Are Fully Personalized Magazines in Our Future? It’s Complicated.
With its flexibility and its ability to produce small batches, digital printing is transforming book publishing, direct mail, product packaging, and even the garment industry. But it has hardly laid a finger on magazine publishing.
The technology enables publishers who have sufficient content and subscriber data to create “a unique magazine for every reader,” fellow pundit BoSacks noted recently in his newsletter.
But is there a future in which publishers will use data-driven printing to “change every ad and every piece of content for every reader,” he asked his readers. Or, more realistically, is there profitable potential in customizing certain ad and/or editorial pages?
Here’s my answer to my friend Bo: Yes, no, and sort of. Let me explain.
Here’s how heavily or fully personalized magazines could succeed in the near future:
ZEB, a Belgian clothing retailer, has been sending 150,000 of its best customers a 12-page “magazine” with a striking feature: No two copies are alike. Each copy speaks to the customer by name in their native language, highlighting the brands and products that are best suited to them based on their purchase history, age, and other characteristics.
Now, imagine marrying that concept with the booming trend of brands creating real magazines to enhance customer loyalty.
The REI co-op, for example, is replacing its catalog with a magazine focusing on environmental journalism – presumably seeing that as a better way to engage with its outdoors-oriented clientele. A customer’s purchase history and place of residence could be used not only to determine what product promotions she sees but also which article is featured on the cover, the cover image, and what kind of gear reviews and advice articles are printed in her copy. Data could be used to customize sidebars with such information as the list of Superfund sites in her state or the distance and drive time from her home to the nearest dark-sky parks.
Copies of Airbnb Magazine sent to rental sites could include a section specifically for that home – containing “house rules,” a guide to nearby stores and services, fun places to visit, and other information that would not need to be updated frequently.
A cruise line could create memento magazines for its passengers, featuring lots of photos from the actual cruise they were on, especially photos of the recipients themselves, and the side trips and activities in which they participated. Each magazine could feature information about the company’s other cruises, ships, and cruise locations that are most relevant to each passenger, depending upon their interests and previous cruises.
Ebay could harness its massive trove of photos and purchase data to create a must-read for its customers and dealers. A collector of PEZ dispensers might see page after page of – guess what? – PEZ dispensers that were recently sold or listed, along with data about price trends and the volume of sales. PEZ dealers would happily pay for advertising, or even their expert commentary, to appear on those pages.
You might have noticed something about all of those “Yes” examples: None involve traditional consumer magazines.
Frankly, I can’t envision any scenario in which consistent and widespread customization of magazine pages comes close to making sense for publishers that earn most of their revenue from selling copies and/or advertising. What magazine could pass along the added costs to its readers – which could easily top $20 annually per subscriber for a monthly magazine? Or to its advertisers, for that matter?
I expect the pioneering work in customized magazines will come from the world of direct marketing, from companies that are already harnessing their in-depth customer and prospect data to create hyper-targeted digital campaigns and personalized snail-mail promotions. They will happily spend a few dollars per copy on a publication that creates a significant, measurable lift in sales.
Traditional publishers won’t get fully on board with data-driven print until there’s significant demand for ad customization and the infrastructure to handle it – as well as decreases in the costs of digital printing, content creation, and data management.
But don’t call me a digital-printing naysayer. I’ve used the technology for several projects that would not have been economically feasible with the offset printing process that is still almost universally used for magazines – such as going back to press for 250 copies that an advertiser needed.
And this factoid convinces me that publishers’ use of digital printing will increase: I work with a publication for which sponsors will now pay more for a cover wrap sent to a targeted 1% of the magazine’s circulation than for a full-page ad in all copies. If we magazine publishers keep pushing spray-and-pray advertising to clients who know exactly whom them want to reach and with what message, direct mail will (continue to) eat our lunch.
Here are a few real-world tips for taking advantage of the technology:
- Focus on the easy, high-value stuff. Forget about customizing regular pages inside the magazine. The least expensive and highest-impact uses of digital printing in magazines tends to be on the outside – on the cover, a cover wrap, or a polybagged outsert.
- Talk to your printer. Find out what’s working for other clients and what capabilities the printer can offer.
- Think small. You can now do things that weren’t practical just a few years ago, such as customizing the cover and including an insert only in copies that are given to event attendees or mailed to advertisers.
- Think differently. I’ve seen my production colleagues print six months’ worth of cover wraps to save money, only to throw half of them away when the creative needed to be altered. Digital printing makes it feasible to use just-in-time printing and to test multiple offers on the same issue -- and then to try something different the next time.