Made-to-order magazines

To its credit, Time Inc. is testing a service that would deliver readers either a print or a digital version of content from up to five different magazines. Readers pick the magazines; editors pick the articles. The test is limited to a total of eight Time Inc. titles (more on that in a moment).

The test is sponsored by a single advertiser who is willing to deliver custom advertising messages to readers willing to share some information about themselves. Business-to-business magazines make this a data collection a routine requirement for free subscriptions, webinars, research papers and the like, but it happens far less often in the consumer space.

On the other hand, some compilations and edited aggregates do work (Readers Digest, in its time, and The Week are examples), and consumers on both sides of the age divide appear to increasingly understand that sharing information up front can yield certain benefits down the road. [A friendly reminder: make sure you click your preferred option when asked if you really want unsolicited mailings from trusted industry partners.

The test delivers content created for print, a move that could be seen as quaint, but … why not test it? Even if the test sample is self-selected, it may still yield interesting data about the relative levels of interest in specific titles. Post-distribution survey data and monitored click-throughs on the editorially curated digital PDFs could provide some real-time insights, as well.

There are some real limitations, though. The final products are delivered well after the content is available elsewhere, raising the question, “Wouldn’t it have been easier to just go to the five magazines’ web sites?” You have to believe that, for people willing to pay for subscriptions, the answer will certainly be yes.

While Time Inc. on its own can offer readers a broad selection of titles and topics, it doesn’t come close to claiming a monopoly on any niche. In compilations, depth can matter as much as variety. Right now, I’d rather see a side-by-side presentation of what Time, Fortune, Forbes, BusinessWeek and the Economist had to say about Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s handling of AIG bonuses (um, I meant retention payments). It’s hard to imagine that a roll-out would persist on Time Inc. content alone.

So I’m left asking why Time Inc. really wants to test this idea. Among competing options, I wonder if this isn’t an alpha test of what it would take to collect preferences, organize content niches, solicit and engage content partners and start to provide aggregated content through the open portal that Pathfinder never became. The web has grown up, some, and it blooms in a wide range of increasingly user-defined niches.

In this environment, users are readers. The decline of ad-supported news and information vehicles doesn’t mean that demand for news and information will disappear. The operative question is, who will pay for it? No money is changing hands in this test, but it could give Time Inc. a sense of the demand profile and the operational implications of mix-and-match content.

Edited April 17 to add: The initial reviews aren’t quite encouraging, as Crain’s New York Business and Folio: report. Folio:‘s Bill Mickey offers his own perspective on the first print experience, as well.

Of course, if it’s a test-drive for a new idea, maybe a couple of ghosts in the machine are to be expected.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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