Handbag.com aims to become to one-stop women's portal

Here's a scenario you don't hear much of in the publishing world, especially in the super-walled world of magazine brands: an editor who welcomes it when you read their competitors' content. Debbie Djordjevic, editorial director of Natmags' Handbag.com, is actively encouraging her audience to draw in articles from Condé Nast, Emap, IPC and elsewhere into its newly-revamped portal for women.

As part of the Handbag relaunch, the company will introduce MyHandbag, allowing the audience to build their own corner of the web around the parent brand. 'It's basically like MyYahoo,'says Djordjevic, 'in that people will be allowed to enter their own RSS feeds. They will be able to include content from our competitors – we welcome that – and they will be able to bookmark things and create their own blogs."

It's an indication of just how much of an about turn in thinking women's publishing – like the rest of the industry – has had to do in light of the online revolution. That new thinking is to a large degree the result of Handbag, a 1999 start-up that was acquired by Natmags in October 2006 and which now boasts 1.6 million monthly unique users, according to the latest ABCe figures. Handbag does everything the glossy monthlies do – such as fashion, beauty and celebrity gossip – and gets all of the above out quicker than the weeklies. In this way, it stole a march on traditional women's publishing in recognising how aggressively the female population would eventually seize upon the web.

The Handbag relaunch will seek to do the same editorially, but ramped up with added social networking tools and new video streaming in the form of Handbag TV. Social networking may be the buzz term right now, but Djordjevic insists Handbag isn't jumping on a Facebook bandwagon and that these new elements of the site have been a year in the works. 'Handbag is not trying to be a social networking site,'she says, 'but it is using the technology that is provided by social networking to get the audience involved."

The site has 10 journalists, including editor Natasha Aiken, and is overseen by managing director Nancy Cruickshank. Djordjevic is aware of how her journalists' roles are changing through technology. 'When I joined five years ago, I took a team of producers who were into commissioning and publishing and turned them into journalists. And now we have taken the journalists and turned them into multimedia journalists. And they are all really keen to do that. They want to get out their with video cameras, they want to start editing and cutting their own film. They love blogging."

There's no confirmed price tag on how much Natmags has spent on Handbag's relaunch, but the company reportedly paid the Barclay Brothers £22m for the site and its three other female-targeted websites (getlippy.com, allaboutyou.com and gomamatoday.com) last year. It was the biggest sign, among many, that traditional magazine publishers were ready to fully embrace all things internet as everyone from IPC to Hachette took on digital directors and new portals popped up across all the major companies.

The next step is that pulling down of traditional walls built by magazine brands after years of isolation. Djordjevic says Handbag is leading the way in this regard, fully acknowledging that old loyalties to magazine brands do not quickly – if ever – translate online. The site, she says, thrives on its usefulness and is happy to take on board content from elsewhere that is equally of benefit to the reader.

'If they are going to be doing these things anyway, let's have them doing it on Handbag,'Djordjevic says. 'If they can have all their stuff from across the web sitting on Handbag, then that's of enormous value to us and to our reader. And we'll be providing a very girly atmosphere for them as well, because I do think a lot of our competitors are a lot more male-orientated and a lot more masculine. We are women online who are publishing for women online.'

Djordjevic talks of the change in women's online habits, with the site experiencing a surge in evening hits as the internet takes on TV, radio and print as the mainstay of a night in. But who are Handbag's online competitors, anyway?

'Anyone online is a competitor, because the nature of the way people use the internet is that they snack on information – they don't actually mind where the information is coming from,'says Djordjevic. 'To say that certain magazines or the Daily Telegraph are our competitors is a little naïve.'Nevertheless, she says she watches what the quality press is doing online more so than other magazines.

Djordjevic has worked in magazines for more than 20 years, starting out on fashion trade titles and moving to consumer magazines including She, Best, Wedding & Home and then Home & Ideas at IPC. In 1999, she went freelance and caught the online bug, working on a British Airways digital project for air miles collectors.

'I came here and didn't understand a word anyone was saying.'she says of the move to Handbag five years ago. 'And that's why I understand why it can be hard for editors to get their head around the web. It's a control thing. When you edit, you have control over everything. You have read and reread and proofed everything. Nothing should ever go in that hasn't been seen by the editor."

Handbag post-moderates its online audience's discussions – keeping an eye but allowing people to publish immediately to bring 'vibrancy'to the debate. But this becomes tricky when the audience turns on advertisers, the site or the editor. Earlier this year, a particularly public case of this occurred at Natmags where Country Living magazine's blogging competition turned sour with forum posters accusing editor Susy Smith of changing the rules to suit herself.

On opening the online gates to readers, Djordjevic says: 'You are giving people an outlet to disagree with you, and that's quite hard. Magazine editors find that difficult when people in their communities are discussing things they feel they shouldn't. I use the analogy of the pub landlord. A successful landlord won't agree with all the conversations in his pub, but he will know how far they can go before he bars them."

The other thing that Handbag has as well as a hefty audience is big-brand advertising. The new site is using a different content management system to be more creative in what it does editorially. At relaunch, elements of the site will be sponsored by Debenhams, L'Oreal, Nixon and British Airways – further indication of how the web is becoming a money-spinner. 'Who would have thought five years ago that those people would be sponsoring a website?'says Djordjevic.

With advertising like this and the audience share that Handbag continues to command, drinks may well be on this particular landlady.

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