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Why are successful online businesses launching print titles?

It’s been likened to getting water to flow upstream, or unscrambling an egg. But however back-to-front it sounds, in an era where print publications have flocked to the web to cut cost and find ways to cash in on online income, there are pure play website publications which have done the exact opposite by branching successfully into print.

While this may not signal a revival of the golden years of print publications, it is worth taking a closer look at those players that have turned the digital revolution upside down. Piet van Niekerk takes a closer look.

In the UK, premier online luxury fashion retailer Net-a-Porter, which launched in 2001, launched its bi-monthly glossy Porter magazine in February 2014. Sold for the equivalent of £5 in 60 countries and 220 cities across the world, the arrival of the new fashion print baby is said to have caused quite a stir in the corridors of Vogue. Not only has the Net-a-Porter brand extended its reach with an additional platform; the magazine has further established the Net-a-Porter brand as a leader in the world of fashion.

Facilitating the launch of its print title is the fact that Net-a-Porter has been collecting data about its costumers for more than a decade. By understanding the person who pays for goods online, it is better equipped to decide which stories to tell and should be able to cash in on magazine sales. While the trendy crowd at Net-a-Porter are tight-lipped about their debut circulation figures (due out in early February) or even how they will measure their success, one thing is certain, they chose print to build and extend their brand because, as editor-in-chief Lucy Yeomans puts it: “Women love print…and there’s something incredibly luxurious about it”.

In the same vein, the editor of the technology news website PandoDaily’s Pando Quarterly, Paul Carr, describes print as the ideal format for readers to take in long form articles, while “improving data retention and adding more credibility and clout to serious reporting”. The publisher of Airbnb’s Pineapple magazine, Christopher Lukezic shares a similar philosophy: “Print is still the best medium for telling stories in words and photographs.”

Pineapple launched as recently as November 2014, so it’s still early days when it comes to measuring the magazine’s success. In this case, like with many other brand extensions, monetary value is not always the motivator for merging into print. 

The rationale for Airbnb’s print product was to inspire existing customers to travel and explore more, while also bulking-up the Airbnb brand. Published in-house and – at least for now - free of advertising, Pineapple is described by Lukezic as a magazine “about the connections that our community make in the environments where they live or travel.” He adds: “For us, print was the perfect medium to tell these stories…we hope that people look to Pineapple as an inspiring source of travel content and find it useful when planning their trips.”

It’s important that whichever channel is used – digital, print or social – the values and ethos of the publication remains intact and clearly communicated. Washington-based website Politico, which launched in 2006 with an innovative style of delivering nonpartisan political news fast and fairer than competitors, did not deviate from their online philosophy when they launched the Politico magazine towards the end of 2013. Like branching out into video, audio and social media feeds and even moving “back” to printing, their “fundamentals have not changed”, says Jim VandeHei, co-founder and executive editor.

Dr. Samir Husni of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi says he is not at all surprised by the web-to-print trend. In fact, he predicts this trend to only escalate. “The reader is platform agnostic. To reach the entire market, online brands will have to include print.” Apart from Net-a-Porter, he also lists Allrecipes.com who has started a print magazine and now have annual sales of almost 900,000. “It’s happening across the world, not only in the UK or America, but also in China.”

Dr. Husni feels strongly that the move to print is not all about nostalgia - as some commentators may allude to - but also makes good business sense in most cases. He references sneakernews.com and theatlasmagazine.com who have also branched into print in recent months. “These entities did not see the money (from advertisers) before they went into print.”

In what he calls the “welfare info society”, people expect to read online content for free but are prepared to pay for print. On top of this the reader does not experience print advertising as intrusive (which is more often than not the case with online) but rather as part of the experience. “In print, ads are not ignored. Online, it interrupts your experience. Advertising in print is like living in a house and you move from room to room at your own will. Online advertising is like being kicked off your own couch.”

But he also underlines the universal theme in all of these online to print mergers. The quality of content and editorial integrity stand central. Whether it’s a “focus on the elite and not on the masses” as in the case of Politico magazine, the 20 million strong Airbnb community or the brand-aware Net-a-Porter following, readers gravitate to sources of meaning and understanding. Print provides a framework for this, constructed from visual elements and the written word.

While online products – similar to radio – are immediate, print provides a dais for meaning and understanding that remains superior to the web.

We recently launched the new FIPP.com (in beta, while doing live testing and refinements). The relaunch is not only about look and feel, but even more so about us providing a platform to further enable the sharing of ideas, insights and opinions within our global network. If you have a story to tell, or are interested in contributing to FIPP.com on a regular basis, get in touch with our communications manager, Amy Duffin.

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