Thursday, March 19, 2009

Time MINE: Online Lessons Creep Into Print Content

With newspapers and magazines folding virtually every week now in the face of a global economic crisis Clay Shirky is comparing the scope of change being experienced by the rise of online publishing's challenge to newspapers to the tumultuous change sparked by the rise of printing presses nearly five hundred years ago. From my perspective I think that the scope is actually far broader than that. As I outline in the Content Nation book, the scope of change fomented by the rise of online publishing is likely historical on an even broader scale, a scale perhaps never seen since the rise of centralized publishing by the world's first recorded civilizations thousands of years ago.

Whatever the ultimate breadth of the challenges facing traditional publishers, one thing is for certain: timidity in addressing the challenges presented by online publishing has not served them well. This timidity reflects not just in the online portals offered by most traditional media companies but as well in their print strategies. You'd think that some of the lessons learned from online publishing would have worked their way into print offerings a long time ago. Yet more than two years after Wired Magazine offered its users the ability to put their own photo on a customized cover of their magazine (part of a promotion by Xerox), the mass customization of print remains largely a novelty in the eyes of most mass media publishers. But there are glimmers of hopeful signs that publishers may be getting ready to push further on into print customization.

One recent sign of hope for mass customization is a new offering from Time, Inc.'s consumer media group called MINE, a service that allows people to build their own custom magazines from articles found in eight of their leading consumer publications. The actual customization seems to be quite limited at this point - you may specify your address, your age, up to five Time-owned magazines that you'd like to have content from and provide answers to four questions that indicate your presumed tastes (Like sushi or pizza? Sing in the shower? Would you like to learn juggling or celebrity impersonation? Would you like to have dinner with Leonardo da Vinci or Socrates?). From these choices Time will pop out articles tailored to your profile in five issues of your MINE magazine print or digital form, all for free (Lexus appears to be the major sponsor for this effort).

On the scale of today's print offerings this is a fairly bold experiment, enabling Time brands normally built up separately through their various flagship publications to comingle in a common publication. It echoes in some ways the use of The Wall Street Journal's branded business content in some local newspaper editions, but with a level of customization not seen heretofore the editorial side of a magazine cover. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Guy Kawasaki notes tongue in cheek in a recent Twitter message that perhaps it's even a copy of his Alltop's "online magazine rack" of popular topics concept. While I wouldn't discount that self-flattering comparison of Guy's entirely, I think that it's far more likely that Time has finally started to consider a broader range of lessons from online publications - albeit a bit late in the game - and how they may apply to their traditional strengths as direct marketing mavens.

The truth is that Time has been customizing both editorial and ad copy for years based on zip codes and other key demographic groupings. It may not be apparent to the typical person flipping through Sports Illustrated or whatever, but oftentimes they're highly tailored publications. With the technology in place already to do this type of customization on a per-title basis, it's a relatively small step to stage content on a more granular level from multiple titles into MINE issues. So in most respects MINE is an evolutionary step towards enabling multi-branded content in one delivery package. In a way MINE is akin to a "my [name of portal]" type of customization that has been part of online offerings for more than a decade - not only just evolutionary from a print perspective but old, old news from an online perspective.

So while MINE is a positive development, why is it that it is taking traditional publishers so long to develop business models that make more efficient use of print technology as a content delivery system? I for one don't believe that print is at all a dead medium: it's just a horribly neglected medium that has been allowed to die in the hands of very inefficient business models as all of the publishing efficiencies flow to online venues. Reprint services demonstrate every day that print can be a highly effective and profitable targeted communications medium. Yet most publishers derive single percentage digits of their revenues from custom printing. Hmm, tiny slivers of highly profitable printing versus huge swaths of increasingly unprofitable printing...what's wrong with this picture?

It's great that Time is trying out the market for custom aggregations of its own content, but let's he honest - publishers need to be far, far more aggressive in packaging their content in personalized publications tailored for individuals. Unfortunately for some publishers, the greatest opportunities in custom printing lie with those who are willing to let other business models drive the aggregation technologies that make that possible. Some of those business models may yet wind up in the hands of major publishers, but it's far more likely that after years of whining and wrestling, newspaper and magazine publishers will finally surrender to the notion that enabling their content to be licensed through whatever print or print-like electronic vehicle services their audience most effectively is going to be the most profitable and effective way for their print-formatted content to gain exposure. Applying the lessons of the Web to print must be a priority for print publications to survive and to thrive.

While I agree with Clay Shirky that the triviality of making electronic copies of content has changed the economics of the publishing business fundamentally, until some electronic medium has the simplicity, ease and readability of print publications there will be a highly exploitable market for print. In many instances people love to curl up in a time of relaxation to catch up with a print publication, oftentimes on a weekend or during travel. It's a luxury to spend time reading "unplugged" content - a luxury that will only be spent on a handful of print publications. Why not enable people to put whatever content will be of interest to them into that luxury experience? Branded portals for publishers are becoming less and less of a driver for building online revenues: why shouldn't publishers become more aggressive in putting their audiences in the driver's seat for aggregating the content that's of interest to them in print as well?

So kudos for Time testing the waters for their MINE publication, but I do hope that major publishers will finally begin to see the light and start enabling the printing of massively customized print and print-formatted publications that aggregate content from whatever sources interest their audiences the most. The result will be far higher ad rates, far higher returns on investment and a much more healthy print publishing business in the long run. Let's stop allowing printing presses to go dark in major cities just because the one publishing company running them cannot build a business model to support them. Let those printing presses role with whatever content will command the highest interest from audiences from whatever sources produce it, and the money will follow with due haste.
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