Please join my thought experiment on print publishing

Why are advertisers putting so much of their money in digital and generally leaving print?

One big reason is that advertisers can do so much more with digital ads, both in targeting and in tracking.

But why is that limited to online? What if we could change printed magazines to make them more like a page on a website?

Targeting ads on web pages is enabled by all the spooky demographic and psychographic data the ad system has on the visitor. As you know, you’re being tracked all the time, and your online profile says a lot about you — what you buy, what you read, where you spend your time, what you’re interested in, what you’re likely to click on, etc.

All this data is being collected so advertisers can find exactly the right audience for their product or service. If the advertiser wants an audience of 50+ year old men with a net worth over $1 million and an interest in retirement, the ad system can easily accommodate that because it has access to that data on a huge number of prospects. (I’m glossing over the details, but you get the gist.)

This is how Facebook and Google attract all the advertisers. They have tons of data and can create very targeted audiences. Especially Facebook, since you have to login to Facebook. Their spooky analytics know way too much about you.

But what if a publisher had all that spooky demographic info in his print fulfillment system, so he could target print ads just as precisely as a website can target digital ads? To make the concept a little easier to follow, imagine Facebook wanted to do a print magazine. Just as they customize everybody’s feed online, they could customize every issue of the magazine to the individual user.

I’m not sure any printer currently offers that level of print customization, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be done.

Now, take this little thought experiment to the next step. What if the price of the magazine depended on whether or not the subscriber is a good prospect for advertisers?

Yes, yes, I know we’re all equally valuable in some cosmic sense, but we’re not all equally valuable to advertisers. Advertisers want to get their ads in front of people with specific interests, who are willing and able to take some action. Usually that action involves buying something.

The imaginary Facebook magazine that’s sent to a very valuable prospect — e.g., just to make it crude and obvious, somebody who buys a lot of stuff — will make a whole lot more ad revenue for Facebook than the magazine that’s sent to another person — who doesn’t buy anything.

The business model for this magazine would change for each individual customer. The guy who buys lots of stuff might get the magazine for free, since Facebook would make more than enough from ad revenue to pay for the production, printing and mailing of each issue. But the miser who never spends any money has no value to the advertisers, and therefore none to Facebook, so he’d have to pay for his magazine.

This new business model would be a mix of the controlled circulation model and the regular subscriber model. When a potential customer goes to the magazine subscription page, the spooky analytics in the background would check to see what audience niches he fills. If he’s a very valuable prospect, he might get the magazine at a low price, or even for free. But if he’s not in any of the niches the magazine wants to advertise to, he’d have to pay full freight for the subscription, since the magazine won’t get any ad revenue from him.

I don’t know if anybody can do this in the real world, but it’s an idea to ponder.

Right now we’re in a weird place in this print / digital question. It’s become quite clear that readers like print, but print has a hard time paying for itself, so print is … dwindling. There’s no reason it has to.

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