Don’t Give Up on Print

Why print still has a place in our digital world

When the Kindle appeared on the scene a little over ten years ago, it seemed like only a matter of time before bookstores disappeared from the landscape as all our reading moved to screens.

It didn’t happen. In fact, e-book sales have been declining in recent years as hardback and paperback sales have increased, and there are many more independent bookstores today than there were in 2010.

Why is print holding on?

It has become apparent that many readers see a benefit to print books versus switching to digital. For books at least, print isn’t going away.

Charities and professional associations often have legacy print products—journals, trade magazines, directories, guides—which seem ripe for a total switch to digital. However, our work with some of these groups shows that there’s still life in print, and you want to make sure that a switch isn’t going to leave your audience behind.

These are some questions we like to find answers to before recommending such a significant change in strategy.


Who are your readers, and what do they want from your product?

While general population studies (like this one from Pew) show that people increasingly go online for news and information, not all readers and ways of reading are the same.

One, older Americans still hold a fondness for print, and while this may not always be the case, it is true for the immediate and even medium-term future.

Two, consider the print products that still wind up in your household. If you’ve ever taken an adventure travel trip, you’ll get beautiful, tabloid-sized catalogs for the rest of your life, even though they look like they cost a fortune. Your alma mater may blow up your email inbox, but that alumni association magazine shows up on a quarterly basis, as well, no matter how many times you might’ve switched addresses.

And how about that monthly Bed Bath & Beyond coupon? Surely we could do without them now, particularly when the cashier seems happy to give you the discount even when you forgot it.

What these things have in common is a desire to be a presence in your home, and print achieves this in ways digital media can’t. This is particularly true for something like a trade association publication or journal that publishes with lower frequency (monthly or quarterly). The arrival of the print product is an opportunity for the reader to reconnect—at least briefly—with the organization.


How is your audience reading the publication?

Why does even the so-called “digital native” generation prefer print over digital textbooks?

Because they work better. For longform reading and research, physical books are simply more effective and therefore more desired. In fact, in a study we conducted for an e-textbook start up, college students overwhelmingly told us that they learn better and retain more when they study with physical textbooks. Learning is a tactile and visual process, and e-books can’t replicate that experience.

But even for pleasure reading, students prefer print books and even express some measure of resentment when they’re forced into digital courseware.

Additionally, there’s research on advertising that suggests print ads do better at driving emotional responses, as opposed to digital ads. Print and digital aren’t necessarily interchangeable.

Digital is clearly superior in terms of distribution, but for a publication with a defined, limited audience—like a professional journal or trade publication—we may find that even though the audience has switched to digital media in general, when it comes to a source of learning and information, they still desire print.


What are they doing with your publication when they’re not reading it?

Maybe a publication isn’t read right away, and instead spends time on the coffee table, or mail pile. Shouldn’t we see this as a kind of engagement that wouldn’t be possible with all-digital distribution?

An email that’s deleted en masse with a bunch of others isn’t going to be retrieved from the trash, but that journal or catalog that has a physical presence has a chance of being picked up at any moment. Depending on the nature of the organization and the purpose of the publication, this can make print more than worth it.

We imagine Bed Bath & Beyond expects most everyone to put that monthly coupon right in the recycling, but even as it’s being carried to the trash, you’re thinking about the store and maybe instead, you decide to keep it, just in case.

At first glance, making the switch to all-digital publishing can seem like the obvious choice. But before you deep-six your print product, make sure your audience isn’t enjoying hidden benefits of this enduring technology.

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