Versioning advances

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Versioning, or putting out different versions of the same issue to target specific demographics, has been around for some time, but advanced technology is now making it even simpler to create seemingly “personalized” versions for readers.

Farm Journal and printer R.R. Donnelley & Sons pioneered this process in the early 1980s, and now the media company creates more than 1,000 different versions in a print run of 380,000. (Most magazines only go as high as 50, due to binding limitations.) A hog farmer with a large operation will receive a different version of Farm Journal than a corn and soybean farmer with a comparatively small acreage.

“Our vast and detailed database serves as the foundation that allows us to achieve this,” said Mike Morgan, VP-publishing operations at Farm Journal Media. “Multiple versioning provides greater flexibility for our advertisers, both in print and inserts, and allows us to customize our editorial content to specific reader demographics.”

Versioning helps cut through the clutter of materials pouring into people's mailboxes. “[It] seems every printer that calls announces they have a digital press and mailing capabilities,” said Jodi Rochford, director of collateral production at Canon Communications. “So I know the industry is gaining momentum. ... Eventually we can probably expect all the presses to have personalization capabilities.”

Rochford recalled a promotion at a trade show a few years ago by Hewlett-Packard Co. in which photos of the faces of attendees who visited the HP booth were printed on faux magazine covers that featured coverlines that read “Marketer of the Year.” “It got so crowded at the booth, the fire department stepped in,” she said.

With the amount of data that can be amassed about individuals and their behavior online, it is proving to be easier to get readers the information they desire more quickly. For example, IDG in November launched TechDispenser, a free service that allows users to create custom e-newsletters about more than 200 technology topics from more than 700 sources.

Not surprisingly, many of Tech-Dispenser's content sources are IDG titles, but it includes others as well. Users can modify the frequency of mailings as well as the volume of content they receive from each source. “The tool helps to consolidate information gathering into one easy-to-read-and-edit package, e-mailed to you when you want it,” said Gregg Pinsky, senior VP-general manager of online operations at IDG Enterprise.

From the perspective of the IDG production department, TechDispenser is vastly different from the company's other online products. “We really tried to push the envelope with the site's user experience, which gave the entire online team the opportunity to push their skills to the limit,” Pinsky said. “Additionally, the way we build and deliver newsletters is different from typical newsletters in that each newsletter is unique to each user.”

Because of this, Pinsky's group took extra time to build the enhanced user interface, and he said the lessons learned during its development will be applied to other areas and products in the future.

“One thing we avoided with Tech-Dispenser was trying to over-personalize the content. A lot of services go too far with their personalization algorithms,” Pinsky said. “Just because a user clicked on a story about cloud computing today doesn't mean that's the only thing they're interested in or that they're even interested in it at all.”

Farm Journal Media's Morgan said that other companies considering personalization of either print or digital need to have a database that can support the process on the front end. Also, he said, “Make certain you have a printing company that has the technology to achieve this on the tail end.”

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