Thursday, March 04, 2004

Mass Customization 

There is an important essay in Online Journalism Review that you should read. Go there now. It will take about 20 minutes to get through it. When you're done, come back for the rest of this thought.

Two trends in the newspaper and online business the writer discusses are of interest: 1. Mass customization of news. 2. Convergence of a newspaper's Web page with the printed product.

The implications for the PR business are deep, especially for measurement. How can we say we have reached the right audience if newspapers are digitally printed in customized sets of 10? My New York Times is not Your New York Times. My Wall Street Journal is just one of 5,000 editions of the The Wall Street Journal printed today. How will we know when Web and newspaper converge where news appeared and who saw it?

We have assumed in PR measurement the existence of a consistent product to measure. If this fellow is right, and he has the background to make his case, then we will no longer have a consistent product. How do we achieve awareness with customized news? Interestingly, this won't affect advertising as much because the newspaper will be sold in blocks large enough to satisfy marketers. It needn't be sold in blocks that satisfy PR practitioners, however.

There are two ways to respond to this future -- if it comes true. 1. It is an opportunity to target news precisely as media monitoring comes to the fore. That is, we will isolate specific groups of readers then monitor specific newspaper editions to make sure we have reached them 2. It will harm "Big Hit" PR, placing a story that reaches tens of thousands of readers at a time. Loss of standardized news and broad awareness will be a worry for those who believe in mass media.

I'm not sure I accept completely this fellow's point of view. Some of what he says will come true, but will it go all the way into customization? I suspect there will be several dozen versions of a daily newspaper. (After all, Time magazine has been doing this since the 1980s. ) I don't think, however, the daily newspaper will reach several hundred versions, even if it is technologically possible. Why? Because I think editors will continue to define a general set of news they believe all readers should know. The author recognizes this. He says:

No newspaper publisher needs to hand total customization to the readers. Instead, he or she can let their editor and readers share that control. The editor can ensure that each reader receives the prime stories and bulletins that the editor thinks all readers need to see. Meanwhile, each reader can customize their edition with whatever other subjects they want to receive from the newspaper's cornucopia of content.

My guess is editors will find more news to be standard rather than less. But still, the question remains. How will the PR industry respond when the day comes? It is not too early to start thinking about it.


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