Since most traditional magazine publishers have opted to put all or most of their content on the Web for free in order to capture maximum audience and advertising, the surge in traffic on their sites has less to do with migrating print subscribers than with attracting new users who find the sites via search engines. Some of those online visitors may be regular print subscribers, but most publishers I've talked to are seeing an influx of users who visit the site for a specific content item and may not return. I liken these visitors to "speed daters" who come in through search engines, spend a few minutes with the brand, and then go on to the next site if they don't like what they see.
This is a challenge for traditional magazine publishers, who are used to the longer-term "romance" with a print subscriber, in which readers sign up for annual paid subscriptions and spend quality time with each issue. Today's opportunity is for the publisher to leverage a magazine brand as the host of a vibrant online community where people not only can find content that they need, but also interact with editors, vendors, and each other. The magazine sites that do this best end up looking very little like print publications.
For online marketers, several key questions help evaluate how well a traditional magazine publisher is embracing the online opportunity to create something truly different rather than just a repurposed online version of the magazine. What percentage of the content on the site is original to the Web? How often is the content refreshed? Are article pages designed to lead readers easily to related content, both within the site and elsewhere on the Web? Are video clips or podcasts available on the site? Are users contributing content to the site? Is active blogging occurring? Is the site attracting advertisers that don't appear in the print editions?
Print publishers have a tremendous advantage over other Web-only content providers, because their brands and content provide a strong foundation for building a Web-based franchise. Smart multiplatform publishers are using both print and online media to inform the other on an ongoing basis: The Web provides feedback from users and identifies new areas of coverage for print, and in turn, print provides a steady stream of quality content for the Web. But just as TV is different from radio, online is different from print. Content-sharing alone between print and online editions won't lead to a robust, stand-alone online business.
Traditional publishers that dedicate their efforts to building an online enterprise ultimately view content from print as just one of many content sources for their online businesses. There are many traditional publishers doing a terrific job of building online businesses that will outlast print, if its demise ever comes. Online marketers should invest their advertising dollars with publishers that use their strong brands to create a completely unique online experience. That's the winning strategy.