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Can young audiences be the saviour of print media?

Print is possibly the most undervalued medium of the moment. While it’s still a huge money-spinner for publishers with the reach or niche to do it well, the prevailing wisdom is that as ad-spend increasingly moves online, that print titles are effectively running out the clock until it makes more financial sense to shutter them.

It’s a view that isn’t unfounded: the British newspaper the Independent only returned to profit after it cut the print version and went online-only, while the financial results of most major publishers still invoke ‘strong headwinds around print’ to explain any less-than-stellar results.

Does print have an image problem?

But the counterpoint to that pessimism is equally frequently invoked. Print isn’t dying; it’s rediscovering its true strengths. At a panel on ‘The Power of Print’ put on by The Drum and Print Power at the FCB boat during Cannes Lions 2019, experts shared their thoughts on what print can offer to publishers and marketers alike, provided it is used correctly. The panel began by examining whether print has an ‘image problem’, and, if so, where that comes from.

Benjamin Lickfett, head of futures and digital Innovation at Diageo, said that at Diageo they see that image problem internally with marketeers, who are now invested in the flexibility and immediacy of digital: “Then there's the bridge to print something that sort of frozen in time where you put it out. I think that's a quite big gap to overcome.”

His point was echoed by Fiona Pannell, strategy planning and insight associate manager at British American Tobacco, who noted that the perception is that print is no longer a viable medium for advertising fast moving consumer goods: “We’ve always been a very traditional company working within cigarettes, it's the sort of thing that, you know you can sell, it's effectively an FMCG. They are suddenly realizing that what they've always traditionally done, print media isn't really working anymore.”

Instead, as the company transitions into providing less harmful alternate products, it sees more value in working with influencers, she says. That shift towards a medium traditionally associated with younger audiences prompted Luciana Carvalho Se, innovation lead at Beyond to ask whether print has a generational problem, and whether it can be “sexed up” to appeal to younger audiences.

The metrics challenge

Jamie Credland, SVP for strategy and marketing at The Economist, argued that it isn’t that younger audiences are disengaged with print – quite the opposite – but that marketers’ perceptions of what young people are into is skewed: “I've no idea what it is across the industry, but for The Economist it's not true that our print readers are older, which blows my mind. But our people that take print subscriptions tend to skew younger because there's a lot of students… because they spend their lives on their phones and they value true luxury.

“But the problem is that I feel a lot of advertisers, if you're measuring the success of a campaign purely on driving leads to a website, if you're that digital connection, then actually two hours of really in-depth engagement. How do we measure that?”

The value of the ‘right’ content in print

Amy Garrett, MD at Beano for Brands, agreed, noting that the Beano’s print circulation is actually up 10% YOY, further evidence that young people can be and are interested in print as a format, provided the content is valuable.

Other members of the panel wondered whether millennials and younger audiences, who reportedly value experience over product, might help course correct the industry to a state where print is seen as valuable for marketers. Fiona Noble, chief marketing and growth officer, Quintessentially, spoke of the phenomenon of ‘digital detox’ and its implications for advertisers:

“Actually what [young people] thrive on, what they really kind of enjoy are also moments of live versus digital, there’s a real kick back against that. So, print in whatever form has got a massive opportunity. It may be a different volume… it's about other ways of engaging in print and content and the live experience.”

The digital distraction

Despite that optimism, the panel also believed that short-termism within marketing agencies is still rampant, citing numerous examples of the industry being distracted by the shiny and new rather than promoting the strengths endemic to print.

The single purpose of a print product is something that is rarely remarked upon, except obliquely. People talk about the tangibility of a print product, but the truth is that digital products can increasingly replicate the look and feel of a print product: digital magazines frequently emulate everything from the page turn to the front cover of their print counterparts.

As digital media is typically consumed on devices that have many more purposes and serve many more masters than just reading. As a result, the panel noted the specificity of a print product is a strength that marketers are capitalising on, since it creates engagement with a medium that is wholly without distractions.

It is also, as Sky Media’s head of special projects / multicultural business, Debarshi Pandit pointed out, a safe harbour in terms of brand safety: “Brand safety is such a huge concern today. [Look at the] London Metro newspaper or the Evening Standard, look at the impact that it has. None of the other mediums, unless it's Sky or the domestic television broadcast media can guarantee you that that brand safe environment for your message and one of the other things probably that needs tweaking is the way you measure success because it's [currently] such short term, instant gratification.”

Michael Brown, head of insight at UM, agreed that the advertising industry needs to move away from that culture and towards recognising that long-term brand building works better in mediums like print that engender engagement and an emotional response: “We're looking for very short-term performance gauges. And the reality is that a lot of larger clients, they plan their budgets through econometrics. And if a channel is underperforming… for three consecutive market that medium is out of the mix permanently and it'll never come back into the mix. It’s just short-term strategy rather than brand building.”

As Print Power’s Ulbe Jelluma had mentioned at the beginning of the panel, print has tremendous cachet among industry practitioners – it’s just not reflected in ad spend or investment in the medium. The panel noted that the print activation is always the first one designed when a brief comes in, even if it ultimately does not involve a print component; and that Google and Facebook are among the biggest advertisers in newspapers; and also that both Airbnb and Netflix have launched their own print magazines.

As a result, the purpose of print is no longer as the vector to connect advertisers with huge audiences. That function has shifted to digital alternatives. As the panel noted, that has led to a fundamental shift in marketers’ priorities, one that focuses on short-term returns rather than the longer-term brand benefits afforded by print.

The challenge for print proponents, then, is in communicating those benefits to brands and agencies who are still chasing the dragon of short-termism.

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