I’m a fairly optimistic guy, but as a marketer, sometimes my job is to use data and insights to paint bleak portraits of reality. Print advertising is already dead. There – I said it. Now that you know my official stance, allow me to come clean: I love the print medium. As a child, I wanted nothing more than to work in print advertising. So when my comeuppance as a marketing designer crossed paths with the downward relevance of print, nobody has been more disappointed than me.
Approximate read time: 19.2 minutes
- I Love Print as a Medium
- Why I hate Print for Marketing
- 6 Reasons Why Print Advertising is Dead
- Can Print Advertising Still Work?
I Love Print as a Medium
The idea of flipping through the pages, each one with something new to behold. The tangible, tactile nature of the experience. The powerful combination of design, headline copy and brand. The historical insights we can glean from studying old publications. As a child, there were several magazines I subscribed to – receiving them in the mail was a high-point each month.
For a long time, I even wanted to become a print advertising designer. I loved the idea of clever juxtapositions between copy and images. I wanted to work creatively and amuse people with my creations, paying homage to the medium I had come to enjoy.
For all the good print has to offer, it doesn’t nearly compare to the bad. Environmentally, it’s an avoidable blight; although it was oddly difficult to find info on that online. Even the fairest article I could find on the topic spends most of its time talking about why print is here to stay. For all the ways that the article says the paper industry is cleaning up, it occurs on me that the cleanest thing the paper industry could do is shut down for good. I was born in 1983 and I’ve only ever read newspapers on lunch breaks before smartphones took over. Present-day, I instantly recycle any and all newspapers delivered to my home without even looking at them.
You might be a newspaper person and there’s nothing wrong with that. But have you ever thought about the amount of energy and resources that print demands? The folks at Ecocycle, a resource conservation non-profit established in 1976, say that junk mail costs the average person up to 8 months of their lives just to sort through the stuff. I only want to read things that are targeted to me. I don’t have time for noise and I don’t have any space for media that does nothing to enrich my life. Sure, I could be missing out on a 2-for-1 milk sale every once in a while, but with the time I skip chasing elusive deals, I’m able to increase my productivity where it matters more.
It’s estimated that 40% of solid waste is comprised of paper products. I’m sure there are a lot of cups (and now, straws) included in that 40%, but considering the fact that people are overwhelmingly turning to digital mediums over print media, I just don’t see why print is still considered viable. The next time you are at the mall, on the bus, or in a coffee shop – try this: count the number of people looking at their mobile devices. Then, count the number of people toiling over a newspaper and report back if the results surprise you.
I found this little nugget on Wikipedia. If this doesn’t serve as the final nail in the print advertising coffin, I have no idea what will:
By now you may be thinking, “Ryan, that was a whole lot of preamble” – you’re right. We’re almost there, but first I want to entice you with a quick story on the origins of my print naysaying. If you know how I’ve formed this opinion over the past 12+ years working as a marketer, you’ll quickly see why print isn’t the best place to put your promotional budget.
Why I hate Print for Marketing
Print advertising has been an enigma throughout most of my professional life. My first exposure to it was as a print designer. Granted, the publications I worked on were targeted to the finance crowd, so perhaps less wasteful than consumer-level retail flyers, but still troubling. At this time (2008), I was merely concerned about the state of the print industry. But since I was hoping to work in print advertising, I had to push these feelings down.
After this gig concluded (the company went belly up), I somehow found myself in Taiwan, working freelance for a variety of companies including Vogue Magazine. While embedded in Vogue from 2010 to 2015, I saw companies religiously throwing huge amounts of money for ads that didn’t really do much. I knew the circulation numbers were dramatically flopping because I was privy to the internal stats. What gives?
It could be argued that these massive luxury brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton have enormous budgets, which is certainly true. And certainly still there is brand loyalty to be gained by advertising in the 100+-year-old ‘fashion-bible’ that is Vogue Magazine. But what about tangible results? It seemed advertisers didn’t care about throwing their money away. Placing ads in Vogue was just something that they deemed necessary.
In the case of Vogue, Instagram has since breathed new life into their business model, proof positive that the brand can thrive in other mediums. The print magazine is still around. And companies are still paying top dollar to advertise there. But they are now paying even more for digital ads and placement in Vogue (and Conde Nast’s) vast network. Although it took them way longer than I expected, they divorced themselves from the medium and doubled down on their message of fashion.
After returning to Canada from Taiwan, I began working with the education company “Kumon”, a very conservative, franchise-based organization from Japan. Part of my role was to assist franchisees in their marketing efforts. Over time, I found that they consistently went to print advertising in local newspapers as their go-to marketing tactic. They simply did not know how to do anything different than what they had already been doing for years. Kumon franchisees are incredibly smart people who happen to be just like the rest of us: creatures of habit.
When I began working with Cruise Connections, a cruise travel agency based in downtown Vancouver, I quickly found I had my work cut out for me. Selling cruises means the majority of your target audience skews older (although I strongly believe there is a huge ‘under-40’ market to be capitalized on). Since older demographics read newspapers and go to “invite-only” sales events, it might make sense to put some money toward print and events.
When does it stop making sense? When you are spending 10 times more on print than digital, all while getting 10 times fewer new customers than with digital efforts. I’ll never understand how people can look verifiable stats right in the face and still choose the option that is proven to be ineffective. The stats don’t lie, but print advertising reps are apparently very persistent.
6 Reasons Why Print Advertising is Dead
1. Readership is plummeting
The primary reason for the sharp decline in print relevance is that print readership numbers have plummeted. One’s first impression would likely be the logical one: fewer readers, less penetration, less profitability. I’ve read many twisted statements claiming that the remaining readers are among the most engaged. The problem with this line of thinking is that it ignores reality in favor of a rosy perspective.
The fact is that these “engaged readers” also exist online, where they can be targeted precisely at whatever time you desire. 7 out of 10 Americans use Facebook. Chances are that ‘70% of Americans’ is a larger audience than all existing American print publications combined. Now factor in all the other places people spend time online… could the aforementioned “engaged readers” print publications boast possibly amount to more than 70+% of the population?
2. It’s largely un-targeted
Print advertisers have made their business based on the audiences they cultivate. And while it may be true that the travel section of any given newspaper is a place where some people go to find travel deals, it doesn’t mean it’s the best place for them to go to find them. And it certainly isn’t the only place. Even if we stay strictly within the medium of print, there are a bevy of options if we consider travel alone. Switch to the digital medium, and the options available to the travel enthusiast multiply by several magnitudes.
If people have so many options, how loyal could they be? You could wager bets on audience loyalty if you want. Me? I’d rather target people precisely using digital marketing. For better or worse, we have data that can reliably tell us where, exactly, a “45-year-old mother of two” is spending her time online.
3. It has a short lifespan
Here’s something nobody ever says, “can you give me yesterday’s paper?” Even if somebody actually does read newspapers, chances are they are tapped-into many other sources, which are putting out fresh content at all times. This means that newspapers grow stale the moment they are printed. The advertising component of a newspaper is the part that everybody could do without… stale + despised does not make for good marketing fodder.
4. It’s very expensive
Considering how fleeting, disengaged and un-targeted the print audience is, it would be hard to justify advertising bills even at half the rate they currently are. To get into a decent position in the nationwide version of the New York Times, you’d pay over $160,000 for a one-time insertion. This is one of the most-read publications in the world, but I promise you this: give me $160,000 and I will get you 100 times the results you’d see from a full page in the NY Times. How very bold of me.
5. It’s competitive
As the print advertising industry continues to decline, publications will be forced to sell at cheaper and cheaper rates. That means to earn the same amount, advertising sales reps will need to sell to more and more customers. So if you rely on print advertising, your share of the audiences’ attention will continue to diminish. Considering that most print publications operate with a “sell as much advertising space as you possibly can” at present, it can only get worse.
6. It’s difficult to track results
When running print advertising, it’s difficult to track results, especially when compared to digital mediums. To be fair, it’s not impossible (more on that below) but since tracking in the digital world is so precise, print advertising is making less and less sense in the mind of marketers who are bound by budget constraints.
Can Print Advertising Still Work?
Can Print still work? Sure. But the problem is that companies don’t have unlimited budgets. Most people want to spend their money wisely and get the biggest bang for their buck. That’s why it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to recommend print advertising as a marketing solution. People naturally want more for less. But very often, I see people sticking with print advertising way longer than they should.
People from all age groups, with those over the age of 65 showing the highest percentage, maintained that they were better able to understand and retain info from print as opposed to digital. Take this with a grain of salt, as it’s coming from a very biased source (Printweek… yikes)… So yes, if you are targeting Baby Boomers, some amount of print advertising may make sense.
I would argue increasingly that elders are getting used to the digital world. My grandfather is 90 and he uses his iPhone, iPad and desktop computer every day. Recently I heard about an 83-year-old grandmother who streams herself playing Skyrim, a very popular game that I would be playing right now if my wife would allow it. Suffice to say, I think the older generation is very much ‘with it’ when it comes to technology.
I’ve often found the stat claiming 9 percent of ads online are viewed for more than a second. I love this stat because I’ve seen it used in print advertising sales presentations over and over again. I usually see people nodding their heads – but hold on people! Doesn’t anybody wonder what percent of print ads are viewed for more than a second? How long does it take to turn a page?
Another factor here: I wouldn’t suggest blindly swapping print ads for digital ones. I would suggest, however, replacing most of your print ads with a mix of digital mediums: email, apps, browser notifications, blogs, social media, and online content. The intelligent and concise combination of digital mediums creates a statistically unbeatable option when compared to print.
If you’ve got deep pockets and are still convinced there is a place for print advertising in your marketing mix, at least promise me you’ll do better. For retail companies, I would recommend maintaining a presence in print publications, maximizing brand image, and tracking print performance. For those of us who love to see our hard-earned cash put to good use, stick with digital!
Ryan is a copywriter & designer who has worked in the field of marketing for 12+ years. He’s worked across several industries (retail, travel, education, etc.) and is experienced with email, SEO, automation, lead generation, and digital marketing.