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Stop the press! Print isn’t dead

Print is no longer the flagship publication. But for some it remains a significant player.

Print is no longer the flagship publication – but for some companies, it remains a significant part of the media mix. A form engaged with longer and remembered better, print is far from on its inky last legs.

‘Print is dead’: nowadays it’s a common refrain. We hear it so often, it’s easy to accept it as the new reality all publishers must accept.

But wait. Stop (ahem) the press. Consider this: 41% of B2C marketers use print magazines as a content marketing tactic. So do 36% of B2B marketers. These aren’t numbers dredged up from rusty filing cabinets either – they come from the ‘2016 Content Marketing Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends’ reports, put together by the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs. And they find a powerful match in statistics explaining why. A recent study by Magazine Networks found brands that include print magazines in their media strategy see a 22% boost in brand trust, a 55% lift in brand favourability and a 29% hike in purchase intent.

A few more stats from that same study: “magazine readers [are] 38% more likely to post on social media, 17% more likely to tell others about new brands and 36% more likely to place importance on brand choices. Even better, they are cashed up, spending 40% more on their interests than the average Australian”.

For content marketers, these are figures to make you say ‘flip’. Sure, there is a tectonic reorganisation of the publishing landscape, and no level-headed brand would stake its long-term business on paper and ink alone. But, as part of a media mix, we’re finding the form to be far more resilient than the proclamations of doom would have us believe. With its unique qualities creating non-replicable, immersive consumer experiences, it turns out that print still has a place in this digital first world.

Print excels on engagement time

“On the web, you’re hoping for two minutes, maybe,” says Joe Pulizzi, Content Marketing Institute founder. “If you’re looking for engagement, a custom magazine can get you 25 minutes.” Twenty-five wondrous minutes, in which content is savoured, sometimes literally stroked, and physically experienced as a direct connection with your brand.

Where the digital reader’s journey through hypertext is scattered, erratic and riddled with wormholes, the print reader is able to sit and calmly engage. This state of comfortable absorption is sometimes known as the ‘lean back’ experience; where a web user hunches forward to skim – the print reader is more inclined to relax back into their chair, and anticipate with pleasure a stretch of uninterrupted self-enrichment. Unassailed by competing tabs, hyperlinks, the lure of Netflix and flashing ads – collectively shown to exhaust mental bandwidth – the most likely distraction for a print reader is the squalling of a kettle or the curious paws of a cat.

A 2017 study into how people engage with newspapers gives support. “Although newspapers have spent decades investing in digital distribution, their online channels are not attracting anywhere near the levels of attention commanded by their print editions,” said Dr Neil Thurman, who authored the report. Screens simply aren’t good at sustaining single-item attention; on them, the mind is more likely to skim through informational shallows rather than dive into content depths.

Readers retain, encode and remember print better

Not only is the print reading session longer and less fragmented. Print information is also more memorable.

Throngs of studies have shown that compared to digital information, print information lends itself better to long-term memory encoding. One piece of research, sponsored by Canada Post and carried out by neuromarketing firm TrueImpact, tested paper marketing (direct mail in this instance) against digital media (email and display ads). Across the three metrics of cognitive load (ease of understanding), motivation (persuasiveness) and attention (how long subjects looked at the content), paper consistently outperformed digital media. ‘Paper Beats Digital In Many Ways, According to Neuroscience’ ran the Forbes story headline.

Part of the effect comes down to print’s immersive qualities. Part of this is because of the very expectations that readers bring to print. As the Scientific American uncovered, it is also has something to do with just how spatially dependent our minds’ workings are – where we automatically link what we read with where we read it. For instance, our memory of Alice’s encounter with the Cheshire Cat will be reinforced by the fact that our minds will ‘pin’ this event as taking place on a right-sided page, about halfway through Lewis Carroll’s storybook. It’s “textual topography”, Fast Company observes – a property that the scrolling, slippery, one-dimensional screen just doesn’t have.

Print publications serve as keepsakes

The tangibility of print is something else that can’t be understated. As a physical object, it can be owned: a thing to hold and possess. Taking up space, it somehow feels more ‘real’ in the world. So long as the publication is lovingly created – premium across its writing, insights and design – it can be treated as a keepsake and collectible by an appreciative audience.

“This is absolutely true in our experience publishing the printed HOG magazine,” confirms Sue Spaight, representative of creative agency GS, partner of motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson. “Riders eagerly await the magazine, cherish it, collect it, display it, and year after year rank it top among the most important benefits of being a Harley Owners Group member.”

They instill a sense of community

Because of its tangibility and limited circulation, print can also be extremely powerful in enshrining a sense of community among readers. In contrast to web’s open access architecture, tailored content that is distributed only among a select group of like-minded individuals can forge and reinforce an exclusive bond. “People want to be part of a tribe,” explains Chava Gourarie in the Columbia Journalism Review.

While this is a benefit for all companies, it is a particular boon for member-based associations. One of their key drivers of associations, after all, is to foster connections between people who share common purposes, interests or missions for the mutual benefit of themselves and their profession. It is common for associations to cite their print magazine as their top member benefit. Audience research gives ample proof that their investment has been worthwhile.

In the 2016 reader survey for create, the industry magazine for Engineers Australia (EA) members, it was found the majority of respondents prefer to read a printed magazine. Another reader survey for the Australian HR Institute (AHRI), whose flagship publication is HRM magazine, found that a 51.75% still prefer to receive industry information in the form of a magazine. While some brands are scaling back the number of editions per year that they publish, print continues to demonstrate value as a user-centric medium (full disclosure: EA and AHRI are Mahlab clients).

Print advertising avoid the shortcomings of digital

Digital metrics can’t be trusted (especially when they come from Facebook). Across the world, adblocking is on the rise (27% of Australians are using the software – a higher percentage than many had hoped). Then there is the brand safety scandal, sending leading brands like P&G to make prudent cuts to their digital ad spend.

Measurement options are less granular and trackable when advertising in print; but advertisers get peace of mind from this investment in several other important respects. Adblocking isn’t an issue. Best of all, they are reaching a known, clearly-defined audience that is engaging with the content because they made an active decision to do so.

Let’s draw out an example. Airbnb didn’t get off to a good start with Pineapple, a ‘bespoke’ title it discontinued after only one issue in 2014. But the home-sharing startup-turned-giant was far from discouraged. Banding together with Hearst, it released airbnbmag in May this year, a print-only publication with a circulation of 350k.

“It isn’t ephemeral, as opposed to content on a feed that expires,” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky told The Wall Street Journal, explaining his resolve. Positioned as less a travel magazine and more a publication about people, experiences and communities, editorial decisions are shaped by the billions of digital data points that the company can access. With a whopping 45 pages set aside for advertising, it is priced about the same as a medium latte.

Print gives brands the opportunity to stand out

When everyone is rushing to digital, print has become a way for brands to stand out. It’s a differentiator – a demonstration of a company’s independent thinking, bold decision-making, and unwillingness to kowtow to the mentality of the mob.

Is it not, after all, somehow inherently delightful to know that a flour company produces a magazine called Sift? And how pleasant, to be one of the 12k worldwide Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) members who receives the gorgeous Modus in the mail? Speaking merely from a staff point of view, there is rarely a hoo-ha when a digital article goes live – but when the latest edition of the Australian Water Association’s Current arrives at our door, the office is suddenly bubbling with excitement and pride.

Much like Amazon’s decision to open five more bookstores this year (lifting the number to eight), more and more brands are opting to go beyond pixels and given themselves real-life presence. A way to connect to people beyond binary code – often resonating more richly – these publications can be incredibly potent as part of a mixed content marketing campaign. And, while it’s not a revolutionary return to print we’re seeing, there are signs of a small, mighty resurgence.

Dead? We think not. Print may not have the influence it once did. But for some brands, it remains a valuable part of the media mix.

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