When executives for a major magazine talk about a Web site re-launch these days they tend to mention social networking applications and other buzzwords of the moment. They may talk of supplanting subscription dollars with ads online. Not Playboy.
Bob Meyers, Playboy Enterprise Inc.’s President, Media and EVP, told Jack Myers Media Business Report in an exclusive interview that when the company re-launches a redesigned Web site planned for the second quarter of next year, it will be a more true representation of the entire Playboy brand. "For me, the online experience should be as complementary to the magazine as it is to television, or radio, or to location based entertainment or anything else that we do. It is the one area of the company that unlike any other is truly a reflection of the entire business," he said. Today’s site is filled largely with free content from the magazine, plus blogs, quizzes and promotions, as well as video and still images of naked women behind a pay wall. Revenues, Meyers says, are stronger than for any competitor, and ad revenues are up 53 percent from last year.
But Playboy.com does not intend to follow in the footsteps of other subscription sites and become free. Playboy, Meyers says, does not plan to change the revenue mix of subscription, e-commerce and advertising. He simply wants the site to become a better offering for anyone who comes, whether spurred by search, TV, a Playboy casino or the magazine.
Meyers strongly defended the strength of the magazine, couching the recent voluntary drop in guaranteed rate base (the number of readers advertisers are promised) from 3 million to 2.6 million as a retreat to quality. "You have lots of means of verifying distribution that are not particularly efficient," such as sponsored sales or continuing to deliver copies to subscribers who’ve cancelled. "They’re verified by the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulations)," Meyers said, but "all these things cost money and many are non-revenue or low revenue opportunities to increase the number of copies that you have available for readers." He also refused to concede the men’s category was beleaguered, though FHM and Stuff are shuttered, and Maxim has been losing ad pages, revenue and staff. "Playboy is still the largest-selling men’s magazine. Men’s Health is still doing very well. There’s pockets of well-produced magazines with good content that have been around awhile, that are marketed well, that people want to read and do read," he said. "There are others that have come in and made a big splash with a very light veneer of content, and after awhile people may tire of that."
CEO Christie Hefner commented at the annual UBS Global Media Conference in New York that Playboy distinguishes itself with a lifestyle brand that has the best photos of the most beautiful women, mixed with great journalism. Playboy, once said to be under threat from the 'laddie' mags, has seen ad pages and revenues rise for the first three quarters of this year over last, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. As a company, revenues are essentially flat year-over-year, at about $82.8 million through September, with domestic magazine and TV revenues both ticking down. Online revenues make up just over 30 percent of the Entertainment division’s $49.6 million in sales. But however one sees the current financial status, Meyers has a brand few others can claim, which is why the company can launch everything from the popular Girl Next Door TV show, to a recently opened Playboy megastore on London’s Oxford Street, and a 40,000-square-foot Playboy Mansion in Macao planned for 2009.
Translating the brand to a digital world is a different challenge, albeit one in which the company has strong experience. The magazine, Hefner said, was the first on the Web in 1994 and now has 5 million monthly visitors, a figure Meyers says "dwarfs" the competition. They do plan more Web-only content, he says, such as a recent story of a female passenger refused a seat on Southwest Airlines for dressing too provocatively for the airline, and who appeared undressed even more provocatively for the site. Playboy has strong mobile content deals in Europe and Asia, and in the absence of U.S. carrier deals has PlayboyMobile.com, a free phone browser of content from the Web site. "If you’re Esquire, or GQ or Maxim, then perhaps you look at the world as a print world where you look to get ancillary revenues from the Web. That’s not the world view I have," Meyers said. That’s a different tack than the myriad sites that today are giving content away to create ad inventory while looking for whatever distribution they can find. He’s also on a tough road of trying to maintain a paid niche in high-quality content that differentiates itself from pervasively available competition. Next Spring, we’ll find out more about whether the strategy can work.
For more information or to contact Bob Meyers, e-mail Martha Lindeman, SVP, Corporate Communications at Playboy Enterprises, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dorian Benkoil is a regular contributor to Jack Myers Media Business Report.