The Internet is a challenge publishers ignore at their peril but which they are advised to approach with caution all the same. And caution is still the name of the game at VNU Business Publications, Internet World's parent company, which became one of the first UK publishers to produce a second-generation Web site when it relaunched its mag.net home page last month. Second time around, you might expect more of a fanfare for the product but the company is honest enough to admit that even though it is one of the most experienced Internet publishers in the UK, it is still appraising the role cyberspace plays in its product portfolio.
VNU, a subsidiary of a large, aggressively expanding Dutch multinational, is the UK's biggest publisher of specialist business to business magazines geared to the needs of IT professionals. Add two news-stand PC magazines and a handful of financial and recruitment titles and you're looking at a combined readership of more than one million, the majority of whom are likely to have some kind of access to the Internet.
With such a wired readership, VNU might have been expected to go hell for leather into cyber publishing from the word go. But the first mag.net site, launched a little over a year ago, was treated as an experimental exercise and the latest version is still viewed as being far from the finished article. For all that, the new mag.net is impressive, with much to amuse and interest VNU readers and advertisers.
The new mag.net is an all-round improvement on its predecessor, as a serious information source and extension to VNU's existing print products and, for the first time, as a venue for more light-hearted features. For those who expect their favourite sites to be stocked with multimedia toys and digital amusements, VNU has added a "top story" called The Room. While its whereabouts aren't immediately obvious to anyone arriving via the home page URL of their favourite printed title (the most likely route to mag.net), the "lift" in the top left-hand corner of each page makes it simple to navigate.
VNU expects most visitors to spend time in The Room. It includes cartoon strips, some Viz-like humour and gadgets such as a graphical radio which can be tuned to play WAV files while you navigate the site.
However, one suspects the real interest will remain with the rich seam of news stories, feature articles and buyers' guides which VNU imports to the site from its printed products. VNU has realised that glossy A3 spreads don't work in HTML format and only serve to set modem owners daydreaming of an ISDN conection. This may make the Web pages look bland compared with their printed counterparts but for those in hurry to get the latest information this will hardly be a problem.
For those who value fast access to information, mag.net is likely to prove a winner. As well as featuring VNU's own internal newswire service for the first time, the once-cumbersome research resource has been improved by the in-house development of several powerful features based on Oracle database technology.
These will enable users to treat it as a reference service as VNU builds an electronic archive of its magazines.
A potentially even more popular feature is Personal View, a search facility that VNU has engineered using Oracle's Context text retrieval package.
Readers can browse the whole of VNU's database for information about particular technologies and, once they are fully registered users, set up Personal View to retrieve relevant articles automatically as they appear at the site.
This kind of thing is not only good news for the reader, it represents an important evolution from the common print media practice of using a Web site primarily to reinforce brand image. Eventually, as more readers have access to online facilities, VNU may be able to refresh and re-research its readership more frequently and accurately, making its circulation lists more attractive to advertisers. Even further ahead, the company might persuade its present print circulation readership to migrate entirely to electronic products.
For the time being, though, the VNU site remains an extension to the company's print products rather than an alternative and it is none the worse for that.
VNU Business Publications
Launched: October 1996
Target audience: Anyone who requires information about IT
Setup: Four Sun Enterprise Unix Servers with between 128Mb RAM and 256Mb RAM storage.
The main server supports 26Gb of disk - a further 10Gb are available for development
Design: In-house and by Matrix Systems, an ISP wholly owned by VNU
Bandwidth: 2Mb lines connected internationally via the IBM Global Network
Running cost: Over #250,000 per annum.
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