We haven't often had the chance to say it, but magazine publishers are starting to look downright plugged-in.
After a decade of fearing digital media, trying to love it and largely finding its positive contributions outmatched by the threats it poses, the magazine business is now learning how to live with and enjoy the web.
Where the industry spent much of the first five years of the internet explosion stressing what it has that web publishers don't -- an argument often reduced to the idea that magazines are more "tactile" than screens of bits and bytes -- it's finally shifted to an approach that harnesses the web in order to meet advertisers' demands for real-time media measurement, consumers' demands for choice and control, and its own need to boost profitability.
The conclusive evidence came in two parts last week. The industry essentially ratified a new standard of using the web to report magazine sales in nearly real time. And Time Inc., the country's biggest publisher, described a plan to leverage the web for a modern model of subscription sales -- something approaching a Netflix for magazines.
Burying the old standard
Media buyers celebrated after the last holdouts among big magazine publishers finally agreed to provide circulation figures fast and frequently -- all but killing off the creaky standard of revealing sales only twice a year.
The new commitments by major publishers -- including Condé Nast Publications, Hearst Magazines and Wenner Media -- breathed real life into the Audit Bureau of Circulations' fledgling Rapid Report system, which has been straining to reach critical mass since its introduction in July 2006.
That's a big deal for magazines, which looked increasingly archaic reporting sales only twice a year while the internet seemed to promise instant measurement and even TV began getting more precise ratings.
"It's a great move," said Robin Steinberg, senior VP-director of print investment and activation at MediaVest. "It demonstrates leadership; it shows accountability and confidence in reporting numbers on a more immediate basis, thus keeping magazines competitive with other disciplines."
Participation in Rapid Report, which allows publishers to update sales figures online, wasn't going to determine whether any given magazine got on an advertiser's plan, said George Janson, managing partner and director of print at Mediaedge:cia. But he called publishers' participation a step into the future.
"It's giving us information that the magazine publishers and editors have traditionally guarded very closely," he said. "It's letting us under the hood -- see what kind of covers are selling, who's using verified circulation."
"The media companies were reticent about this at first because they were afraid the buyers would make sweeping conclusions," Mr. Janson added. "They've seen we're smarter than that. When we do see something that we question, we call them up and have a dialogue instead of having to read about it later."
Last week Condé Nast Publications, publisher of top titles from Vanity Fair to Glamour, confirmed a plan to enter all its magazines in Rapid Report. Then Hearst Magazines, whose brands include Cosmopolitan and Esquire, revealed the same commitment. Wenner Media, which had withheld participation by important titles such as Us Weekly and Rolling Stone, decided Oct. 25 to go all in. Bauer Publishing said the next day it, too, would enter its titles, including In Touch Weekly.
Succession of participants
That followed closely last month's decision by Time Inc. to put all its titles into Rapid Report. The newcomers filled out the ranks of those already committed or participating, including Meredith, Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., Rodale and Alpha Media. (Alpha's new CEO, Kent Brownridge, memorably called other publishers' reluctance to participate "pathetic" and "wimpy.")
Now it becomes important for both publishers and ad buyers to establish best practices for the new system, Ms. Steinberg said. "One thing I do not believe the industry should do early on is be 'reactionary' to the numbers -- seeing a number and trying to renegotiate your package midstream," she said. "That's not what I would deem a best practice, but rather opening up the lines of communication to discuss what the area of weakness is and why, if there is one."
"It's the opportunity to have the dialogue earlier than later, with less surprises," she added.
Rapid Report, not incidentally, may also help buyers in their push to get every issue's circulation guaranteed, instead of receiving only guarantees averaged across multiple issues. Ms. Steinberg made that an ultimatum last May, threatening to pull her marketer clients -- which have an annual print budget estimated at $900 million -- from any magazine that wouldn't provide an issue-specific guarantee. Time Inc., among others, has agreed.
Rapid Report will make it easier to track how each issue of a magazine sells -- before ad campaigns have long since run their courses.
Modern media membership
On another front, Time Inc. last week described plans to introduce an online service next year that will offer pay-as-you-go, mix-and-match, highly flexible magazine subscriptions from a variety of publishers. Consumers using the service, to be called Maghound, will be able to pay one monthly fee for multiple subscriptions, with the ability to swap one title out for a new one or cancel entirely at any point.
It's a complicated bid by the country's biggest magazine publisher to make the web an ally instead of an enemy -- and to find new readers in the process. The hope is that Maghound, which has been in development since 2004 and won't go live until September 2008, will meet the growing expectations of increasingly empowered consumers.
"The strategy is basically to create a better consumer experience, which magazines have not really done, not like other industries," said Brian Wolfe, president of Time Consumer Marketing. "You can point to Amazon for books, Netflix for movies and iTunes for music, but the magazine industry has done nothing, essentially, to make the consumer experience better."
Giving consumers control
The plan calls for offering three magazines for $4.95 a month, five magazines for $7.95 a month or seven magazines for $9.95 a month -- with about 20% of the available magazines priced at a premium.
"You pay by credit card and get charged every month until you tell us to stop," Mr. Wolfe said. "If you want to switch at any point, you can switch off Newsweek for Time or something like that. You go online and make these changes. It's a solution that really addresses more of what consumers want, which is control and flexibility."
The service won't fix everything that's wrong with subscription sales. It does eliminate the need for annoying renewal notices. It also promises to provide more-precise information about when to expect magazines than the standard notice today, "Please allow four-to-six weeks for delivery." But efforts to actually shorten that time lag failed.
All the same, these initiatives taken together reflect new savvy from magazines, a maturing sense of the ways the web can be used for the benefit of advertisers, readers and magazine publishers, too.