Why Print Lingers: And why your content strategy MUST still include print.

What was it that they said when the “information super-highway” was first launched? Oh yeah. “Print is dead.”

At one point, it seemed like print had almost died. But as it turned out, people love the ‘feel’ of information in their hands. We discovered that no matter how you work and where you get MOST of your news, we still long for the smell of newsprint, the portability of a slick magazine to tuck under their arm, the comfort of an excellent book to cozy up with. One thing that the Net did, it produced a sea change for print. But the move itself made us realize — caused us to rediscover — the simplicity of popping open a container filled with printed pages to read.

The very bottom line of the competition digital content versus print is that there’s no competition at all. The reason we cling to print has nothing to do with the convenience of the Internet. And this realization had a profound impact on all content development plans.

Right around 2010, after nearly a decade of steady declines, a fantastic thing happened. According to the 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 select interest areas (science, hobby, self-help, news) and other active vertical markets.

Moreover, 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) increased 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 the 80% barrier.

The truth is… I’m among those still cheering print.

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 mobile phone, cameras, pads — my watch. Sometimes when I look at faces I imagine that I see pixels. 

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, unique chairs, and other special stuff. The arms and hands feel a bit better, but you can’t hide your eyes from the glare. Now my neck is killing me. They call THAT “text neck,” from peering down at all that digital jazz. And now my eyes.

I think the pro-digital pundits thought they were safe with their ominous predictions about print after 91 North American magazines closed their doors in 2014; up from 51 the previous year. Those that didn’t close decreased issue frequency by 25% or more. Newspapers suffered quite a bit during the same interval with total a 49% drop in ad revenue in 2013, which was a huge decline over the previous decade (Pew Research). Meanwhile, Tribune Co. and other major publishers cut their payroll and dolled out layoffs. They’re still laying off writers, support staff, and consolidating operations. 

Print gallantly 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’s access to content. Magazines, at least, have seen a return to profitability. The road back to profitability will be a long, narrow, and bumpy one for newspapers still groping for theirs.

Despite the gloom, print hung on. One element of surprise: the fact that despite the drop in circulations, many publications enjoyed a smaller, more dedicated readership who eagerly engaged the medium and interest in the content (a big positive for advertisers). For that reason, print remained “interesting” because people are provoked into picking it up and really 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, popunders, and all that sensational clickbait. 

‘Dwell Time’ to the rescue?

Various readership surveys flow like rivers; everyone wants to know WHY 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 more significant majority of adults (not just Boomers, by the way) prefer to read print and paper communications rather than read from a screen. The last bit gives perspective to the most recent PIB data: apparently, younger adults have a greater attention span than what the stereotype may lead us to believe.

Another power-up for print is the projected personality 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 love. We want people to dwell on our content – 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 higher numbers – exceeding an hour or more, but here again, your message competes in a cacophony of words – which is the whole point of social media. Amid the printed pages of a newspaper or magazine, people may dwell 15-20 minutes in one sitting. Try to generate THAT kind of engagement on a webpage. Seriously. Just try.

Good old fashioned ink.

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. This 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 viewers 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 hold the current trends – it’ll be quite a while before we honestly say, “print is dead.” If ever. 

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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