Publishers anxious, uncertain at Folio:West conference

Opportunities still exist

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"We're all at ground zero in terms of electronic publishing, and there's a lot of opportunity out there," said Bob Dowling, publisher-editor in chief of The Hollywood Reporter and a speaker at the conference. "We're at halftime of the football game. B-to-b publishing companies have a lucky timeout to figure out what the other guy is doing. If the companies haven't devised a Web strategy, they're finished."

"To say 'I told you so' about what happened with the Internet would be folly," said Bill Slapin, vice chairman and founder of 101Communications L.L.C., a Chatsworth, Calif.-based integrated media company specializing in the IT sector. "Companies now have a window [to develop their online strategies] they might not otherwise have."

The mood at the three-day Folio:West show was one of uncertainty because of the shaky economy, the decline in print ad pages, and sluggish sales of online subscriptions and advertising.

"Every [online advertising] model is under incredible pressure," said Dan McCarthy, who spoke at a VIP panel on publishing in the 21st century and is the former CEO of Primedia Inc.'s enthusiast magazine group. "It strikes me that there's still a question on how traditional publishers present ads within the context of the text," he said. "The advertising that works on the Web is sponsorship for existing customers, advertorials and e-mails."

Indeed, e-mail newsletters stood out amid the doom and gloom, with many speakers at Folio:West touting them as the most effective way to generate revenue online and build audiences.

Slapin said e-mail newsletters now drive 101Communications' revenue. "That's not inconsequential," he said, noting the company's e-mail newsletters are growing 15% this year compared with 2000.

Building relationships

John Rockwell, VP-publishing for Paperloop Inc., amplified comments made by other speakers at Folio:West about the effectiveness of e-mail newsletters.

"E-mail is the best way to build customers through the Internet," he said, stressing that b-to-b publishers can avoid the pitfalls of unsolicited e-mail messages by obtaining users' permission before distributing them.

Rockwell cited an Interactive Marketing Technologies Inc. research study that found 67% of Internet users feel negatively toward unsolicited commercial e-mail and 59% delete unfamiliar e-mail without opening it. "Permission-based e-mailing is going to be a better vehicle than direct marketing," he said.

Building customer relationships via e-mail calls for a low-key approach, Rockwell said. "You need a conversational tone and demeanor," he said. "You need to add value with relevant products and information."

One potential pitfall is e-mail gimmickry, which Rockwell said is bound to backfire. "Avoid phrases like 'free' and 'information you requested,'" he said.

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