Why Print Lingers

Why your content development strategy MUST still include print.

What was it that they said when the “information super-highway” was first launched? Oh yeah. Print is dead. And it seemed like it almost died. But not quite.

A sea change occurred. People who use computers found that they longed for the smell of newsprint, the portability of a slick magazine to tuck under their arm. More important, they’ve rediscovered the simplicity of popping open a magazine for a pleasant read. Bottomline – we’re clinging to our print! And this should have a profound impact on all content development plans.

Read on.

Right around 2010, after nearly a decade of steady declines, an amazing thing happened. According to Publishers Information Bureau (PIB). Both total magazine pages and rate-card-reported revenue posted gains. Then another amazing thing happened. PIB reported in 2017 that growth continues to pick up – especially in special interest areas (science, hobby, self-help, news) and other strong vertical markets.

Moroever, magazine audiences grew and young adults lead the way with a majority of the population identifying themselves as the ‘heavy’ readers. The number of young readers (18+) grew more than 4% over the previous five years just as older audiences (50 and up) grew by almost 11% in the same period. And know what? These segments are still growing!

As of this year, 91% of adults overall and 94% of adults under age 35 now read magazines. Facebook has yet to break past 81%.

I grok these stats.

I read untold thousands of words per day – all from my various monitors and digital displays. My eyes simply cannot keep up with the strain. I need a break from the glare and the lumens. There’s the computer at work, the computer at home, the flat panel TV, the cell phone, cameras, iPods, e-Readers, camcorders. Ouch.

At various times and for various reasons, more than one doctor has recommended that I take a break from my electronic world. One time, I had a pretty bad time with carpal tunnel, so I invested in a left-handed trackball, curved keyboards, special chairs, and other special stuff. The arms and hands feel a bit better, but you can’t hide your eyes from the glare.

Only two years ago, 91 North American magazines closed their doors. That was up from 51 in 2013. Those that didn’t close decreased issue frequency by 25% or more. Newspapers have suffered quite a bit with total ad revenue in 2013 dropping 49% from the previous decade (Pew Research), and according to various news sources, Tribune Co. has cut their payroll by 6% in 2013, with more cuts coming.

Print fought back by raising subscription prices to offset at least some of the losses in dropping ad revenues. The smart ones invested heavily in digital delivery platforms to help enrich both advertisers and subscriber access to content. Magazines, at least, have seen a return to profitability. The road is long and narrow for newspapers still groping for theirs.

Despite the gloom, print hangs on. One element of surprise: the fact that despite the drop in circulations, many publications are enjoying dedicated readership has engaged in the medium and interested in the content (a big positive for advertisers). Print remains “interesting” because people are provoked into picking it up and looking at it. People buy print because they’re invested in the information portrayed by the cover, the headlines, and the photos. Digital just doesn’t do that. In the time it takes to read one print magazine article, readers have skimmed two or three in digital platforms, distracted by email, popups, and popunders. 

Various surveys have been conducted on the reasons that print persists in a digital world. In one survey, respondents overwhelmingly cited the tangible experience of print as a positive experience. According to various studies cited by AdWeek, PR News, BusinessWeek and other publications, the greater majority of adults prefer to read print and paper communications rather than reading off of a screen. The last bit gives perspective to the PIB data – apparently, younger adults have greater attention span than what the stereotype may lead us to believe.

Another powerup for print are the personalities of longer articles, uninterrupted by animated ads and other distractions. In digital media, publishers have to fill every available space with ads – just to break even. In print, the full page ad at the start of the feature article and the fractional ads at the end are about all you see. And NO animation! Print also brings you the long feature story; 5,000 words or more of well-done narratives, compelling storytelling, and excellent authorship. By the end of the article, you know a great deal about the writer and the topic.

Which brings me to the all-important ‘dwell-time’ that marketers rely on. We want people to dwell on our message – to soak up more information. The average dwell-time for an informational website is about 3-4 minutes. Six minutes if you’re very good. Social media pulls greater numbers – exceeding an hour or more, but here again, your message competes in a cacophony of messages – which is the whole point of social media, I guess. Nothing like this in print. People may spend 15-20 minutes in one sitting with one magazine.

I believe that I’m hitting the tip of the berg: we could use audience attitudes toward print that’s not magazines – e.g., your brochure or other printed materials. However, I believe this information is enough to end the mythology that print is passé. Readers are not extinct and YOUR audience will read content in a wholly non-interactive media – easy to read with no distractions. Which leads me to another observation: there is a wanting audience of readers who crave discovery, new information, ideas and concepts while thumbing through printed paper pages. Yes, there’s always time for browsing and sifting through the online guano where you hope audiences will find your website. But there’s also time for audiences to be handed material because they asked for it or have shown interest.

Which leads me to content development and how we distribute. If print still works, what does this say about your content development strategy? Have you allowed for print? Do you have any offerings that go beyond PDF documents? Have you developed collateral brochures? Pamphlets? A book? Print has portability. Print encourages the ultimate portability of human-to-human interaction and good old fashioned ink.

Print lingers because it still meets the basic marketing paradigm: it serves a useful purpose. I suppose there will come a day when 100 perfect bound pages of 80-pound gloss stock will be as rare as a rotary phone, but it hasn’t happened yet. And if the stats are correct – it’ll be quite a while yet before we will truly say, “print is dead.”

About: Ray Wyman, Jr is a content creator, communications professional, and author with more than 30 years of experience. Visit LinkedIN or Raywyman.com for more information.

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