Page turners

While on-line magazines cannot contain glossy images like their print ancestors, they can have stimulating interactive features.

Putting a conventional magazine on to the Internet is a complicated process. There’s more to on-line magazines than simply exporting page layouts from QuarkXPress into HTML. Aggressive repurposing of both design and editorial is needed for a traditional magazine to work successfully on-line.

If this process weighs in as a con for an established title, the pros are that a website is an excellent marketing and distribution resource, as well as an extension to the brand. Jockey Slut and Sleazenation are two titles from Swinstead Publishing with strong brand images that have recently had new and revamped websites launched. Gareth Jenkins, head of new media at Swinstead Publishing, explains the difficulties. “In my experience, long articles and high resolution images do not work on the Internet and getting this across has been a real bone of contention. We limit on-line articles to a maximum of 350 words, which can leave writers and editors grumbling about their features being butchered. Now we are commissioning more and more short Web-exclusive articles. Image quality is equally contentious; our primary concern is ease of access through short download times, though this has to be offset by an accurate representation of artists’ and photographers’ work, particularly in the case of the gallery section. In terms of editorial, the Web has allowed us to reinforce and expand our content to incorporate music, animations, video and live events,” says Jenkins.

Static, text-based sites can be successful, but only if they’re offering specialised subject matter. The Net is dynamic and interactive, so editorial and design needs to be tailored along those lines. Just offering pages of text will soon have viewers clicking out. Audiences need a reason to go to a site, stay there and, crucially, want to come back. Editorial should be tight, fresh and updated regularly. Layouts, type and graphic elements, so easily defined in print, can change radically depending on the user’s computer and browser. Working within those constraints across various computer platforms is the true art of the Web designer.

Ziptang.com is targeted at the UK Asian population, offering both editorial and access to chat rooms. “The biggest reason for us to create an on-line magazine rather than a print one was interactivity,” explains Farheen Khan, managing director of Ziptang.com. “We wanted to have our users interact with each other and us. With the Web you lose viewers if the site is not offering a unique user experience,” adds Khan.

Key to creating an interactive website is the understanding that from the server side the Web is still technology lead. Ziptang.com has a thorough knowledge of Internet systems. Khan explains: “Ziptang is database driven. Our writers can upload copy from anywhere in the world and our content management system automatically publishes Web pages and updates the site several times a day. Flash 4 has made it possible to maintain both our design and brand integrity and have a dynamic and interactive site, using low bandwidth.”

To remain platform independent, Ziptang also uses Java based software to host its chat rooms and Quicktime for video and audio. Interestingly, the site is outputted in XML, rather than HTML, so content can easily be repurposed for delivery to WAP phones and palmtop devices. “We have tried to be as flexible as possible with future technology developments so that we benefit from their potential,” adds Khan.

Technology is only part of the equation, as you still need the concept in the first place and the know-how to market it. Due to launch in September is Defining Edge, an on-line shopping resource for designer homeware, coupled with independent editorial content. Publicity for the site works through a PR company and affiliate partner sites, as well as an on-line technique known as viral marketing, sometimes aptly referred to as “word-of-mouse”. Visitors registering at the holding page are encouraged to nominate two friends for a prize draw; the point is to build up a critical mass of contacts to spread the word, creating a buzz that attracts new users. Closer to the launch they plan to also use direct marketing and advertising.

Ziptang.com, although already launched, has its own ongoing program. “Ziptang’s marketing strategy is very focused and targeted. Mostly it is event based, either through Ziptang organised events or co-promotion with the traditional media companies, like the Asian TV channels and print media,” says Khan.

Marketing can only go so far towards success. Ultimately, the Web is new territory and what works still hasn’t been defined and tested long-term. Susanna Powell, magazine editor of Defining Edge, elaborates: “Establishing a media industry on the Internet is an unknown quantity and no one really knows what to expect, since there are few examples to follow.

“The huge void that exists at the moment between publishing material on the Internet and working on a traditional magazine means that we are now responsible for shaping the future of the industry. It’s a scary prospect, but very exciting at the same time and one I am champing at the bit to explore and develop,” she adds.

The Internet has provided a forum for developing and marketing ideas, allowing an increase in magazine sites, both start-ups and crossovers from print. Some will work, but most won’t: it’s a gamble. It’s a safe bet that the on-line magazines that do succeed will be those with a strong brand, which are adept at working creatively with constantly developing Web technology.

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