Is There Still Power in Print?

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When critics create a fake war between print and digital, the loser is actually the member, who feels equally comfortable in both worlds. In fact, the hype around print’s demise hides the fact that your association may need traditional media more than ever.

By Joe Stella

Here's what you know: People are exposed to more digital content than ever before. About 92,000 new articles are published online every day, according to publishing analytics-software provider Chartbeat.

Here’s what you think you know: As a result, print is dying. But this simply isn’t true. In reality, print remains critical when it comes to marketing your association — perhaps even more so because of the rise of electronic media.

When critics create a fake war between print and digital, the loser is actually the member, who feels equally comfortable in both worlds. Three-quarters of B2B information-seekers say they rely on traditional and new media to gain information about their work, according to the Association of Business Information & Media Companies’ (ABM) "Value of B-to-B” report. A Magazines Canada survey reveals that just seven percent of B2B readers access digital media only.

The hype broadcasting print’s funeral is just that — worse, it distracts from understanding the valuable role that a print magazine can play in your overall marketing and communications strategy. The Angerosa Research Foundation recently showed that when it comes to associations’ media revenues, advertising and sponsorship sales in print media outperform those in digital — 73 versus 27 percent.

However, to be clear: The case for print is not a case against digital — both are extremely useful marketing tools. If consumers can integrate print and digital into their lives, so should marketers into their strategies. If you’re considering ditching your print publication, contemplating starting a new one (no, you’re not crazy), or just unsure of what to think about print’s future, here’s what you need to know.

Don’t Abandon Your readers

Magazines Canada reveals that nine in 10 B2B readers consume print magazines, while 52 percent of senior business executives prefer to read trade journals in print. No matter how many pixels Apple crams onto a screen, electronic images pale next to print ones for many readers. "A magazine can be beautiful,” explains Julie Shoop, editor in chief and vice president of the American Society of Association Executives. "It’s not just a way to convey words.”

Print also coveys a high level of trust. For example, the Finnish research organization VTT found that 63 percent of people trust print advertisements, whereas just 25 percent have faith in online ads.

Nevertheless, perhaps you’re thinking that young people — who will increasingly compose your customer base in coming years — are glued to their screens. But according to the Association of Magazine Media (MPA), adults under 35 read more magazines per month than their older counterparts.

Additionally, ASAE reports that most association member surveys show that customers want to read a flagship publication in print. Sure enough, when the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) was rebranding its monthly magazine, It Is Innovation (i3), a reader survey indicated that executives still preferred to read the print version, especially while traveling. And when the Society for Interventional Radiology (SIR) launched its digital magazine, it kept the original print version of IR Quarterly.

"We know that in the midst of their very digital world, our members still value having those products available to them,” Sue Holzer, SIR’s executive director, told ASAE’s publication Associations Now. "We wanted to ensure that print connection with us was still there. That pick-it-up-and-hold-it or read-it-when-you-have-some-down-time feeling is still important to them.”

Speaking of Associations Now, Shoop explains that although her organization reduced the frequency of the magazine from 10 to six times per year, no one even discussed discontinuing it. In fact, some worried that reducing the frequency would negatively impact membership. "We did not want to lose mailbox members, the ones who only read the magazine and who aren’t likely to attend a conference or event or partake in a webinar, but who get value from and like the print magazine,” she says. "For an association, that print piece is a really important physical touchpoint. When people have time to sit down and read, they’re not searching for an email newsletter. They’re picking up what’s in front of them on the coffee table. Print has staying power.”

Still, what’s to make of critics arguing that print won’t be around much longer? Such hyperbole may grab attention, but it also omits crucial categorical distinctions. Nearly seven out of 10 B2B readers say they spend more time with industry-related print publications than with mainstream business or consumer print magazines, according to ABM.

Beyond 140 Characters

Not all information spurts out 140 characters at a time. When reading long or complex content online, readers’ attention spans fade quickly. One in three people spend less than 15 seconds reading web pages with articles, according to Chartbeat.

On the other hand, the MPA points out that the average print-magazine reader spends 40 minutes with an issue. So although people may spend about five hours and 46 minutes a day scanning digital media, according to eMarketer, their attention fractures due to online distractions, such as chiming email and Twitter notifications, and other attention-sucking games and applications.

Simply put, people spend more time with a specific print magazine than on a website that isn’t Facebook or Twitter. And while it’s true that a GfK MRA Starch Advertising study revealed that print and tablet magazine ads both had a recall of 52 percent, that figure may matter less considering that research by Robert Magee, a professor at Virginia Tech, shows that people are more likely to open a print than a digital publication.

Meanwhile, neither clicking nor sharing indicates true engagement online. After Chartbeat’s research showed that people are sharing many articles they don’t read, the company’s CEO Tony Haile wrote: "Bottom line, measuring social sharing is great for understanding social sharing, but if you’re using that to understand which content is capturing more of someone’s attention, you’re going beyond the data.”

Not only does print encourage deeper reading of lengthier articles, with fewer distractions, it also better exposes people to new ideas. When customers seek information online, they find the data and then go about their day — they don’t see messages for which they aren’t actively looking. A print magazine, however, is a powerful opportunity to deliver information that customers don’t know they need to know.

In the end, what matters most is not whether customers see your content so much as engage with it.

Mailboxes vs. Inboxes

People are consuming more digital than print media. That isn’t cause to scrap the latter, but rather the opposite: The more digital media customers use, the more you need print.

Because inboxes are more cluttered than mailboxes, a print magazine can help your association rise above the noise. Indeed, a Nielsen study estimated that the average mobile user has 41 apps on a smartphone but opens only eight — usually Facebook, YouTube, and games.

Creating a connection to customers in print may help to drive online traffic — 86 percent of business executives prefer to visit online sources of information that are tied to print publications. Take the Association for Retail Environments’ eponymous magazine, for example. Several years back, the organization increased downloads of the publication’s mobile app and boosted page views of its web-based edition not by tearing up its print magazine, but by producing more relevant content and tripling its print circulation over three months.

There’s more: When examining print and digital magazine platforms, a survey of 3,500 consumers by IPC Media in the United Kingdom showed that print ads were more likely than digital ads to inspire a purchase — from a brick-and-mortar store or online. While it’s no surprise that digital platforms are more apt to trigger online searches for information on products and services, a healthy 57 percent of respondents say that print magazines inspire them to head online.

Print and digital aren’t at war. When used strategically, print is the backbone of an integrated marketing communications strategy.

Counting Costs

Here’s something else you already know: A print magazine is not cheap to produce.

That’s true, but neither is digital — unless, that is, you want the end result to function poorly and look cheap. "Digital content is more expensive than you might think,” explains ASAE’s Shoop. "People think digital is almost free, but that’s a myth. Just shoot something up on the Internet, have some content management system, get a staffer to run it, and poof, bang. The reality is that there are developmental and maintenance expenses. Content doesn’t grow on trees.”

If you listen to digital-only advocates, you might think that it’s cheaper to produce online content, when, in most cases, it’s not. It’s actually more expensive than producing a high-quality print piece. The Internet is a hungry beast that needs constant feeding and care. Readers expect fresh, new content posted several times per day, and the format needs to suit the medium. That means online users demand more interactive content and rich media, such as video and animation. Not many association marketers have the budget to support that, nor can they justify the expense.

Organizations that shift too drastically toward digital content are often surprised and frustrated by lackluster ROI. Indeed, a recent survey indicates that almost half of marketers are unhappy with their ability to target their content — perhaps because in 87 percent of cases, the main method of content distribution has been a company’s own website.

Of course, it’s hard to determine whether the problem lies with the delivery or the content itself. Nonetheless, publishing consultant Thad McIlroy writes on his blog that "web-only publishing models rarely supplant a print and web model. Digital editions are gaining traction on media tablets, but remain a fraction of magazine’s circulation base.”

"Digital entities are discovering that you cannot be a single platform,” says Samir Husni, director of the University of Mississippi’s Magazine Innovation Center. "Especially if you have already been in print, folding your publication in favor of only digital is the kiss of death. I used to ask people to name five entities that folded their print editions to go digital-only and still made business that you can write home about. Now I ask for only one. There aren’t any.”

Furthermore, a Nielsen Catalina study for Meredith shows an average ROI of $7.81 for every dollar spent on print ads, well above the $2.79 ROI for ads on digital portals/ad networks. And whereas almost half of consumers prefer to look at an ad in a print magazine, only 1 in 10 say so about a website — and none want to see ads in apps.

Even such advertising digits don’t speak to what ultimately matters — engaging your members. Magee concludes as much in his research. He writes that, "ceasing a print publication in favor of an online-only publication might hurt the effectiveness of an organization’s marketing communications, and managers should not make the decision based on cost alone.”

Ultimately, every association must assess its marketing programs to determine what works best. Here’s a tip: Ignoring customer preferences never works. "You have to understand your audience and not do something just because everyone else is doing it,” explains ASAE’s Shoop. "The smart thing is to find the right mix of media that considers costs but also engages your audience and keeps them connected.”

Joe Stella is vice president, business development, for GLC

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