Luxury women's magazines on the digital platform

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The September issue, which heralds the fall shopping season, is traditionally the critical edition, the key issue. Last year luxury brands, which usually lavish ads on the glossies in this make-or-break month, spent larger amounts online. Luxury magazines have responded by building out their digital presence, especially with iPad apps.

Last year -- no surprise -- was one of the worst for single-copy sales of fashion magazines, to the benefit of the online women's lifestyle sector. Luxury-oriented fashion glossies, like all other aspects of the publishing sector, have struggled in the wake of the double whammy of the recession and the industry's digital shift. Print editions in general are laboring mightily against the perception that they are an outdated content delivery system. Further, according to newly released data from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, for the first six months of 2010 the average total circulation for 440 magazines declined 2.3 percent to 313.8 million from a year earlier.

Still, there is some good news for the fashion glossies. For the first time in two years, the sector is showing signs of health. This year shows an improvement over last September's glossies (ad pages are up 24%). Twelve out of 15 of the top women's fashion magazines sold more September issue ad pages than a year ago. And the iPad has emerged as the magazine industry's content delivery white knight, creating interesting multimedia possibilities on the platform where few existed a year earlier.

"The iPad has been a game changer for Zinio," Jeanniey Mullen, the Global Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Zinio LLC and VIVmag, said in an email. Zinio, the world's largest online newsstand, and VIV magazine, its first all-digital magazine, targets high income, sophistacated readers -- the same attractive audience targeted by the September glossies.

"As the first full-color, large-screen mobile device, the iPad has enabled digital magazines to be enjoyed in a brilliant and vibrant mobile capacity," Mullen said. "We see the iPad as the lynchpin for creating change and opening the minds of publishers and advertisers to new business growth options." The digital newsstand Zinio, according to Mullen, adds between 50-100 new titles a week.

Opinions vary. Magazine purists who wax nostalgic about the tactile experience of reading a print edition believe that the buzz surrounding digital luxury magazines is all hype. "To me the words luxury and digital are an oxymoron, especially in the women's magazine field," Dr. Samir Husni emailed me from The University of Mississippi, where he teaches. "Technology has made everything seem to be in the NOW, one minute you see it the other you don't ... Luxury on the other hand is more associated with things of lasting value, things you cherish and things you want to keep.  None of these attributes exist in a digital format. VIV is a nice experiment of what can be done on the digital platform, but in no shape, form or use is it close to a luxury women's magazine."

BuzzMachine's Jeff Jarvis is even more critical. "The iPad is not, not your salvation," he writes in a post titled Whither Magazines (subtitled, provocatively: avoid Steve Jobs' siren call). "Oh, it’s nice and elegant but your editors are leading you over the lemming's cliff because they think the public wants the world packaged just as they used to package it."

Conde Nast -- the glossiest of glossy publishers -- is in the midst of an overhaul of its decades-old ad-based business model into one more more brand- and consumer-centric on a variety of platforms. As the September issues arrive in the next week or so on the newsstands, iPad applications of fashion mags -- particularly those from the house of Conde Nast -- are being released weekly. Conde Nast Digital has released iPad app editions for Vogue, GQ, Vanity Fair and, last week, Glamour ("Photos and exclusive video featuring Justin Bieber and Jennifer Lopez, plus beauty-how to's and more!"). W Magazine plans to release their own iPad app in February.

According to early data released by Conde Nast, iPad apps are delivering on reader attention more than other media experiences. And according to data from metrics firm Flurry, interaction times on Vanity Fair and GQ apps increased. Ad buyers, not surprisingly, remain skeptical until solid, relaible metrics are available. "I want to know if users are spending more time with advertising messages," Adam Kasper, the senior VP-digital innovation for Havas Digital, told AdAge. "People spending more time with apps than magazines is interesting, but it's not something that's going to make me want to shift budgets just yet."

"VIVmag does more than (appeal to readers senses) through its paperless existence, where readers are consumed and become part of the experience," said VIV magazine's Mullen. All in all, the women's luxury magazine app experience is far from perfect. The e-commerce items on offer at the Glamour iPad app are thin. Reader reviews of magazine iApps thus far have been so-so. To be fair, though, it is quite early in the game.

"The ability to read, watch, and interact with the magazine's content, and experience luxury in an all-digital platform across multiple devices is a new standard," said Mullen. "Readers want a multisensory experience and advertisers benefit from introducing their products and brands to consumers in this platform because they are now being seen in ways that consumers choose to look at their information on mobile devices and readers which are the highest growth channels for engagement."

Shopping, clearly, is key to success and attractive to potential advertisers. “If you’re a fashion and beauty magazine and you’re selling a September issue, I think the reader expects, ‘Of course I expect to be able to look and shop that picture,’” Glamour's editor in chief Cindi Leive said while demonstrating the new Glamour app.   

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