afford the learning experience."

In explaining his advice to resist the impulse to go online, Mr. Sarbin said "the issues of cost, revenue sharing, margins, quality and branding require the publishers to develop or buy the skills necessary to achieve a level playing field for content providers." And the end just may not justify the means.

For many players, however, the lure of the open interactive road is calling. So for magazines determined to move on from learning, Mr. Sarbin offered the following "rough road for the online trip":

Content must be designed for the medium, not just replicated.

Competence in technology is critical. Have on-staff technology support, or instant-access consultants, to manage the design of your online area, its maintenance and technological relationship with the online service.

Avoid exclusive deals unless they are short-term and produce tangible benefits, such as more money or more exposure.

Make as much as possible of the revenue sharing up front and make certain it is contractually explicit.

Get access to user names and profiles or forget selling ads.

Bargain with services for icons. They make the practice more user-friendly, and are good advertising.

Your franchise and brand require adjacency to other quality programming, not lesser products that could taint your content.

Big is better if you want to get attention and be able to afford quality graphics. Consider joining a programming network.

Be mindful of authors' rights. Put online only what you own or have clearly licensed.

"At the moment," Mr. Sarbin said, "the edge lies with the online services, which pay modest amounts of connect time and/or modest license fees to magazines.

"America Online," he continued, "has also been increasingly receptive to more equitable arrangements for high-activity consumer content."

The Folio:Show is produced by Cowles Event Management and sponsored by Cowles' Folio: magazine and the Magazine Publishers of America.

Richard Skews coordinates Marketing Technology.

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