Interactive Publishing Success Stories

By: Steve Outing

I'm going to spend 2 more days summarizing some of the presentations from the Interactive Publishing conference in Zurich, Switzerland, last week This is one of the most significant meetings in newspaper and magazine new media -- along with the Interactive Newspapers show next February sponsored by The Kelsey Group and Editor & Publisher -- so I trust that you'll find this material useful.

On Friday, several publishers presented their "success stories" in interactive publishing. While there were no examples of publishers making piles of money at these ventures, there are some interesting lessons in their experiences.

Playboy. If any publisher is poised to make piles of money on the Internet, it must be Playboy magazine. Eileen Kent, Playboy's new media director, suggested that Playboy had no choice but to go online. Illegally scanned images from the magazine were (and are) a fact of life on the Internet and on BBSs, so Playboy created a Web site partly to get control of its copyrighted materials. What it opted to do was put on the Playboy Web site images that have not appeared in print, which might obviate the need for those seeking Playboy's nude photography to seek out bootleg copies.

Kent presented an interesting tidbit about her Web site: When it first went online, with absolutely no publicity or advance notice, received 10,000 hits from 30 countries in the first 24 hours. Obviously, there was some pent-up demand for a Playboy online service. Today, of course, it carries more Web traffic than any other publisher.

Kent initially expected the site to be a lucrative way to sell Playboy merchandise, but that turned out to be a flop. Rather, the site is attracting big-name advertisers who must like the massive numbers of (mostly young male) eyeballs that view the site. Indeed, Playboy has had to act fast to keep up with demand -- going from a single T-1 connection to the Internet, to multiple T-1s, to a T-3 pipe to meet current traffic.

World Media Network. Bertrand Pecquerie outlined a "different" kind of syndicate created by his World Media Network, a collaborative Web venture bringing together 27 newspapers from around the world. (No single media organization is at the core of WMN.) WMN's most visible project was the Tour de France Web site, which provided up-to-the-minute coverage -- available to anyone on the Web for free -- of the bicycle race. Over the 20-day period of this year's Tour, the site recorded more than 5 million hits. The site proved its value as an interactive product when 10,000 computer users sent in online messages of condolence to family members of a bicycle racer killed during the Tour.

"We have a feeling that people are fed up with traditional journalism," Pecquerie said. "Se we have to invent a new kind of journalism" which is not bound by print deadlines (once a day news updates) and benefits from constant interaction with readers. Importantly, such online-only news services will require more content than what is produced for print, he said, and it must be printed in real time.

WMN also operates Sarajevo Online, a regional news site working with local media in the former Yugoslavia. A staff of 3 runs that operation, which is a model that will be repeated elsewhere in the world.

New York Times TimesFax. Patricia Ecke of the New York Times Co. suggested that fax services can present good opportunities still. TimesFax has found a successful niche in delivering a daily digested form of the newspaper to hotels, cruise ships, corporate clients and the U.S. military. There service filled a demand -- for New York Times content in places the company could not distribute newspapers -- and picked up new cusotmers.

The service is profitable and represented only a modest investment on the newspaper company's part. It's not really a "fax newspaper" as much as a specialty niche publication, Ecke said. Distribution is handled by a network of partners and independent sales agents.

TimesFax does pull in some advertising revenue, for clients such as AT&T and an insurance company for the military. The Web version of TimesFax, which is free to readers who download the publication in PDF (Acrobat) format, is entirely advertiser supported. Of the 5 Web advertisers, 4 did not previously advertise in the newspaper, so Ecke is pleased that the service is generating new business.

TA-Media. Urs Ruetschi spoke about an audiotex success story that easily could be tried online as well. His company created an audiotex questionnaire where a caller answered a 6-question phone survey (done with voicemail automation) about what kind of perfume she/he likes. After the caller gives information about themselves, they are rewarded with a free sample of perfume (the brand specific to their answers). In 14 weeks, the trial attracted 10,000 survey takers.

This promotion not only pleased the perfume advertisers -- who were thrilled to send out samples to a targeted audience -- but it also helped the sponsoring magazine. With the perfume sample, survey takers also received a card with a special offer to try out a magazine subscription. The magazine got nearly 600 new subscribers out of this promotion.

The Newspaper Society. Richard Beamish suggested that newspaper trade organizations need to help local publishers create interactive services, as his is doing in the U.K. The Society regularly uses consultants to keep its members up to date on trends in the interactive industry -- and how they might affect newspapers. It also uses "Decision Workbench" software to help publishers analyze potential risks and rewards of potential new media investments.

Beanish suggested that "no one has a huge lead yet" in interactive publishing, so it's not too late to get into the game if you're a publisher. But the tremendous amount of activity in online publishing requires investment on publishers' part to "keep away predators" who would chip away at newspapers' franchises. A good example, he said, is an online housing ad service that can either be created independently by Realtors, or by a newspaper.

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