Will Condé Nast’s investment in the Internet reap returns?

Sceptics find Website ads are not all they’re cracked up to be, but Nick Higham is sure of their value as a medium with a significant future. Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent

Those awfully nice people at Vogue have gone on-line. When the high priests of fashion, principal arbiters of what the beautiful people should be seen wearing, eating and doing, embrace the technology of the nerds, you know a revolution in communications has occurred.

Last week, Vogue publisher Condé Nast, launched a 600-page site on the World Wide Web devoted to Vogue, Tatler and World of Interiors, along with the company’s classy men’s magazine, GQ, which has been available to Net surfers since last year.

The editor of Condé Nast On-Line is Dan Conaghan, a pin-stripe-suited cove last seen in a rather different role as The Daily Telegraph’s arts correspondent.

Visitors to the Condé Nast site can download full-colour images of fashion models, a daily digest of news about social events and the fashion business, a travel section and a problem page. Though, since this is Vogue, there’s not much about what to do when your boyfriend runs off with your best friend, more about what to wear in the evening when it’s too warm for a coat or jacket (silk organza, apparently).

I admit some surprise at this initiative. GQ’s presence in a medium predominantly associated with men I can understand. The GQ on-line contents page features enticing copy-lines devoted to sport, sex and photographs of scantily-clad women. The site has succeeded in attracting 150,000 registered users, and they’re joining at the rate of 1,500 a day.

But Vogue? Surely not. The average Vogue reader would go to pieces at the mere sight of a computer, even if she didn’t run the risk of breaking her nails on the keyboard.

But Conaghan assures me, while not much is known about Internet users, what little there is makes them attractive to Vogue. They are young and affluent, and are thought to include almost as many women as men.

The Vogue site has its drawbacks. Those glossy colour photographs will take ages to download and most of the editorial is culled from the previous month’s issue, which is just as readily available for a modest 2.80 from your local newsagent. But it also has one great advantage over the dead tree version of the title.

As Condé Nast has discovered with GQ, the advertisers who pay for a presence on the site can get feedback on precisely who is looking at their advertisement.

Past advertisers have included Nike, Eurostar, Aramis and Rover/MG, whose advertisements feature a modest degree of interactivity – you can take an image of a white MG and electronically respray it one of half a dozen different colours, including a particularly virulent purple called “amaranth”.

Eurostar’s advertisement attracted 14,000 “hits” over six months and, because Condé Nast’s net-surfers must register their personal details when they first visit the site, Eurostar will know far more about those 14,000 than about an equivalent number of readers scanning a magazine or newspaper advertisement.

Some believe the Internet isn’t a proper medium, but simply a promotional device. For established media like publishing and broadcasting it is simply a way of showcasing the product, not something which will make money in its own right. Condé Nast aims to prove that idea wrong, making its online service profitable on the basis of advertising alone.

You have to wish them luck, although developments elsewhere suggest it may not be easy.

Advertisers on the Net, it seems, are no longer satisfied with knowing how many people visited their sites and who they were. They want to know whether they went further than the cover page and, what’s more, they want to pay only for those who did.

So Procter & Gamble and the Internet search company Yahoo!, much to the distaste of other Web publishers, have apparently come to an agreement that when P&G advertises on the Yahoo! Web pages it will be charged only for those customers who “click through” to the body of the P&G ad.

Tim Jackson, writing in the Financial Times this week, observes that Web advertisers who adopt a similar system to P&G are likely to realise that advertising on the Net is rather less effective than it has been cracked up to be and that they’ve been overpaying. The Web advertising balloon will soon be pricked, he predicts.

Nonetheless, once Web users are confident their credit card details aren’t going to be purloined for criminal purposes, they will become more confident about buying products online, and advertisers with experience and a customer database on the Net will have a head start.

A recent CIA Sensor tracking study revealed a growing willingness on the part of consumers to buy direct. This is especially prevalent among 15-24 year-olds, almost a third of whom are already users of the Net.

CIA found 60 per cent of 15-24 year-olds would be willing to buy electrical appliances from a catalogue, 56 per cent would be willing to buy financial services by phone and 31 per cent would even buy household groceries by phone.

It failed to ask whether they would also shop using the Internet, an omission CIA might like to remedy next time it conducts the survey, but I’d hazard the percentage among those 15 to 24 year-olds might be quite high.

Whatever the problems associated with on-line advertising and buying and selling via the Web, I suspect this is a medium with a significant future.

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