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Remember that time everyone thought print was dead? Digital was taking over, newspapers were scrambling to develop online content, businesses were copying and pasting communications online, and jobs were being shed like holiday weight? Well it looks like digital was not the death of print, but rather a re-birth that has taken it on a new path. Our industry has a habit of making grand declarations like “print is dead” and “the :30 spot is dead”. We’ve all come to learn that, more often than not, those statements end up being incorrect. Time has shown that brands adopt the newest technologies that allow them to communicate more effectively with consumers. First it was “Sign up for our mailer”, then “Sign up for our email alerts”, and then “Visit our website”, and now it’s “Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and watch us on YouTube”. The rise of digital has certainly had a negative impact on the sales and distribution of print publications; however, human beings have an intricate historical relationship with printing that has allowed it to adapt for thousands of years relatively unscathed by technological advancement… until now. Let’s just be clear on what I’m talking about. When I reference print as a medium, I mean the physical product of a print publication in any form for any reason. When I reference print as an industry, I mean publishers and printers.
THE CYCLE OF INNOVATION, ADOPTION, AND ADAPTATION
When any new technology is introduced, there is a period of growth, trial and evaluation that shapes its ultimate destiny. When websites first became popular it was a free for all for brands to try new forms of content, interaction, and design. As Charles Darwin famously said, “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.” The key to survival in any capacity of the word is adaptation. Whether it’s to stay competitive or stay relevant, companies like IBM, The New York Times, and Goldman Sachs have consistently adapted their products and business models to meet the changing needs of their customers and re-define their roles in their industries. The same can be said for art forms like music and writing as well as marketing mediums like television, radio, and mobile.
With what was believed to be doomsday approaching, the print media industry scrambled to create their digital presences and hold on to their valuable readers and advertisers – often at the expense of their business models and content differentiation. From 2008-2010, ad spending on digital was quickly gearing up to surpass print. Publishers saw a 10% drop in circulation in the six months from March to September 30, 2009. From 2009-2010 ad spending with print publishers (both in print and online) fell by $2 billion, and by 2011 Internet ad spending (excluding news sites) had surpassed print publishers by $4 billion. The solution to that problem, or so it seemed at the time, was content. Print media spent so much time and effort getting to digital, because they saw it as a must for survival, that they didn’t question if they were missing out on a better way to do it that didn’t cannibalize their print readership. On the Internet, content is a commodity, and it trades at a low price.
HBO navigated a similar dilemma successfully by opting out of giving away re-runs of shows and barely selling on iTunes. This strategy was in direct opposition to most of its industry peers, and in the end, HBO’s content was not devalued, and they gained the legitimacy to develop their HBO GO product to take ownership of new revenue streams. HBO shed 680,000 subscribers between 2009 and 2010, but its revenues were at $4 billion (up from the year before). Protecting their premium content seems to have shed viewers who were not spending as much on HBO programming – allowing the company to cultivate a loyal audience with a higher lifetime value. For most businesses, print as a medium was no longer needed to be their voice, but there was still something about print that was keeping it alive. People, publishers, and brands began to rediscover the power of an old format through new contexts.
The media industry fueled the changing behaviors around their product by suddenly giving away all their content for free because they were more worried about keeping advertising revenue than protecting their industry. Businesses saved money by spending less on print, but struggled for a share of voice in a newly crowded Internet. It was, and still is, difficult to be a leading voice in your category, because not only does every brand have equal say in a digital world, but consumers now have an equal voice in the conversation about your brand (something that was not a concern with print). Print, as a medium, did not have the ability to adapt to digital. It couldn’t alter its business model because it’s not a business. It was at the mercy of its consumers. Luckily print emerged from the digital ruckus more valuable than it had gone in. Where before printing was a necessity, it had since become an expense, but is now seen as an investment. Print is re-emerging as an opportunity for brands where before it was a channel for businesses. The role of design in print has been elevated. The careful curation of content has been mastered to make things worthy of being printed. The fact that this very publication about digital is also being printed attests to that. Both print and digital evolved on parallel paths focusing on simplicity, design, and user experience. Not only did the print industry survive, but it also evolved and grew in new segments to create a new print industry that holds its place in the digital age. Online-only magazines like Style.com and StyleMePretty.com actually launched new print publications, the previously shut down magazine Domino is returning with a quarterly print edition, and Reuters is launching a new print publication to compete in what could be seen as a newly re-opened print news market. There are also printing and publishing companies like McSweeney’s that have adapted to the new print landscape by creating quarterly publications for artists, brands, and businesses. To top that off, there is actually a company printing four new magazines dedicated solely to how businesses use social media platforms. Ironically, the very thing that was thought to be killing print is actually fueling it.
Going digital forced the print medium to look in the mirror and say, “Why do I exist?” Now that the ‘New Print’ is emerging, expect a lot more creativity to come from brands that are thinking about the right way to build experiences for audiences. Keep in mind that a renewed interest in print is not necessarily a renewed interest in publications, but rather an interest in interacting with print as a medium. As brands focus more on the customer experience across every touch point, they are being more thoughtful and strategic about those experiences. Audiences are blending together – segmenting more by psychographics than demographics – and they’ve become pickier about how, when, and why they interact with brands. There’s certainly no shortage of content or brand communications being pushed at them, nor is there a particular medium dominating communications. Print is every bit as viable as digital, social media, or broadcast. While our paper production may be down, one thing is clear: PRINT IS NOT DEAD.