As more marketers cut their print advertising budgets in favor of the immediacy of the Web, magazine publishers are being forced to take bold steps to bridge the gap.

The latest: Men’s Health, which announced this week that every ad in the magazine’s July/August issue will be cell phone readable.

“Given the economic climate, it’s the right time to go the extra mile and explore partnerships such as this one that provide more measurable results for advertisers in addition to an immediate, direct conversation with our readers,” Jack Essig wrote in an email to FOLIO:. “It’s also a great marriage of what print can do for digital and vice versa.”

The Rodale title is using image recognition-based technology from mobile marketing firm SnapTell to produce the issue.

“We were approached with a turnkey platform that made sense for both our advertisers and our readers,” Essig continued. “It’s snag-proof—compatible with all mobile devices and carriers.”

Readers will be able to photograph the ads from any cell phone that has a camera, without the need to download software, and will receive promotional messages from marketers in real-time. SnapTell receives the photographed images, matches them against its database, and replies with coupons, pricing information, ringtones, wallpaper or any other message designed by the marketer.

Like many other magazines, Men’s Health saw declining ad revenues during the first quarter, down 5.6 percent over the same period in 2007, according to the latest Publishers Information Bureau numbers. Ad pages were down 11.3 percent. Meanwhile, online ad revenue for parent company Rodale’s magazine-branded sites rose 82.6 percent in 2007 compared to 2006.

Although Men’s Health isn’t the first magazine to utilize SnapTell’s cell phone-scanable ads—the May issue of Rolling Stone has five—the number of interactive ads in the July/August issue opens up “a new frontier,” according to SnapTell CEO Gautam Bhargava.

An Alternative to Barcodes?

The image recognition technology is unique from earlier attempts to run interactive ads because it does not rely on barcodes. Billboard was the first magazine in the U.S. to run cell phone-readable barcodes in October, incorporating them into two Sprint ads. Wired ran a barcoded Sprint ad in December, the same month that Car and Driver published more than 400 barcodes in its annual Buyer’s Guide—though none were within ads. All three of these instances required readers to download software from barcode technology provider Scanbuy.

The other difference appears to be that the barcodes link to Wireless Access Protocol (WAP) sites, whereas the image recognition-based advertising delivers individual messages or promotions. That message may include a link to a URL but will not automatically connect the user, which also means that users do not have to have a Web browser on their phone to view the messages.

According to the New York Times, barcode usage is nearly ubiquitous in Japan, where McDonald’s customers can point their cell phones at a hamburger wrapper and get nutrition information on their screens. In Japan, the largest cell phone companies load barcode-reading software onto all new phones. Large advertising and technology companies like Hewlett-Packard are reportedly meeting next month with cell phone companies in the U.S. to advocate for the same capability.

Barcodes are “a natural extension of print,” Magazine Publishers of America president Nina Link told the Times. “How many times have you engaged with a magazine and you’ve seen something and you’ve said, “Boy, I’d really like to remember to get that information.’ And you have to remember to write down the URL.”