Originally Published March 24, 1997
Ooops. Spoke too soon. “When I got in this business two and a half years ago, no one would ask that!” says Feeney, editorial director for CondeNet, the magazine company’s online identity. “That knee-jerk attitude — ‘I have a print title, therefore I must have a Web site’ — where does this relationship come from?”
The reason Feeney, 38, hears these questions so often is that Conde Nast took an inside-out approach to Web content and design. While Time Warner, through its Pathfinder site, translates magazines such as Time, People and Entertainment Weekly directly to the Web, Conde Nast gave CondeNet a different mission: create unique online services that merely draw on the company’s editorial products — including Random House books — not mirror them.
That’s why, instead of seeing individual sites for Bon Appetit, Gourmet or Fodor’s travel books, surfers find “Epicurious” sites for food and travel. And instead of dropping by GQ or Mademoiselle, they find themselves at “Swoon.”
“We are uninterested in making electronic versions of our print titles,” Feeney explains. “That doesn’t make sense to us; it seems more a vanity operation than anything else. We are in business as a business, not as a hobby. So in order to satisfy consumers, bring them back, create a climate that advertisers will be interested in and make our customers happy, we create products that work in this medium.”
As anyone who spends time regularly visiting the World Wide Web knows, Feeney’s comments border on the heretical. In the last two years, the first commandment of print publishing became “Get thyself a Web site.”
“These are people who don’t have plans, who don’t have business models,” Feeney says, dismayed at a landscape littered with junk media. “I don’t understand why they just slap things on the Web, what their motive is. They don’t even have a goal for their sites, except to say, ‘Everyone else has one and I don’t want to be left behind.’
“People say, ‘Why isn’t Vogue online?’ And I say, ‘Why would it be?’ Two years ago, no one assumed that if you had a title, it had to have a presence on the Web. I turn it around on people and say, ‘Why don’t you question your assumptions? Why are you assuming a magazine would work online?’ ”
So what is Conde Nast doing online?
Pretty clever stuff, actually.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What works well on a computer?’ ” Feeney says. “A computer searches and a computer sorts. A computer parses information in a way that allows you to organize it in a manner that is significant to you. For example, our food site, Epicurious, has a recipe database of 5,000 recipes. If I look in the refrigerator and I have tea leaves, a lemon and flat club soda, what can I do with that? Type those ingredients into our database and find out! That’s what a computer can do. A magazine can’t do that, TV can’t do that, a newspaper can’t do that.
“I have access to most of the Bon Appetit and Gourmet recipes and I put them in a database, searchable by all kinds of characteristics. Say you go to the market and the zucchini, tomatoes and basil are all fresh and you buy them. Then you pull out a cookbook and look under ‘tomato.’ The recipes don’t include zucchini and basil. Then you look through all your other cookbooks. By the time you’re done, you’re frustrated because you can’t find anything that incorporates all the ingredients you’re interested in. But type all of the ingredients into Epicurious — excluding others you don’t care for — and you’ll find a recipe.”
Elsewhere in Epicurious are subtopics such as “Playing With Your Food,” as well as restaurant reviews and a cyber-sommelier who recommends wines based on type and price. In “Gail’s Recipe Swap,” an interactive forum, readers exchange their own recipes and tips. From Epicurious Food you can also read selected Bon Appetit and Gourmet stories and columns.
On the Epicurious Travel site, the “Concierge” asks your criteria for a fabulous vacation. Golf or theater, island or mountain getaway? After giving the computer your preferences, it comes back with specific hotels that meet your requirements. The travel site jumps to story excerpts and photos from Conde Nast Traveler magazine.
Swoon, which captures lifestyle elements for men and women, is, as the name implies, relationship and romance related. Columnist “Jane Err” answers the lovelorn, while online personals and games such as “Love Match” connect you with potential mates.
“Personals are so brilliant online because you can search your preferences electronically,” Feeney says. “If you want to read individual ads, you’re welcome to, but if you want to say your dreamboat or honey is 6-4, has blond hair and blues eyes, I could find that person online in a heartbeat. That’s a very powerful use of the technology.”
From Swoon you can also read portions of Glamour, Mademoiselle, GQ and Details.
Much of the content of Epicurious Food, Travel, Swoon and an upcoming women’s health and nutrition site, “Phys,” appeals to women, who often don’t see much of interest to them online.
“Women are very purposeful on the Web,” Feeney says. “They aren’t there to kill time. They want to leave a session with a sense of having derived benefits from the time they invested. I think our sites deliver those benefits.”