Sure, trade publications in vertical markets have competition on the Web, primarily other magazine and media Web sites plus association Web sites and the growing crop of Web-only competition. It’s a pretty well defined set. But what happens to the large mass consumer brands online? Is it harder for consumer brands to thrive online without a niche audience? We asked executives from Time Inc., Hearst and Meredith to weigh in on the challenges and benefits of being a mass consumer brand on the Web.
"It’s a very competitive market to grow traffic online," says Chuck Cordray, general manager of Hearst Magazines digital media. "We’re not just competing against the magazine sites, we’re competing against the Web period. We have to be Web competitive, not just magazine competitive."
Hearst brands like Good Housekeeping, Redbook and O, The Oprah Magazine compete with portal sites Yahoo and MSN, says Cordray, as well as advertiser sites like Kraft and The Home Depot. "People don’t say, ‘I like this site compared to competitive sets in magazines,’ they compare it to their best online experiences," he adds. "The Kraft foods site is a great site and The Home Depot has the number-one home improvement site. It’s a very different and competitive landscape."
How the Big Boys Drive Traffic
At a recent MPA event, Time Inc. president Ann Moore told the audience that her biggest challenge was building her company’s women’s magazine brands online. "It is still about the consumer whether it’s offline, online, old media or new media," she said. "It’s about building trusted, deep, vertical content experiences. The question is, how do you become their favorite bookmark?"
Time Inc. has successfully built online power players, including SportsIllustrated.com, MyRecipes.com and CNNMoney.com, a portal joint venture with CNN that includes Fortune, Money, Fortune Small Business, and Business 2.0. Now, the company’s goals are to do the same with its other brands, like In Style and Real Simple. "We’re aggressively building our women’s lifestyle brands into these types of online powerhouses," says Stephanie George, executive vice president at Time Inc. "It’s like turning a steamship in the middle of the ocean."
Many large-circulation consumer titles are quickly realizing that the online user is not the same as their print reader. The goal is to educate consumers that there is content available online that is updated daily, that is not repurposed magazine content, says George. "Because the online experience is moving so quickly it can quickly look outdated so you have to constantly change it," she adds. "We’re in constant learning and customization mode."
Although b-to-b brands have the advantage of reporting on industry news constantly, consumer brands are driving traffic online through unique user experiences and updated content to get people to visit every day. Meredith Corporation uses daily programming on its broadband video network, Better.tv, and newsletters to alert readers of new content online.
"Allow consumers to personalize the online experience to suit their needs," says Lauren Wiener, vice president of Meredith Interactive. "For example, Better Homes & Garden’s Color-a-Room tool lets a viewer change wall colors and fabrics that appear in a magazine photo. It also allows them to react and to respond to our branded content through vehicles like comments and ratings."
Meredith, which recently relaunched the BHG site, is also in the process of building a Parents’ Portal on the backbone of its parenthood brands, American Baby, Parents, Family Circle and recently folded Child. "Traffic building works well for large-circulation consumer brands that serve specific target niches," says Wiener.
Many brands utilize print properties to drive readers to the Web specifically through callouts. The key is to provide a very specific address on where to go online, and to provide the reader with the exact information he or she will get upon arrival. It’s the new online version of service journalism. "Landing on the homepage and having to search for information isn’t a great experience," says Cordray. "It’s not just, ‘Go online, we have a Web site.’ It’s, ‘Go online for five more ways to drop five pounds or to get 10 more brownie recipes.’"
In the end however, it comes down to search, says Cordray. When Hearst severed ties with iVillage last year, it rebuilt all of its content databases for 14 sites with search engine optimization in mind. "SEO should be the number-one priority for marketing any Web site," says Cordray.
The Sales Challenge
As magazine brands continue to learn about the world of the Web, so are their advertisers. George says some clients need educating about best practices on how they too can get their message out to the online masses. This fact persuaded Time Inc. to train its sales staff to sell across all mediums and also hire digital sales experts. "It’s not the same as print. It’s not even synonymous with them even having their own Web site," she says. "We are teaching them how to market online and how to customize and personalize and create that interaction with their customers as well."
Because ad agencies continue to operate in silos (one agency for print, one for digital), Hearst has separate print and digital sales teams. "The Esquire print team can go out and sell offerings for Esquire and Esquire.com," says Cordray. "Then our digital team goes out to represent the entire Hearst Network."