Bezos to Save Washington Post with Personalization?

There has been a lot of discussion since Jeff Bezos’ recent purchase of The Washington Post. It’s interesting because this is not an Amazon acquisition but a personal transaction lacking a clear motive. Is this simply a passion project for Bezos? Or is he challenging the newspaper industry to set a new precedent of optimizing content through personalization and recommendation tactics? Either way, critics argue that this is a precarious investment and with Bezos keeping silent, it’s anyone’s guess.

The bold move shouldn’t be surprising, though. This is the same CEO who launched the largely successful (and high risk) Amazon Prime program offering free 2-day shipping to members that could have resulted in massive fulfillment losses. But Bezos sees beyond the finish line. He doesn’t look at short term profits; he knows the power of playing the long game with his customers, and knows it ultimately yields higher profits. The proof is in the numbers; have you checked up on Prime lately? There are 10 million subscribers to Prime since it’s launch only two years ago and it’s expected to double again by 2017.

If anyone is suited to usher an iconic newspaper into the competitive digital age of publishing, it’s Bezos. And it makes sense, he has nearly put the Barnes & Nobles of the world out of business by changing the structure of how we consume published content.

The Wall Street Journal published a piece theorizing about Bezos’ strategy to increase profitability and circulation for the Post by using onsite personalization tools. Cass Sunstein argues in a Bloomberg article that one of the virtues of the newspaper is that you pick it up not knowing what you’ll find; that you will broaden your focus and, as a result, gain something you wouldn’t have known you liked.

But in actuality personalization is discovery. By seeing all real time traffic of an entire audience and using editorial scoring, that same discovery element Sunstein refers to is still available. When combined with a user’s inferred interests, the power of discovery is even more prominent. Bezos knows this. That’s why industry players are projecting that he will apply his deep knowledge and history of audience building, data gathering and personalization to the Post.

All CMOs today should be thinking, “what does my reader want and how can I deliver it to them the most efficiently?” Bezos seems to understand the value of personalization, especially in an industry like publishing where presenting the individual what they want to read is critical to high engagement, subscriber retention and, of course, ad revenue.

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