It looks like the ongoing game of "Capture the bride" is heating up, as Conde Nast Publications tries to play catch-up in the online bridal arena. Conde Nast earlier this month announced it would invest $18 million in an alliance between its Bride's and the Web site WeddingChannel.com.
The deal marries the top bridal print magazine, based on circulation, with the category's biggest site, based on audience. It also leaves Bride's and WeddingChannel with numerous joint marketing opportunities and packages to offer to advertisers, which they will begin selling shortly for Bride's 2001 issues. One key attraction in the deal: WeddingChannel, which recently merged with registry site Della Weddings, has exclusive bridal registry relationships with Federated Department Stores' properties, such as Bloomingdale's and Macy's.
The longstanding "Best of Bride's" area on WeddingChannel also will be expanded.
INVESTING $18 MILLION IN SITE
With this deal Steve Newhouse, chairman of Advance Internet (advance.net), the Internet arm of Conde Nast parent Advance Publications, will join WeddingChannel's board.
All this is aimed at what the companies say is a $70 billion wedding market, and at a time when consumers are "in a high-spending acquisitive mode, and a brand-allegiance mode," said David Liu, CEO of rival bridal Web site the Knot.
"The Internet has proven itself a viable source for wedding planning tools and, very specifically, for gift registries," said Nina Lawrence, publisher of Bride's. "We help our readers with information about where they can shop and book a honeymoon online."
"Brides still want to look at a magazine and get inspired," said Rebecca Patton, CEO of WeddingChannel. And Conde Nast "made the choice to do this rather than building out their own capability."
The Knot, which, according to Web measurement service Media Metrix, in June closely trailed WeddingChannel in U.S. Web traffic, boasts no print alliance with a national player. (WeddingChannel had 599,000 unique visitors in June, while the Knot had 574,000.) The Knot, though, just purchased Wedding Pages, a local wedding publication in 52 markets.
THE HYBRID MODEL
The Knot's Mr. Liu said his company had looked into broad-based alliances with Bride's and Primedia's Modern Bride in late 1998 and early 1999, but nothing came of it.
"We believe in the hybrid model" and the Knot's made moves into gown guides and bridal books, he said. But the Knot feels partnering with a national magazines would provide greater benefits to the publishers than to the Knot. He stressed that wedding spending -- and thus advertising -- takes place predominately in the local space.
Rivals view the WeddingChannel deal with more cynicism.
"Conde Nast was trying to address criticisms about their lack of Internet strategy," said Doug Fierro, group publisher of Primedia's Modern Bride Group.
ALLIANCE WITH 16 LOCAL MAGAZINES
Modern Bride has an alliance with WeddingNetwork.com and 16 local bridal magazines called Modern Bride Connection. Connection's markets include Chicago, Colorado, Houston, New York, Philadelphia, Southern California and Washington. Modern Bride's network of bridal publications has been up since May of 1998.
Conde Nast, Mr. Newhouse said, will mine local markets via Advance.net's city and regional Web sites tied to the company's newspaper properties, though its largest markets -- among them Cleveland and New Orleans -- leave it lagging Connection's presence in the nation's top markets.
As for Conde Nast's overall Web strategy, "the name of the game is not how early you invest, but how intelligently," Mr. Newhouse said.
"People have questioned us for two things," he added. "One is for not rushing to put all of our titles online. The other thing is for not jumping into the so-called women's space. If those are the criticisms, then they're true -- but I believe we do have a strategy and we're executing on it."
EPITOME OF ITS ONLINE STRATEGY
Both Mr. Newhouse and Sarah Chubb, president of CondeNet, touted the company's Epicurious site, which aggregates content from Conde Nast's Bon Appetit and Gourmet as the epitome of its Web strategy -- "vertical businesses based on intense categories of interest," Ms. Chubb said. The company's next big move comes in September with Style.com, which will encompass content from Conde Nast's and Fairchild Publications' consumer fashion titles.
In the bridal space, the Bride's -WeddingChannel alliance encompasses the biggest players in those spaces, but their approach of combining a national print platform with an online registry as well as local guides is not unique.
Reports of the absence of Conde Nast's Internet strategy may be greatly exaggerated. The more appropriate question may be if, at least in the bridal space, they've ceded too much ground too soon.