It is difficult not to be envious of the growing band of dot-com entrepreneurs who are making millions, albeit on paper, by marrying smart business ideas with the unique medium of the Internet.
Those who have quickly understood and grasped the potential of the Internet are the big winners, for the moment.
But with the growth of sites and the desire for everyone from businesses to individuals to have their own presence on the Internet, one crucial factor is often neglected – high-quality content.
Good content is hard to come by in a market where most people think they can write, and now have the ability to broadcast their efforts across the world at little cost. This is coupled with the perception that what works on paper will work online. Add to these misconceptions the online explosion’s constant demand for content, and it is no surprise that a significant proportion of what you read online wouldn’t see the light of day in a village newspaper.
Contract publishers in particular are perfectly placed to provide that badly needed quality content. They also understand the complexities and importance of customer relationship management and have the skills, developed over many years, to retrieve and analyse customer information. It is the combination of these two skills that is proving invaluable.
Contract publishing has been the marketing and publishing success story of the past few years. According to the latest Mintel report on the sector, the contract publishing market was worth £182m in 1998, up by 214 per cent from 1990. Mintel reported annual growth rates of 21 per cent in 1997 and 17 per cent in 1998.
Unlike other publishers, contract publishers have been quick to spot the opportunities. TPD, for example, has been in interactive and Internet publishing for the past five years, and Premier Media Partners launched an electronic offshoot called Premier Interactive in 1996. Redwood New Media classifies itself as a new media agency, offering online contract publishing and conventional new media services such as Website design.
Mintel’s 1998 survey of contract publishers showed that 11 per cent of all titles are available online. This proportion rises to 17 per cent for business-to-business titles, 18 per cent for motor magazines, and 37 per cent for IT publications.
TPD chairman Julian Treasure says half of TPD’s revenue comes from interactivity and it is the fastest-growing part of the business “by some margin”.
But Treasure and the industry as a whole are adamant that the growth of interactivity will not have a cannibalising effect on the printed magazines contract publishers produce.
Treasure says: “I believe in magazines. Paper is a great medium which will always have a place – as long as publishers know how to extend that brand in the virtual world.”
Contract publishers have understood – long before most other publishers – that electronic versions of printed titles may be similar, but never exactly the same.
Treasure says: “The trick is to optimise the values of the two different media. If we are smart, we can use different media in harmony so the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. We should be media neutral. The Holy Grail for clients is to have powerful brands in the virtual and the real world.”
Rhys Williams, editor-in-chief at Premier Interactive, feels strongly about how electronic publishing is produced.
He says: “I’ve banned the words ‘repurposing content’ from our offices. It’s absolute nonsense. The last thing you want to do is repackage a magazine on the Web. You should be creating content for the medium in its own right.”
With a background in Fleet Street, Williams is evangelical about the quality of editorial. “From a technical point of view, the Internet is great. There are few problems with speed of access and the technical wizardry is advanced. But from an editorial point of view, it’s still in nappies. The roll call of sites that are badly written and poorly put together is endless.”
He adds: “The job of the magazine publishers is to understand content. The Internet has been driven by technology and graphic design. You can go where you want as fast as you want – the journey is great, but the destination is not.”
It is the quality of journalism contract publishers can provide, combined with their knowledge of CRM, that unlocks the potential of the Internet.
Redwood Publishing commercial director Ian Sewell says: “We create quality magazines not only because we are good at contact, but because we specialise in marketing fundamentals. We understand how business objectives can be translated into a strategy, which is reflected in the quality of the editorial.
We get feedback through the systems we have created, which we use to continue the magazine’s development. We develop strategies for clients and provide content.”
Sewell says the integration of magazines and Websites is becoming increasingly important for building a solid base of loyal site members.
He says: “More and more dot-coms are spending money trying to attract people to their site. The churn rates of some of the big Websites are about ten per cent a month. We are getting many enquiries from dot-coms about aggregation. Dot-coms need to develop brand loyalty – and that’s what contract publishers know all about.”
Brass Tacks digital media manager Tom Hopkins says the Internet is reducing the number of businesses on the ground, but is increasing communication between companies and consumers. Like others, Hopkins believes that magazines and the Internet can work together to build the client’s brand rather than cancel each other out.
Hopkins says: “There are things that magazines can’t do as effectively as the Web” – such as list all 800 Somerfield outlets, which you will find online but not in the publication.
Citrus Publishing rebranded itself from BLA in June last year. The move reflected a change in the management’s thinking. Citrus positions itself as an integrated agency. Julian Downing, communications planning director, says the company does not want to create an “Internet ghetto”, with certain staff dedicated only to interactive.
“We’ve integrated across the whole company so, for example, the ad sales staff – who are mainly from a traditional print background – are trained to sell online.”
Downing says print and online products can widen the customer base for a client. “A customer magazine is sent to a controlled database providing a retention role. The Website draws people in, and it is there a client can conduct both acquisition and retention,” he says.
The ability to use the Internet as a personalised one-to-one communications tool has been understood by most contract publishers. However, they could only speak of revolutionary work, which develops integrated publishing further, as still in the making.
There are a couple of exceptions. It is understood that Boots and Redwood Publishing are working on turning Boots’ Health & Beauty magazine and its Website into a major platform for the chemist’s future promotional and advertising work. Another publisher said it was working on a project that linked it with a TV station and the Internet, in a programme that would push the boundaries of interactive communications.
But neither publisher was ready to speak about these developments, asking to be called back in five months’ time. It is only then that we might be able to gauge how groundbreaking this brave new world of interactive communications will be.