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Internet Continues to Puzzle BTB Pubs

NEW YORK — The Internet remains a conundrum for circulators at business-to-business magazines.

Consumers largely are reluctant to pay for information online. Differentiating content between the print and Web channels is unresolved. Proliferating anti-spam legislation offers more challenges.

Moreover, frequency of e-mail blasts still worries publishers wary of eroding their list's responsiveness. Privacy and opt-out questions are as alive as ever. Heightened security measures like filters and firewalls, especially in government, have raised bounce-back rates.

“The Internet has made the role of circulation managers all the more challenging,” Joanne Wheatley, vice president of circulation at VNU Business Publications USA, New York, told attendees last week at the Folio:Show here.

So what are the various publishers doing to cope?

Take VNU, a Dutch company with titles like Adweek, Brandweek and Billboard. The Internet will help open some international markets for its controlled-circulation publications. Customization of content to segmented audiences online is under plan. It will test delivery of 10 publications in digital formats, particularly PDF.

Also, two to three undisclosed advertisers have shown interest in embedding audio and video in Billboard online as a multimedia component to the magazine.

VNU is lucky in that the circulation and online media functions of its U.S. business publications unit are combined. This lets the department leverage its online assets for the offline. So, it has found custom online newsletters with single-advertiser sponsorships are popular.

But VNU's online newsletters are threatened. To avoid getting classified as spam under a harsh California anti-spam law taking effect Jan. 1, the publisher has sent e-mail requests for online newsletter subscribers' city, state and ZIP — data it lacks. It wants to weed out California subscribers.

“That could, in effect, shut down our e-newsletter business if we don't get enough locations,” Wheatley said.

PostNewsweek Tech Media, publisher of Government Computer News, FOSE and Washington Technology, has quandaries, albeit not on the scale of the larger VNU.

“We aren't doing anything [new] online because we haven't seen a model that makes money yet,” said Maxine F. Minar, chief operating officer of PostNewsweek.

The issues are many. Ad agencies are asking for more stringent reporting on circulation effectiveness. Another bugbear is how to add value to online content. Firewalls are becoming a huge irritant, more so because Government Computer News goes to federal employees.

“We've seen the bounce-back rates of things not getting through increasing,” Minar said. “To us, it's a much bigger issue than opt out.”

And PostNewsweek did not know why its newsletters bounced. Only when some subscribers complained they were not receiving their e-mail newsletters did the circulation department learn the reasons.

“We're constantly trying to understand what people are doing,” Minar said. “We're continuing to understand the technology which is being used. A lot of it is just listening and reading the customer service report.”

IDG's CXO Media Inc., the Framingham, MA, publisher of CIO, is testing paid digital subscriptions for CIO, and IDG is doing the same for Network World and Computer World.

“We're definitely not looking at it as a replacement for controlled circulation,” said Carol Spach, senior vice president of circulation at CXO.

Spach said all her company's content is online for free. It is contemplating putting certain areas behind registration to gather more data on the readers. Also, there is interest in forming clubs online offering different levels of service.

PennWell Corp., publisher of 40 BTB titles for industries like oil and gas, waste, dental, defense and fiber optics, is equally gung-ho on the Internet. Five company publications soon will go digital, with plans for seven more in the next three months. About 5 percent to 20 percent of the circulation will move online.

This will produce “massive cost savings,” said Gloria S. Adams, corporate director of audience development at PennWell. “We'll save in the multiple thousands of dollars for the books that have international circulation.”

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