Media Metrics: Reloading the Magazine

  • by November 3, 2008
When you read this article in Media, what exactly are your eyes scanning? Chances are it's not an archetypal bundle of cellulose and ink, but just another Web page on your laptop, PC or mobile device. As are most magazines today, Media is available in both paper and digital incarnations - and, as is the case with other publications, an increasing number of its readers prefer the latter form.

The term "magazine" comes from a French word meaning "storehouse" or "storage." (This explains, if you were curious, why this word is used to indicate, among other things, the integral part of an M-16 assault rifle.) But the days when magazines were the main repositories of current niche information and entertainment are gone. The Internet has established itself as a primary resource, offering seemingly infinite, up-to-date content across nearly every category of interest, and consumers are taking advantage of the choices they have.

As consumer behavior has shifted, ad dollars have followed. To capture them, traditional magazine brands started to extend their offerings into the online arena. But they did not arrive in an empty arena: Various e-zines and blogs had already been catering to special interests online - and in the past several years, their numbers have skyrocketed. Portals like Yahoo, AOL and MSN also offer constantly updated content on a variety of subjects previously exclusive to magazine titles. Moreover, on the Internet, magazine brands have to compete for consumer attention with other traditional media channels' digital extensions, just like National Geographic online has to compete with Discovery Channel.

The rise of digital even prompted some pundits to predict the quick vanishing of print media altogether. They may be not so far from the truth in the case of daily newspapers: Unable to compete with the lightning-fast pace of their online competition, newspapers have, in recent years, seen their readership numbers and advertising revenues go into a tailspin. According to a Carnegie Corporation report, "Abandoning the News," newspapers have already become the least preferred source for news among younger people.

Is the future dark for print magazines, too? How has the advent of online publishing affected print magazines - and what does it mean for advertisers? MediaVest recently fielded a large-scale, quantitative, cross-media study to investigate how consumers' use of online media differed from their use of print media. We tried to understand how different category-specific passion groups use print and online platforms to meet their information and entertainment needs. We also tried to identify the properties that allowed "traditional" magazine brands to successfully transcend the printed page.

Using Knowledge Networks's nationally representative panel, the study classified more than 1,500 adults, ages 18-54, by their involvement and interest in one of the following four categories: Entertainment & Celebrity, Fashion & Beauty, Health & Wellness and Food & Cooking. Nearly 40 magazine titles and more than 75 Web sites were included in this study. Additionally, we conducted analysis using the new Net//MRI fusion database, which combines readership data from more than 250 MRI-measured magazines with Web site audience data from roughly 2,300 sites measured by Nielsen Online. This provided detailed audience data including total combined reach, exclusive reach and other metrics across both magazines and Web sites in the four core categories.

The study found that despite the pressure from online, the traditional magazines continue to have a strong presence in consumers' lives. While the Internet is gaining momentum across categories thanks to its utility and convenience, readers still consider magazines to be a reliable resource that provides credible, detailed, trustworthy content in a format that lends itself to relaxation and leisure. Against the initial hypothesis, the duplication between the printed and online versions of a magazine title was very low. Overall, the magazines are rated higher in their trustworthiness than online sources. Their readers are also more likely to talk to others about things they read in magazines and make recommendations, likely due to the depth and quality of coverage.

My colleague David Shiffman led the study. David, who's senior vice president of connections research and analytics at MediaVest, noted that magazines and online resources work in complementary ways: "Our analysis showed that consumers tap into both media outlets for information and entertainment. Each medium meets unique user expectations by delivering distinct, valuable consumer experiences and benefits."

Consumer media habits differ by category of interest, as some categories have higher needs for immediacy and customization than others; as these become more essential, the value and centrality of online media grows. For example, the Health & Wellness category is far more online-centric, as consumers are often searching for the latest health information that will meet their unique requirements. Conversely, magazines remain the dominant resource for the Fashion & Beauty category, where information is far less time-sensitive and there is less need for personalization.

But if people trust print titles so much, why aren't they visiting their associated Web sites? The answer lies in what consumers expect from these sites and what they're not getting. Our study showed that most consumers expect online magazine extensions to offer something unique from the magazine experience, but very few respondents felt that this need is being met. With low duplication advertisers can generate more reach through cross-platform partnerships - and can do so in ways that play to the unique experiences consumers look for in each medium.

In spite of their failings online, many print brands do carry strong magazine-based attributes (trust and authority) onto the Web. Just being a strong magazine brand, however, does not guarantee online success. The degree to which print brands have successfully adapted to the online space varies by category and title. Brand heritage and history may help, but thriving online is a more complicated business. Titles must not only meet consumer category information needs, but they also have to create an online experience that both aligns with and extrapolates the print experience - while at the same time providing the online-specific content readers expect from a Web site.

For advertisers, magazines remain a viable way to connect with a large audience. But truly being able to leverage both print and online media is the key to the future of print advertising. The bottom line is that marketers must be mindful that content categories behave in very different ways. Wherever content's immediacy and customization comes first, online should take priority, with print playing a supporting role; in other instances, the opposite is true. And just as content needs to align with user behavior and expectations, so, too, does our advertising strategy.

Yaakov Kimelfeld, Ph.D., is vice president of digital research and analytics director at MediaVest USA.
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