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Routes To Success For Consumer Magazine Websites 2005

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I have completed a second study of successful websites operated by consumer magazine publishers around the world – following a survey in 2003. My client was FIPP, the International Federation of Periodical Publishers.

Survey objectives

The survey’s objectives were:
• To examine good practice online, among successful websites
• To learn about the ways in which these publishers measured and achieved online success
• To share some of the lessons about using the new medium in conjunction with printed magazines

The sample was not intended to be representative of all consumer magazine websites: the aim was to learn from those who had achieved success. A total of 71 websites were included in the survey.

Summary of findings

This is a survey about successful consumer magazine websites. Success is defined in whatever terms the publisher considers relevant – online branding, profit, new revenue streams, new products, new audiences, or any other relevant defined objective.

Organisation and objectives

About half of the websites are operated by the individual publication but working under a central corporate strategy. Most of the rest of the sites are handled centrally for the whole company by a separate business unit.

The two principal objectives of the websites are to expand the publication’s audience beyond the print audience base by creating a new online audience (84% of sites), and to use the website to attract new readers for the printed magazine (81%). These are linked to the fourth-ranked objective, building a community around the brand (67%).

The third-ranked objective is to create new revenue streams and profits in the long term (76%). This is twice as important as creating revenue and profits in the short term (40%).
These publishers are putting increasing efforts into their successful website operations. Just over half (55%) have increased the man-hours devoted to the website compared with 12 months ago. Moreover 82% expect to expand their online efforts in the next 12 months. There is greater optimism and investment than was found in FIPP’s equivalent survey in 2003.


Internal funds account for half the income of these websites; these are evenly divided between money from the relevant magazines and money provided centrally. Nearly all the remaining half of funds (45%) comes from earnings on the web – and advertising revenue is about two-thirds of this.

Comparing the situation two years earlier in 2003, the proportion of funds coming from internal sources is the same in 2005 (half of the total), but within this the role of central funds has reduced while funding from the individual magazines has risen. Online advertising/sponsorship accounts for the same proportion of total income in both years.


The average number of site visitors (‘unique users’) received each month in 2005 is about 115,000 per website, but this varies enormously from site to site. The trend in audiences is very strongly upwards.

The types of audiences that publishers are targeting for their websites are similar to the audiences to the printed magazines (as was also the case in 2003). Websites are not trying to attract new kinds of audience, but rather the existing print audience and other consumers similar to the print audience who happen not to read the printed magazine.
The overwhelming experience of these websites is that they have attracted significant numbers of new audience who do not read the brand in print. For many sites, the new audiences equate in size to 20% or more of the print audience.

For some sites, the new audiences tend to be rather younger on average than the print audience. For certain sites, some of the new people come from other countries.

Website content

The new audiences are believed to be attracted by time-critical information, interactive content, searchable databases and archives, and personalised content.
Most of these successful websites (72%) are updated daily, including in some cases continuous updating during the day. There has been a trend towards more rapid updating, compared with 2003.

Among the interactive facilities offered, the most common are print subscription requests (89% of sites offer this) and chat room or message board discussions (60%). Approximately half the sites sell other products or services via e-commerce. There are many other interactive facilities which are available on smaller proportions of sites. Electronic newsletters, emailed to recipients, are popular. 75% of sites provide these, a rise on the figure of 65% in 2003.

The great majority of sites include information that has not appeared in the printed magazine, and the proportion has risen slightly from 2003. The most common example is hourly, daily or weekly news.

30% of sites offer RSS feeds. Most of these are news-related.

Most sites (80%) give free access to the whole site, but there are a minority who charge for access to certain parts of the site – charged either through subscribing to the printed magazine (i.e. subscriber-only areas) or through a separate payment.
22% of publishers of these websites also publish a digital edition of the magazine – that is, an exact reproduction in digital form.


Most sites have gained new advertisers on the web who do not advertise in the print products. The proportion has risen from 53% in 2003 to 66% in 2005.

The web-only advertisers are attracted by a range of factors. These include the interactive possibilities, the ability to receive sales leads or direct response, the size of the audiences available, the new/different audiences on offer, and the measurability of the internet audience. Speed of delivery and updating is another attractive feature.

20% of the sites offer contextual advertising – that is, relating the ads shown on-screen to the keywords that surfers employ when using search engines.

There has been a rise in the proportion of sites which offer mixed-media print-plus-web advertising packages to advertisers. The 2003 figure of 65% has risen in 2005 to 77%.

Marketing and search engines

The principal means of marketing the websites is promotion within the magazine hosting the site: virtually all do this. Promotions and links (free and paid-for) from other websites are also very important. Promotional events are significant marketing tools too. This pattern is broadly similar to 2003.

Respondents consider it necessary to constantly optimise visibility on search engines. This can be tackled in part by designing the site so that the search engine ‘spiders’ pick up more material and thus push the site higher up the rankings. Visibility can also be increased by buying keyword contextual advertising on the search engines: 31% of the sites do this. There is limited, but only limited, concern that search engines may direct surfers away from one’s own website to rival sites, and that the search engines may also divert advertising revenue away to themselves.


A narrow majority of publishers believe that their online competitors for site visitors are mainly the same as their competitors to the printed magazine.

In a third of cases, the view is that the competitors are mainly different types of company. These new kinds of competitor are non-magazine organisations with websites or portals which specialise in the same fields as the magazine. Some of these competitors are only or primarily involved in the internet (e.g. eBay, Yahoo, AOL), while some have other origins: software houses (e.g. MSN), multimedia news services, television companies, radio broadcasters, daily newspapers, manufacturers, retailers, and so on.

Profit and loss

Far more of these successful sites are making a profit than are making a loss. 54% are in profit while only 17% are losing. 18% are breaking even.

This is a healthy advance on 2003, when only 26% of successful websites were making a profit. 38% were losing money.

Obstacles and lessons

The most important difficulty faced in developing the websites is insufficient funds: this is a significant factor for half the sites. Other common obstacles are resistance by existing employees who work on the print products; and pressure to focus on the print products. The only other widespread problem is the initial low or negative return on investment in the website: this troubles a third of these sites. Nevertheless this is an advance on 2003, when 60% of sites were worried about it.

Respondents offered a variety of advice and lessons based on their own experiences. These are listed in the report under five headings:
• Clear goals and realistic financial planning
• Marketing
• Content: interaction with the printed magazine
• Communication with colleagues
• Advertisers


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