Here's one simple truth I know after covering behavioral marketing technologies at Mediapost for over a decade: It's a heck of a lot easier to track behaviors digitally than it is to drive them.
Personalization is a case in point. Even when offered the advantages of a more streamlined and targeted content experience, very small shares of users have ever lifted a finger to opt into the minimal profiling needed to personalize a site. I can’t even count the many techniques I have covered over the years for goading people into personalization. And so a cottage industry of recommendation engines emerges to use behavioral tracking and analytics of aggregated behaviors to do the personalization for us.
The dream of melding print and digital media is another case. It has been more than a decade since the infamous CueCat barcode scanner landed on my desk courtesy of Forbes. You may recall that this much-maligned print-to-Web device connected to a PC via a USB port to scan the first generation of in-book 2D codes. If memory serves, Forbes promoted the idea heavily by sending 800,000 of them to subscribers, and for a brief shining moment the codes popped up in newspaper and magazines, usually clicking to links that were no more or less satisfying to the user than many of the first hapless QR campaigns a decade later. Adding to the comedy was the fact that the orange scanner light on the device came from the crouching cat’s mouth, helping the stylized feline-shaped wand to look all the more like an adult sex toy.
For the last decade I have watched the magazine industry flail about, looking to connect its waning analog medium to digital in all manner of ways: page image recognition in the mid 2000s, SMS "bugs" in ads and articles a bit later, QR codes and Microsoft Tags three years ago, and, more recently, to less-intrusive approaches such as watermarking and AR.
Next week, Esquire will launch its December magazine with one of the most convincing attempts I have seen to make print more seamlessly “interactive.” A combination of several of the techniques that preceded it (image recognition, AR), the Netpages app Esquire is championing has visually indexed every page of the issue, and in some cases specific items on the page. Thus readers don’t need to look for 2D codes or even visual cues that a watermark is present, and can save a digital version of every page for later reference or share it over multiple social network and person-to-person channels. On some pages like editorial product round-ups, the mobile camera can detect specific items and overlay a buy button for immediate purchase.
To be sure, there are multiple ways that this model improves on the many post-CueCat attempts to marry print and digital. The app succeeds in actually mimicking a pre-existing behavior: ripping pages from magazines to save or share. It doesn’t require scanning codes or noticing cues.
The hope here is that using a mobile phone to read and index a magazine will become a reflex. Esquire’s parent company, Hearst, plans to roll out the functionality to other titles next year. In making interactivity ubiquitous, and moving activation to the device that 90% of magazine readers have at hand when reading (one magazine exec tells me), publishers would like the smartphone to essentially become a mouse.
If there is one lesson to be learned from digital media’s short history, it is that building any business model on the prospect of changing people’s behaviors is foolish at best. Our media activities have indeed changed over time in response to digital opportunities, but overall these changes have been incremental. Don’t expect people to do something new for your businesses’ benefit (albeit pitched to them as “added value”).
And the dream of marrying all analog and digital experience may be much more enticing to the industries poised to profit from it than it is to consumers. Sure, the print-to-Web techniques have moved closer to pre-existing behaviors, and that is all to the good. And there certainly is some evidence that when driven by sweepstakes and other very high-profile value propositions, users will respond to “interactive print” is some numbers. But I still can’t get any of these magazine publishers to cop to the real share of their readers who are using these print-to-Web programs. Yeah, yeah it is “early days.” I know the drill.
Which still begs the questions, 12 years after the CueCat, of whether people really want one of their last remaining analog experiences “activated” at all. Newspapers and magazines are in an odd situation here. Making a digital connection to print is perceived as the necessary or trendy thing to do. No one wants to be caught with their digital drawers down in this industry. And these devices give the publisher and ad clients an invaluable interactive loop unheard of in the print world. But again, the advantage seems to be more for the industry than the consumer.
On the other hand, publishers promote the enduring immersive qualities of print, that special tactile, rhythmic lean-back mode that is supposed to make their advertising so effective. Print-to-Web models all break that flow to engage the user in a wholly different experience on a display that is a fraction the size of the printed page.
More to the point, magazines and newspapers are the original mobile media. They are defined by their portability. One of the main advantages that mobile media offers consumers has been baked into the print world now for a century and more.
It's still an open question not only how digital devices themselves slipstream into everyday behaviors. But perhaps more to the point may be understanding what aspects of our analog media lives we consumers want to preserve apart and deliberately distinct from the great digitization.