Fashion 2.0 | An Interactive Future for Fashion Magazines

Courtesy of Vogue (US)

Fashion spread, courtesy of Vogue (US)

NEW YORK, United States Susan Sontag once said “fashion is fashion photography.” She might have added: “and fashion photography is the magazine.”

Indeed, it’s hard to overestimate the importance of magazines to the fashion system. More than the runway, the boutique, the boulevard, or the internet, glossy physical magazines are still the primary place where fashion lives and the most powerful pathway for its transmission.

But in the first few weeks of 2009, the outlook for powerhouse fashion publishers like Condé Nast (which has almost monopolized high-end magazines) looks decidedly grim. In response to the recession, advertisers are slashing their marketing spend.

As a result, ad pages (the barometer of a magazine’s health) are plunging fast, even at leading titles like Vogue. In recent weeks, The New York Times has published a string of articles with headlines like “Prominent Magazines Lose Weight, Shedding Nearly Half Their Ads” and “When Even Condé Nast Is in Retreat,” while The Wall Street Journal reported: “Magazine Ads Evaporated in 2008, Faster as Months Went On.”

While many advertisers are cutting budgets, others have followed readers online. On the web, consumers can access timely and engaging content free of charge and advertisers can communicate at a fraction of the cost, track the impact of their message (by counting how many consumers click) and link their ads through to e-commerce sites. But the idea of magazines migrating online is problematic, not least because the current business model that underpins online publishing is not self-sustaining.

Delivering content is much cheaper online (there are no printing or distribution costs). But the content itself — which is why readers are there in the first place — remains very expensive to produce. And while online readership is rising, the web’s culture of free access to content means magazines earn nothing from online subscriptions and must cover costs through advertising alone. Unfortunately, the sale of online ad space simply doesn’t generate enough income. As David Carr from The New York Times put it, “the web has yet to match the ability of a glossy display ad to build brand image.”

Currently, many online publishers offer content that is heavily subsidized by revenue earned from ad sales at affiliated print publications. In return, the websites generate subscriptions. Even, one of the biggest websites in the industry, which produces and publishes its own unique content, is billed as “the online home of Vogue” and solicits readers to subscribe to the print magazine.

And while a growing number of fashion blogs and other online startups produce their own content inexpensively, there are many more who depend on trickle down from the traditional media. So while it’s tempting to think otherwise, the internet currently offers little solution to the implosion of ad sales at print magazines, partly because the relationship between print and online is symbiotic. When print suffers, online suffers too.

But the business case isn’t the only argument against migration online. Fashion is a tactile experience. Magazines matter because paper stock matters. Photography matters. And image quality matters. Glossy magazines deliver an experience that a webpage doesn’t. But magazines could learn a few lessons from the online space that might offer advertisers added value — and lure them back — while enriching the experience for consumers at the same time.

Back in the fall of 2007, when the September issue of American Vogue clocked a record 727 ad pages, Condé Nast launched broadband internet channel Produced through the business and marketing side of the magazine, the site was an attempt to create added value for advertisers by connecting static print ads to online commerce. Each advertiser that bought a full-page ad in the September issue qualified for inclusion on the site, where consumers could browse and shop the contents of the ads as they appeared in the magazine. Advertisers that bought multipage spreads were permitted to post additional content, like behind-the-scenes video from their campaign’s photo shoots, that appeared in a series called “Behind the Lens” and ran alongside other fashion-related video entertainment like “60 Seconds to Chic” and “Trend Watch.”

While this was a commendable attempt at innovation, for two key reasons the site failed to impress. First, the video content had no input from Vogue’s editorial side — and as a result did not sufficiently reflect the vitality of the Vogue brand. And second, the technology wasn’t adequately evolved. If a print advertisement caught their eye, readers still had to put down their magazines and visit a website, only to find that when they selected “shop” they would often click through to a website that did not offer e-commerce, but more of the same campaign imagery pasted on a webpage.

But things have changed. Both consumers and fashion brands have embraced e-commerce. And the current economic environment couldn’t be better (or more desperate) for an innovative new approach that blends the glossy, brand-building value of print advertising with the shopable and measurable value of online advertising.

In a previous article, I discussed the power of “Quick Response” or QR codes. They are next generation barcodes that can be easily printed on a physical magazine page, but function like online links. To “click” on them, you point and shoot them with your camera phone and they retrieve relevant information on your phone’s web browser. For example, in Japan, McDonald’s customers can point and shoot the barcodes on their hamburger wrapping and get nutritional information on their screens. The technology has yet to go mainstream in the US and Europe (because the software doesn’t come pre-installed on phones) but that’s all about to change, as big advertising and technology companies like Hewlett-Packard and Publicis Groupe are pushing to popularize the technology.

Meanwhile, fashion brands like Ralph Lauren and Gucci have already begun using these codes to link print advertising in magazines to mobile commerce sites. This makes glossy magazine ads something consumers can browse and shop. It also allows marketers to measure how consumers respond to their ads and monitor the results of their investment. That translates into serious added value for advertisers.

But there’s no reason QR codes should be deployed on ad pages alone. The same simple technology can also make editorial content more compelling — and help attract new readers and the advertisers that pay for their eyeballs.

Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio recently released a beautiful slow-motion fashion film called Chrysalis, created by Jez Tozer during an editorial shoot for Dazed & Confused Japan. If the magazine had printed QR codes next to the editorial, readers could have seen the film alongside the images with a point and shoot of their camera phones.

In fact, Purple Fashion magazine, perhaps the most high-gloss publication in the industry whose physical beauty approaches objet d’art, has done something similar for their new issue. For their “Best of the Season” story, photographed by Terry Richardson and styled by Christopher Niquet, Purple neatly tucked a QR code into the margins of a spread featuring Serbian model Natasa. When they point and shoot the code with their phones, readers uncover a dramatic behind the scenes video featuring Terry Richardson and Natasa at work.

Magazines that combine the glossy, tactile appeal of print with the power to deliver online video, sound, and other multimedia content is a compelling concept. But the single most powerful thing about digital technology is not multimedia. Unlike static magazines or broadcast television, the web is inherently a two-way medium that offers tremendous possibilities for dialogue.

Founded in 1969, Andy Warhol’s legendary Interview magazine — dedicated to the cult of celebrity — created a sense of spontaneity and dialogue by publishing free flowing interviews that were often unedited. Now, four decades after the first issue of Interview, advances in technology allow editors to push Warhol’s vision further and open the dialogue to readers. Using the same simple QR code technology, editors could let readers leave comments and start conversations in the metaphorical “margins” of a physical magazine that become visible only when other readers click with their phones.

But this is just the beginning. It’s time to imagine a future when magazines let readers not only read, view and comment on content, but actually participate with their icons to influence and co-create content. The forthcoming March issue of Interview features a story on Mary-Kate Olsen. What if, on the day the new issue launched, readers could use their phones to point and shoot a QR code on the cover and open a chat window that let them submit questions for Ms. Olsen to answer live?

Now that’s something that might raise the pulse of readers and the advertisers who chase them.

Vikram Alexei Kansara is a digital strategist and writer based in New York.

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  1. I hardly ever read magazines anymore since I’m less interested in editorial (unless it’s really, really good) than interviews and long articles. But I still read Purple!! I hadn’t noticed the QR code but unfortunately my phone is useless in that regard.

    The cannibalization of advertising revenue by free online content is a problem for all kinds of magazines and newspapers and I have yet to hear a viable-seeming solution from anyone.
    Actually, I’d point to Purple as an example of a magazine which has settled on one of the few viable strategies: create content people want to pay for, and keep it off the internet.
    Consumers have gotten used to free content and unfortunately this is not sustainable.

    Anjo from Malabry, Île-de-France, France
  2. “The cannibalization of advertising revenue by free online content is a problem for all kinds of magazines and newspapers and I have yet to hear a viable-seeming solution from anyone.”

    Part of it will be for online ad rates to rise. Vogue has a circulation of a million readers a month. You can easily put together a few quality websites and blogs whose demographics and reach will be the same. You can track and measure with far more accuracy how many of those people engage with the ad, and to some extent even the effect that an ad has on things such as brand association for a general item, brand recall and other things that often happen before a click. Yet the prices for advertising online aren’t anywhere near what they are for a month in Vogue.

    It won’t always be this way, but for the foreseeable future sites will max out around $30 CPM – if they’re very lucky, and very good at direct ad sales – while established magazines continue to bring in upwards of $100 CPM (American Vogue’s approximate rate).

    Fashion is finally starting to get that while they may not be the same people who subscribe to Vogue, they can find an almost identical audience online at a much lower cost for a similar reach. And they’re FINALLY starting to stop with this lie that ‘their’ customer isn’t online, or won’t buy clothes without an experience, or will think less of the brand for being *gasp* convenient to their lives. Fortunately for advertisers, online publishers haven’t called them on this and continue to offer their audiences at a bargain.

    As for solving the “problem” of free content, it’s a matter of thinking differently. Magazines are physical. You can touch them, hold them, sometimes smell them if a fragrance insert is running. People are used to paying for physical things. You can feel in a certain paperweight that it costs something to produce.

    Why should anyone pay for pixels? Start there and you start to find an answer. Perhaps it’s compiling a depth of research or information someone can’t find through a basic Google search. iTunes compiled a library that was far and beyond what you could find on filesharing sites, and they offered reliability and quality. People paid for it. Or selling a physical product. I won’t get started on ecommerce stats. People buy things online, including high ticket items. They pay for these things. Or access to a person or people who are otherwise unreachable. LinkedIn has done well for themselves by charging for limited parts of their site. Ctrl+C [print], Ctrl+V [web] doesn’t and won’t work (jury’s out on mobile).

    The sooner people give credit to the internet as a viable, yet different channel – and work with those differences instead of ignoring them or trying to change them, the more stable they’ll be in the face of change.

    YM Ousley from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  3. Magazines create value for advertisers largely because the format of a magazine ensures readers will largely flip from the front to the back, therefore guaranteeing readership and reach. The context of the paper stock, physical size, quality of photography and who else is in there, create and reinforce “image”. Remember “image” – magazines influence our perception of quality, style and the all important popularity of a fashion label or range. By consumers buying a magazine, advertisers could be comfortable that their ad would be seen in context probably three to six times. This is not the case online.

    In the online world there is so much choice and competition for the consumers attention it’s difficult to guarantee an advertiser that their message will received as consistently and as powerfully as magazines. Nevertheless, the Internet is where the eyeballs are going and the opportunity for online publishers and fashion advertisers is figure out how to build “image” online. Yes “image”.

    Time is also something that has changed dramatically online – it’s much faster and attention spans are much shorter. Many online fashion experiences try to slow down the internet consumer by making them wait for videos to load, click for more information, and read! Fashion is about “image” we need to allow consumers to view content at their speed. We also need to remove as much as possible cognitive brain functions like “click here”, go back, enter email address and get back to showing off the fashion range. Why? Because it’s the emotional response to fashion that we really want. Ever wondered why people get tired online – it’s because your cognitive brain is working overtime making decisions on simply how to navigate the web pages rather than actually ogling the content. We want people to love the fashion and get lost in it – not lost in technical Internet functions. Fashion is about the clothes and the image advertising creates. Most online sites showcasing fashion have not got that yet.

    If fashion is to work online you need to show a lot of powerful big images quickly and give the consumer control over the speed.

    That’s what I am doing with my website ( and that’s what drama magazine in the UK are doing so well. Check out their Iphone magazine ( This is where online content is going and advertisers will pay for this.

  4. the problem with magazine is that people have less time for flipping through a physical binded book. how many people can read a magazine at work? but how many people can go online and read blogs at work? people are still going to buy it if there is an emotional attachment, an experience they can’t refused, or a collectable aspect to it. however, the days of magazines as a mainstream form of communications are winding down.

  5. I have to admit I disagree with a lot of the comments here. Firstly, online advertising is far more powerful & can be appropriately measured. The Diesel adverts plastered over virtually any fashion site are far more recognizable than page after page of irrelevant Gucci adverts we always come across in print media. Also, flash animated fashion sites have been around since 2000, it’s nothing new & certainly not astounding. The reason print sales are deteriorating is because people want MORE information, not less, certainly not just images. People what genuine insight, greater depth, more knowledge, they want to digest everything they can & they want to interact in a similar vain to what I’m doing just now. The drama magazine app for iphone may not be exactly what we all have in mind, as mobile internet speed & access will increase, sites such as these will be readily accessible anyway. The most successful online resource would have to be DazedDigital, they’ve excelled online. However, it would be interesting to see how it has effected their print sales…I actually wouldn’t be surprised if their print sales have increased since the launch of DazedDigital. People are always quick to point out where the internet is ‘stealing’ business, or raping physically orientated companies of their profitable assets. It’s a load of crap, if you have a strong product, you’ll remain successful in fashion, if you don’t, pack up your bags. The fact is, Print based media need to exploit online avenues to increase their stranglehold on current readers, while attracting new ones. It isn’t just fashion magazines, look at the newspapers, timesonline, guradian & independent have excellent online resources & access to archive articles. It’s deepened their relationship with readers while providing a platform to attract unsuspecting readers through engines such as google. The fashion print media need to cotton on & fast, instead of fighting the online world, they must embrace its riches. Everybody has been saying this for years now, yet this still makes headline fashion news? For such a diverse industry, there really is a yearning for it to be pulled into the 21st century.

    me from Exeter, Devon, United Kingdom