When babycenter.com was born in 1997, the parenting e-zine reveled in the cost savings to be found in cyberspace. No postage rates or paper bills to worry about. Ink? So yesterday. So it comes as quite a surprise that eight years later, at a time when the magazine industry is falling over itself to boost its presence online, that BabyCenter has launched a version of its popular Web site on -- gasp -- paper.
As wired as the world is today, there is relief, it seems, in turning pages the old way. BabyCenter researchers visiting readers' houses last year saw shelves full of books on parenting. "Then we'd notice the stack of parenting magazines in the living room," says BabyCenter President Mari J. Baker. In September the e-zine launched a paper magazine with stories on eating habits during pregnancy and chic maternity clothes. Sticking exclusively to online, says Baker, would leave too many ad dollars on the table.
Traditional magazines from Time to Playboy years ago started cyberspace versions to keep up with the demand for round-the-clock news updates and online communities. Now the tables have turned. Upstart Internet publishers, helped by low costs that go with signing up their online members, are venturing into the print world they once viewed as an albatross of paper and distribution expenses. Besides BabyCenter, the new Web-to-print ventures include a magazine devoted to Google, WebMD the Magazine, spun off from Web site WebMDHealth Corp., and AlwaysOn, a print version of the tech Web site. Consumers bounce on and off the Web, so cyberpublishers must "surround the readers and be wherever they are," says independent consultant Gerry L. Ginsburg.
Even with online subscribers to leverage, there's no guarantee, of course, that these new entries will stick. Most print magazines don't survive for more than a few years. The few online brands that have tried print editions shuttered them. Ziff-Davis (YHOO) began publishing Yahoo! Internet Life in 1996 but pulled the plug six years later, after the dot-com bubble burst. Expedia Travels met the same fate in 2001. There's more art than science in figuring out which brands can transfer to print. While Yahoo offered topics that were perhaps too general -- ranging from online shopping to privacy -- Sandhills Publishing Co. in Lincoln, Neb., launched quarterly Google (GOOG) with articles focused on mining the Web portal for fun and profit.
Successfully moving from bytes to pulp requires special articles and photos that neither compete with nor mimic online content. "You have to give the reader a reason to pick up the magazine," says Ginsburg. WebMD the Magazine includes checklists of questions readers can tear out and take to doctor appointments. "The magazine is designed for people waiting 20 minutes and to help them prepare," says Wayne T. Gattinella, president and CEO of WebMDHealth, which distributes 1 million copies of the bimonthly free to 400,000 waiting rooms.
Any online-only magazine is missing out on a lot of readers. According to researcher InsightExpress LLC, 68% of consumers don't read any magazines online. Of that group, 54% say they shun them because they're inconvenient, while 47% say they don't like banner ads and pop-ups.
Advertisers, too, still have a soft spot for print. People are more engaged reading magazines than they are online, says Andrew Swinand, senior vice-president at Starcom MediaVest Group, the media strategy arm of ad agency Publicis (PUB). When readers put in the effort to digest a magazine, they are also apt to read an ad, says Swinand: "More synapses are firing in the brain."
Even in an age when going paperless is a virtue, Web publishers find the physical presence of paper brings credibility. That's one reason why Tony Perkins, founding editor of the technology site AlwaysOn, last March launched a quarterly magazine distributed to a mix of tech companies, professional associations, and individuals paying $39 a year. Perkins credits the magazine with goosing demand for his $49-a-year advanced online subscription, which offers premium content. It's attracting about 1,000 takers a month, vs. 100 before he launched in print. The print version is also attracting blue-chip advertisers including Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Audi, and palmOne, which shell out $50 per 1,000 print readers -- vs. less than $20 to reach the same number online.
These Webzines are also simply pursuing logical brand extensions. In BabyCenter's case, the print magazine is cashing in on its popular online name. Acquired by Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) in 2001 (the magazine says it maintains editorial independence and carries competing ads), BabyCenter's traffic of 4 million monthly visitors makes it the top site of its kind, says research firm comScore Networks Inc. But there are only so many places on its site to advertise. Now, BabyCenter is publishing different versions of the magazine aimed at women in various stages of pregnancy and child rearing. The expectant mom gets a magazine with articles on delivery; three months after the birth, she gets a version with ads and articles related to nursing and diaper rash.
Marketers love that kind of targeting. Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp. boosted its spending with the publisher by 20% through the print magazine, putting half-page ads in the edition aimed at mothers of newborns and running full-page ads in later editions when the baby is on solid food. Earl Justice, Beech-Nut's senior product manager, says a magazine is a "more personal interaction with mothers." Clearly, cyberpublishing is where the world is headed -- but it looks as if that magazine pile in the living room will be around for a while.
By Louise Lee