Yes, No and Sort Of – the Complicated World of Personalized Magazines

Personalization, fueled by data-driven digital printing technology, is reinvigorating the direct mail economy. Brands are getting savvy at using customer data in more profound ways, so it’s only a matter of time that we’ll see this happening in a big way in the magazine industry, right?

Well, maybe not.

“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,” writes D. Eadward Tree in Publishing Executive.

Tree mentioned a recent newsletter from BoSacks that asked the salient question:

“If you could design your magazines for specific segments of your subscriber database, could you devise a revenue plan to make it profitable?”

Yes, no and sort of are the answers Tree gives.

Yes, because we see evidence of this happening already with e-commerce brands.

“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,” Tree writes.

Branded journalism like Airbnb Magazine could theoretically create personalized copies for each host, Tree imagines, that included “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.”

No, because it would be cost-prohibitive to try this with a magazine that relied on selling copies or selling ad space.

“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?” Tree asks.

Sort of, because anything’s possible. It makes sense to use this kind of highly personalized magazine in certain situations. As Tree explains, custom covers, cover wraps, and other techniques can make the magazine into a more personalized experience without costing a fortune. We’ve seen this work beautifully before.

What remains to be seen is how much personalization (clearly a direct mail tactic) a magazine can support and still be the kind of curated, well-crafted experience that magazine lovers expect. We value print more than digital for psychological reasons. And that’s part of the reason that magazines are so engaging. But if the print magazine is only a mash-up of content created by a data algorithm, is it still a magazine, or has it lost something essential? It’s an intriguing question.

Publishers continue to amaze me with their creativity in exploring new revenue models. I’m sure this is only the beginning of the discussion. Will it work? Put me down as an “only for certain things” answer.