ONLINE MAGS: THE SYNERGY SQUAD

Byline: Peter Braunstein

NEW YORK — When successful consumer magazines launch their companion Web sites, the results tend to range from the prosaic to the audacious.
In a worst-case scenario, a magazine’s Web site can be a perfunctory affair, a URL for URL’s sake, a mere carbon copy of the paper version that replicates content and throws in some no-brainer contest or questionnaire as a token tribute to interactivity.
More savvy magazines, however, realize that a Web site can be much more than an online identical twin. It can be an alter ego, a wild side, or an expansion of the core editorial vision that draws new readers and advertising, pumps up exposure and, in some cases, even enhances the offline cachet of the magazine.
Five magazines epitomize this loftier approach to online branding in their attempts to fashion a unique and potent synergy between their online and offline incarnations.
Vibe magazine, the Rolling Stone of the hip-hop music world, typifies the road many magazine Web sites have traveled, from mere echoes of the print version to an online entity locked in independent symbiosis with its offline parent.
“When Vibe.com first started out, we were little more than an online version of the print magazine,” said Ron Richardson, director of new media for Vibe and Spin magazines. “That all changed when Emil Wilbekin took over the reins [as editor in chief] a year ago. His mandate was to bring more original content to Vibe.com. At the same time, he realized the Vibe.com and Vibe hard copy had to work more closely together, since we had been operating separately for a long time.”
Vibe.com has taken what can be dubbed the “DVD” approach to its Web site: It plays off content that appears in Vibe hard copy, but adds additional features and multimedia content that only the Web can accommodate. One example of this type of piggybacked content is Vibe’s Sade package.
In conjunction with a review of Sade’s new album in Vibe’s December issue, Vibe.com is featuring a downloadable single, a Web debut/listening party (scheduled for Nov. 10) for Sade’s new album and a contest where online visitors can win a trip to Paris where they may or may not be able to attend a live performance of the elusive chanteuse.
“She’s a squirrely one, that Sade,” confessed Richardson.
Vibe.com is presently initiating what Richardson called “a new strategy phase that, when implemented, will result in a more converged offering between Vibe and Vibe.com.”
Right now, the two divisions have reached a degree of synergy: Vibe Online is promoted monthly by a full-page teaser in Vibe, and every month, Vibe.com runs a full-page ad in Vibe, generally devoted to one artist. Meanwhile, Vibe Online solicits Vibe magazine subscriptions through prominent ad banners. But as Richardson explained, further symbiosis — especially at the advertising level — has up until now been stymied by third parties.
“For about a year and a half, we were working with a Web enabling company, OnRadio.com, that maintained our site and received a profit split,” said Richardson. “Because of that relationship, ad reps didn’t feel that they were in the loop. That relationship has now ended, and we feel as if we’re being reborn.”
Another magazine that seems to be leading the pack on the synergy superhighway is Entertainment Weekly. EW Online originally launched in 1994, but the site really started to take shape in 1997, according to Michael Small, executive editor of EW.com.
“My vision was to create a more robust site that’s integrated with the magazine,” said Small.
His editorial vision has two major components, both of which involve a vibrant symbiosis between Entertainment Weekly and EW.com. The first is a freer, from-the-hip, editorial on the site — indeed, it often seems that EW.com is like Entertainment Weekly after two martinis.
In conjunction with the recent Gay Hollywood issue, for instance, EW managing editor Mark Harris contributed a corresponding feature to “Hot Topic,” EW Online’s issue-of-the-moment column, in which he spilled the beans about “Who’s not in EW’s Gay Hollywood issue — and why.”
In the course of his Op-Ed diatribe, Harris argued that “the biggest threat to openly gay people in the [entertainment] industry is closeted gay people in the industry,” a stance that met with diverse online reader responses that EW.com appended to the actual article.
“This more personal voice works better on the Web,” said Small. “We give a lot of autonomy to Hot Topic writers. Usually they propose an idea the day before, and we just accept it. Editing is minimal.”
EW Online also provides the magazine with a vital lifeline to the vox populi in terms of reader opinion. In “Critical Mass,” the section of the magazine in which new films are scored, critics’ grades appear alongside that of EW readers, with voting conducted on the Web site.
For the November “How to Break Into Showbiz” special magazine issue, EW.com ran a contest where 2,500 prospective screenwriters submitted treatments, three of whom will be featured in the issue. It will be interesting to see how EW handles the “Recovering Your Psyche After Breaking into Showbiz” follow-up issue.
Vogue and W have their alter ego in Style.com, the recently launched CondeNet site. According to Goli Sheikholeslami, senior vice president and managing editor of Style.com: “Right now, most of the site’s traffic is going to coverage of the fashion shows, as well as the ‘Trends’ area, which has features like ’18 must-have items for fall.”‘
Style.com’s multimedia Fashion Month coverage provides not only comprehensive runway footage, but a multitude of viewing modes: streaming video, contact-sheet style photo footage or photo slide shows. What’s most notable about Style.com’s content, however, is how graphically the “voice” of the online entity diverges from the editorial tone of either Vogue or W when it comes to the no-holds-barred chatter of the Forums.
A case study is the “Models” Forum, which seems to be 80 percent Gisele hype/bashing and 20 percent everything else. A casual glance at the exchanges yields such posts as “Why is ANGELA LINDVALL’s boyfriend, HELLI, such a loser?” “Sophie Dahl — pig or cow?” “The Hiltons aren’t celebrities!” and “I was asking God for someone else besides Gisele to talk about.”
Admirably, Style.com seems to realize that Internet chat culture is a catharsis that should never be denied, only occasionally muted.
“We are completely supportive of our forums,” said Sheikholeslami. “Really, it’s only a handful of bad apples who go too far.” Just in case, Style.com has recently made its “Alert Button,” used to flag Web masters to any offensive content, more prominent.
Elle magazine’s Web synergy bears many similarities to those of its peers. Elle.com features 95 percent original content, boasts a team of 20 assigned to the Web site, including six full-time editors, and cross-promotes with Elle magazine by advertising in the hard-copy version and soliciting Elle subscriptions online.
But the feature that truly distinguishes Elle’s online strategy is its international complexion. Catching up with the 32 worldwide editions of the magazine are 14 Elle Web sites covering the U.S., Quebec, Brazil, Argentina, France, Spain, Germany, India, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Australia. Two of these, Elle Hong Kong and Elle China, just launched in late September.
“We have a dynamic team in Asia, especially,” said Danielle Paquin, executive vice president of Elle Interactive Network. “The ‘Net is growing tremendously in Asia, especially among young women. Hachette decided to go with an international, integrated ‘Net strategy that builds on the Elle brand in Asia, which already has a strong presence.”
If Elle’s online tentacles stretch out across the globe, Cosmogirl.com seems to have a virtual lock on what teenage American girls want — and that often involves Justin Timberlake of ‘N Sync.
“I’m all about inspiring girls and letting them interact with the magazine,” said Atoosa Rubenstein, editor in chief of Cosmogirl.com and Cosmogirl. “It’s not about the magazine dictating what they should think or talk about.”
Nonetheless, the Web site does occasionally get directive, as in its advice to young girls in the Justin Timberlake love ‘scopes section: “The key to dating Justin? Give him space and NEVER tell him what to do. Stubborn to the bitter end, the only one he can take orders from is his own conscience+.He loves smart girls and won’t stand for a whiner.” Ultimately, Cosmogirl’s girl-power editorial takes post-feminism to its natural end point: pre-feminism.
However, the site, which launched simultaneously with Cosmogirl magazine in June 1999, has fashioned the most innovative synergy relationship with its hard-copy counterpart of practically any teen magazine out there.
The August magazine, for instance, included a pullout calendar featuring various contests that readers could enter by accessing the Web site. On the site, readers were also able to download an answering machine greeting recorded especially for Cosmogirl by R&B trio Destiny’s Child, to the tune of: “The Cosmogirl reader you’ve called isn’t home, say your name, say your name, leave your name and number.”
Synergy coups like these have made Cosmogirl a premier online stomping ground for teen girls. According to Media Metrix, the site attracted 281,000 unique visitors in August.

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