Can Personalized Ads Save Magazines?

'Popular Mechanics,' HP offer case study

Some Popular Mechanics subscribers got something extra with their November issues. The issue was bundled with an outsert from Hewlett-Packard that greeted them by name and showed a scene specific to their hometown. Inside the issue was a 16-page insert that gave readers locations where they could buy HP products near their homes.

The program was meant to promote HP’s line of printers aimed at consumers, but the bigger message was about its printing technology that produced the ads.

Jane Wladar, associate publisher of the Hearst title, said magazines have had the ability to individualize copies before, but never this inexpensively and with accountability measures. She wouldn’t reveal the cost of the HP program but said it was comparable to nonindividualized print ads.

“I heard HP had this technology and I reached out to them,” she said. “We’ve seen big programs but never any so cost-effective.”

The ads contained issue-specific URLs directing the reader to an online contest they could enter to win an HP printer. There were also issue-specific QR codes in the insert that linked readers to more information on their mobiles.

As for the results, 3 percent of the 300,000 subscribers who got the customized issue entered the contest, which is in the ballpark of the response rate for direct mail. But of that 3 percent, 85 percent clicked on the QR codes in the insert.

HP was involved in a similar project with Time Inc., which produced a customized magazine called Mine for Lexus in 2009. With Mine, Time Inc. invited people to sign up for a series of magazines created from content from several of its titles, based on the subscribers’ preferences. The ad copy also was individualized. While Time Inc. considers the project a success, it also ran into some snags, with some people getting articles from the wrong titles and some getting articles that were outdated. 

Mine was a one-shot deal; it was limited to 31,000 print and 200,000 digital subscribers. The Pop Mechanics program goes further, combining direct marketing techniques with a mainstream magazine, said Chris Morgan, svp of HP Graphic Solutions Business.

But is it the future of print advertising? Pop Mechanics would certainly like to think so. In these days of accountability, delivering proof of performance can only boost publishers, and magazines could use all the help they can get right now.

Wladar said she’s in talks to use the technology with other clients. Its use would vary by marketer, but Wladar said one approach clients could take is to vary their creative by geographic region. She also thinks customized messages could help a marketer connect with consumers like the HP ad did with city-specific photos. “What adds value here is you could customize the message, even by location,” she said. “Maybe that message means a little more to the consumer than just a generic ad.”

But while being able to customize ad messages to the individual may seem like the end-all, be-all for marketers, whether the advertiser can do it in a meaningful way without being intrusive is another matter. People are used to Web ads being customized, but print ads, not so much. “There is a balance,” Morgan admitted. “You want to be helping the customer, not creeping them out.”