My mentor, Bill Ziff, made his first fortune creating the model for special interest publishing. From Flying to Boating to Car & Driver and Stereo Review, Bill perfected a method for using specialized content to draw out the most intense aspirants in one consumer activity after another. It transformed advertising and marketing and made him rich.
If Bill were alive today, I believe he would junk every asset in his special interest publishing empire with glee. Why? Because now we have a new set of tools for seeing and responding to human behavior that make traditional media approaches -- even brilliant ones like Ziff-Davis' -- look as ill suited for their purpose as a caveman's flints.
The problem addressed by traditional special interest publishing was: How can I advertise a specialized product? Sending info about skis to everybody is obviously a huge waste of resources because most people never ski. How can I know my message is only reaching actual potential buyers? Targeted media achieved that aim -- by turning off anyone not really interested in the topic, while attracting the passionate.
But only in the most imprecise way. By definition, a monthly special interest magazine under-informs the ultimately passionate devotee. That person will read tech manuals, go to conferences, or build a lab in their basement to staunch their passion. They would happily get information about their beloved topic constantly.
By contrast, the dirty secret of magazines was always how many of them, though received, sat unread on coffee tables everywhere. Meaning many new and marginal actors in specialized publishing markets would miss their targets altogether, and were simply left on the sidelines.
In other words, traditional special interest publishing was better than nothing, but wildly imprecise; it was the best we could do at the time with a rough set of tools.
But today? Because of the social/mobile revolution we can now see and weigh all digital behaviors of all people in real time. Using social analytics, we can reveal the entire world of those passionate about skiing, or any other activity. We can see how they interact, what they talk about, how they feel about companies, products and each other. We can measure their influence. We can learn their emotions. See what content they create and how others react to it. Increasingly, we can even predict what actions they are likely to take next... and what the motivations for those actions are.
Faced with rich raw material like this, who could think that a monthly pile of paper containing a fixed set of 6-week-old content represents the best possible product to create? Nobody logical, and Bill Ziff was logical.
Today’s much improved tools allow us to build what special interest marketers always really needed, but couldn’t achieve: Markets based on direct access to the complete bell curve of aspirational behaviors. Lots of different kinds of experiences, and the corresponding variety of content, delivered in many different ways -- from personally created to corporate curated, present everywhere via mobile and situationally aware -- are all totally optimized to increase skills, enrich actions and move that particular area of endeavor forward, exactly as its proponents desire.
This is marketing as market. Marketing will become the direct acquisition of access to a set of current or future human behaviors. When you can buy the actions directly, who needs or wants the murky intermediary of media? Today's emerging influencer marketing platforms are expressions of this shift. As are social sharing communities. And GoPro has tapped into this big time, by allowing passionate amateurs and pros to create and share directly the kinds of experiences special interest media has tried to simulate. Soon, they will be joined by immersive VR experiences. All driven by increasingly deep and sophisticated analytics. This is the dream landscape for special interest.
Bill Ziff would take one look at what is possible now, rejoice, cancel his printing contracts, and dive in.