VNU needs hard drive to shift computer title

It’s being billed as the biggest consumer magazine launch in five years. But it is not another women’s’ magazine or yet another “sub”-Loaded.

Complete with a 4m advertising budget and a strapline that says “not what you would expect from a computer magazine”, Computer Active launches on February 26 into an over-crowded market. It will have an initial print run of 650,000 and has more than 1m advertising already committed to the product in the course of the first year.

The strapline underlines the struggle the magazine faces in convincing people to read it and advertisers that it can deliver a circulation of 200,000, when the 100 or more consumer computer titles in existence are not being read.

It’s a tall order. Britain’s biggest-selling computer magazine, the monthly Computer Shopper, has an ABC figure of 170,274. But, according to VNU, Computer Active will offer accessible articles on the usual subjects – games, gadgets, PCs, software peripherals and general news – targeted at a core ABC1 readership, aged 25 to 44 and which is 30 per cent female. Attracting women readers will take some doing given that computer titles’ readership is predominantly male (about 95 per cent). “Women want information but they are totally turned off by the current format,” says publisher Juliet Parker.

But it is difficult to see what is new about Computer Active. Its watch-word will be simplicity. Its 99p cover price places it at the bargain end of a market when most titles cost about 2. Its fortnightly frequency seems to be one of its more unusual characteristics. VNU says it is targeting PC and peripheral software – rather than lifestyle – advertisers initially.

Predictably, first-time PC buyers and users looking to upgrade are on the target reader list. But VNU publishing director Jonathan Ross also hopes to capture readers who have bought a PC in the past two-to-three years but never got into the magazine-buying habit.

Experimental forays into the consumer market with two part-work series – Easy PC and PC KnowHow – and nine months of research have convinced VNU that Computer Active will sell.

But, Ross admits: “If the product is only going to produce 100,000 circulation then it won’t be viable. Our aim is to deliver 200,000 readers on average for our first 23 issues.”

He claims the potential buying market for consumer computer titles is “6.5 million homes,” based on the fact that one in four homes (on a “conservative estimate”) has a PC. Other publishers are waiting to pounce if a new readership is discovered and, more importantly, sustained.

Mick Thorburn, group publisher for Dennis, is unconvinced that such a readership exists. “Home (computer) magazines have done quite badly in the past.” He points to Computer Life – a lifestyle magazine launched by Ziff Davis in April 1995 which had an ABC for the period January to June 1996 of 54,550 before closing in April 1997.

“I think that VNU is saying the market has now expanded and I’m not sure that it has. The other thing is that it is fortnightly. The track record for fortnightly titles is disastrous. However, there’s a heck of a lot of money behind it.”

Parker insists the market is ready for Computer Active and adds that ad spend – 2.1m for the first three issues, which includes TV and outdoor posters – will boost sales. Creative work has been done by The Edge and media buying by Mediacom.

There is also the issue of whether, with advertisers on limited budgets, Computer Active will attract new spend or poach it. Optimedia international account director Mark Jones is optimistic about Computer Active. “There’s definitely the market for Computer Active. Manufacturers are desperate to reach consumers. The majority have had a fairly tough time, but now have products which are beginning to sell very well.”

Thorburn is sceptical about whether advertisers will be attracted to the product. “People who need to go for lower-priced magazines tend to have less (to spend),” he says. But he admits that the magazine offers a new model for the market and, if it proves successful, Dennis may consider launching a rival.

The launch of Computer Active should also be seen in the context of the future of computer publishing. Will there continue to be demand for printed magazines by readers who have access to titles on the Internet? VNU’s Ross says: “I think the Internet will have a role in the future. But for portability, ease of use and practicality a magazine is preferable.”

If Computer Active hits its circulation target it will be the third biggest selling fortnightly magazine in the UK, after Smash Hits and More!. It will be on a par with Vogue and a bigger seller than Q, Maxim or Sky Magazine. That really would be “not what you would expect from a computer magazine”.

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