Will Digital-Only Save Your Magazine?

Where's the Logo? The Aftermarket brand is played down on its Web page.

Where's the Logo? The Aftermarket brand is downplayed on its Web page

Yesterday the wires buzzed briefly with the news that Advanstar will be converting one of its print titles, Aftermarket Business, into a digital-only format. Is this a brilliant leap into the new-media world, or a stop-gap attempt at survival?

I’ll admit I’m not a big fan of digital magazines—i.e., electronic formats that aim to replicate the look and feel of print on your computer screen—but there is certainly a place for them as companions to print products.

But when the print product itself is eliminated, does a digital version still make sense? Having spent a frustrating year myself trying to make a digital-only magazine take off, I’m inclined to doubt it. But let’s look at what Advanstar has planned.

According to its press release, the company has “developed a new state-of-the-art digital format that far exceeds the print experience.” Hmm, will it make coffee for me? Probably not, but I’ll bet you can click on the ads to get to the advertisers’ Web sites, and the advertisers can get their leads right away (what Advanstar refers to trendily as “real-time” delivery). And maybe there will even be some embedded videos. Plus, that monthly electronic magazine will “be enhanced with the latest technology to improve navigation and readability.” Cool. But that’s not all. Readers will also “receive electronic delivery of alerts and twice-weekly e-newsletters.”

How very . . . 2004. Would it be unfair to suggest that Advanstar is showing a certain lack of imagination here?

Though the press release is replete with variations on the words electronic and digital, the magazine is still stuck in the print world. Electronic editions and e-mails have been part of the print package for most publishers for years. Taking away the actual print element doesn’t mean you’ve become a new-media pioneer. It’s just another, lesser, version of print.

My guess—and it’s strictly a guess, as I have no inside knowledge of the company—is that the magazine is suffering from a classic dilemma for legacy print producers hemmed in by years-old decisions about Web strategy. As part of the company’s automotive group, Aftermarket Business is one of six or so books that contribute to the company’s portal-style Web site, SearchAutoParts.com. I’d also guess, based on how the magazines’ brands are downplayed on the site, that there is some degree of division between the group’s Web team and its magazine teams. So it may be that, for reasons of corporate policy or departmental territorialism, more innovative and exciting ways for the Aftermarket staff to take their brand online are closed off to them.

There may also be some element here of Jeff Jarvis’s “Cash Cow in the Coal Mine” phenomenon. Maybe instead of cutting the expenses of print and postage to maximize what’s left of the magazine’s ad revenue, Advanstar would do better to wipe the slate clean and try something completely different. Why not let the Aftermarket staff start their own online product and try using new Web 2.0 and social media tools to revive their brand? Would it cannibalize SearchAutoParts? Probably. But as Jarvis might say, better to cannibalize yourself than have someone else do it.

Now there may be vital aspects to this story that I’m missing, and Aftermarket Business might well be on the verge of a big bump up. I hope so. But as would-be new-media strategies go, I don’t recommend this one.