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 Style.com, 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 shopvogue.tv. 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.