Conde Nast Applies Gaming To Iconic Brand With New ‘Gourmet Live’

Conde Nast’s latest digital brainstorm mixes the DNA of a 75-year print brand with the tech skill set of a 2010 startup. Gourmet Live, an iPad app based on a real-time “game play” engine, isn’t the digitized version of a magazine. It can’t be. Gourmet isn’t coming back with an editorial soul or with anything close to the staff it took to put out the iconic magazine or the same mission. Gourmet is Conde’s past; Gourmet Live is its not-so-certain future. The new mission: get dollars directly from consumers instead of relying on advertisers.

The magazine publisher hired Activate, the new consulting partnership of Michael Wolf and Anil Dash, two months ago to find a consumer-oriented digital strategy for Gourmet‘s brand, its deep archive and its passionate fan base. They came up with a concept and a glossy working prototype that meshes new and archived content (recipe, article, photo, video, user gen) with sharing, community and location-based technology. It’s all HTML5, meant to work across devices and platforms. (The demo video is embedded below.)

Conde Nast CEO Chuck Townsend projects that Gourmet Live can bring in $20-30 million in gross annual revenue in 36-40 months. That’s based on some big ifs — if it takes off with enough of the cross-section between Gourmet mag’s 5.5 million readers and device owners with access, if it scales beyond that, and if consumers are willing to spend. Conde Nast is going to try multiple revenue models with Gourmet Live, which will be free to download: membership, a la carte after a certain number of articles, some sponsorship, and selling virtual currency.

In Townsend’s perfect world, sponsorship equals about 1/20 of the revenue. He views it as an opportunity to move away from reliance on advertising and the drag of low-cast print subscriptions. Another big if: if it works for Gourmet Live, can variations work for other titles? He sees potential for Domino, another title that bit the dust but has an enthusiast fan base.

But they aren’t moving away from the in-house models connected to existing magazines. Townsend is thrilled by the 90,000-plus downloads of the Wired iPad app at $4.99, or, as he puts it, “Ka-ching.” Downloads of the first issue surpassed usual newsstand sales but didn’t cannibalize them, he says. It shows what can happen when you tap into a connected audience, compared with GQ and its 18,000 downloads.

Townsend also sees hope for another model getting a lot of attention lately, something that brings together a broader range of content for a single price — the magazine version of cable. He’s also adopted some cable speak, talking about ARPU instead of CPMs.

He raves about the scale of Epicurious on Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and Android: 2.4 million free downloads. When I asked what kind of money they’re making from it, he quickly admitted, “Not much.” But he sees strong potential in that kind of scale.

The costs should be manageable. Incubated outside of Conde Nast, staff will be small, 10 or less to start, focused on production, not editorial. If all goes according to plan, Gourmet Live will move from a spring idea to a Q4 launch — a rapid pace for a traditional media company.

Activate goes public: Bob Sauerberg, group president of Conde Nast Consumer Marketing, said it’s not unusual for the company to work with partners or outside firms. The commission is the first public splash for Wolf and Dash, who told me in February that one of their roles would be to help companies rapidly prototype new ideas. There’s some symmetry. Wolf’s last consulting firm was McKinsey & Co., which advised Conde Nast on the cost-cutting plan that canceled Gourmet the magazine.