‘Digital-first’ isn’t the end of print

Those reading a sentence like this one for the first time in print, rather than on a smartphone, tablet or other digital device, will soon be in the minority. Modern society is in the process of transition, from ‘print-first’ to ‘digital-first’, and the advertising and communications markets are no exception.

In 2000, print was the largest advertising medium, accounting for two-thirds of all advertising expenditure, and the most essential (and often primary) means for communication. Today, internet advertising expenditure in Western Europe is equal to the combined spend in newspapers and magazines and digital is now the most used communications medium, especially among the younger generations. 

Where exactly print’s future lies is the subject of the second research paper commissioned by The Stationers’ Company on the paper and print sectors’ outlook in this increasingly digital age. The first, published in 2009, proved to be one of the most accurate projections of how the market would develop over the following five years.

The good news is that the latest report, titled European Digital Media Landscape to 2020 – The Future of Paper and Print and authored by Martin Glass, a research consultant from EMGE, and Jim Bilton, managing director at Wessenden Marketing and Brandlab Research, points to a long future for print, albeit at a lower volume than today.

The bad news is that paper demand is expected to continue to decline in Western Europe in the coming years, and is not likely to stabilise before 2020, by which time the substitution effects between digital and print are expected to have taken place.

“We’re on a digital journey that will have a profound impact on paper. Mobile traffic is increasing at a rate of 60% per annum, as is the use of smartphones and tablets,” says Glass.

The proportion of us browsing the internet from mobile devices already stands at 30%, which – with demographic and browsing data about individuals collected every time they use the internet on a mobile device – is catnip for marketers; the increasingly intelligent collection, management and use of data has enabled online marketing to become targeted and personalised in real time, something that has not been feasible with print advertising.

But Bilton believes that digital and physical media should work together going forward and, rather than competing, can be used for cross-promotion of content on different platforms. “Digital doesn’t have to be an enemy to physical, it can be a friend as well,” he says.

Ironically, the rise of mobile, while harmful to print in some ways, may be benefitting it in others. Rather than the old world of one media versus another, the rise of smartphones and tablets has created a multi-dimensional world in which people use several media platforms, including print, simultaneously.

In this environment, where the correct route to the consumer is both invaluable and increasingly difficult to establish, print and paper will be recognised for their unique ability to engage readers and hold their attention. “In a digital world, where everything gets broken down into momentary bite-sized snippets, deeper engagement becomes an illusive and valuable rarity,” says Glass.

Recognition of print’s benefit in driving consumers to digital media can be seen in technologies such as Layar, Blippar and Documobi, which are leading the way in linking print and digital media in order to boost customer engagement. According to Documobi managing director Peter Lancaster, this recognition is spreading to the most important people of all: those who control the advertising expenditure. “Early Documobi adopters are already gaining significant interest from their major brand clients,” he says.

Apps and technologies such as these seem to hold the key to a digital-aided future for print and are the product of what Glass and Bilton term the “digital whirlpool”, in which competing paper- and digital-based media mix, substitute and cross over. Rather than being washed away, they predict that print will emerge from this whirlpool in “a different, new and sometimes novel manner”. “Those who don’t understand the power of print see paper in this whirlpool swirling down the drain. However, the reality is very different. A paperless society is about as useful as a paperless toilet,” says Glass.

The report predicts that mobile digital advertising will reach a saturation point in 2017 and with no further major technological revolution forecast, the decline in paper and print will begin to slow, before stabilising by the end of the decade in a “smaller but different” role where print and paper are recognised for their unique benefits when used alongside digital media rather than being vulnerable to attack from it. 

The goal for the next five years therefore is for paper and print to find ways to make themselves relevant by embracing digital, being more creative with print applications, adopting new technologies and matching suitable content to the medium. If they can achieve this in the next few years then it seems that paper and print will have a much brighter future in this ‘digital-first’ world than many might have predicted. 

The full report can be purchased for £950, or £2,500 for multiple use up to 10 copies, from the Stationers’ Company via Sophie Miller on 020 7246 0982 or admin@stationers.org.

Digital’s growth: facts and figures

Cisco forecasts that mobile internet traffic will rise at over 60% a year from 2018

30% of internet browsing is now from mobile phones and tablets

65% of the population now have social media accounts

Consumption of Graphic Paper in Western Europe fell 6.2% per annum between 2008 and 2010

Before 2000, print accounted for almost two-thirds of all advertising expenditure. Today, in Western Europe, the size of internet advertising is equal to advertising spend in newspapers and magazines combined

Most people who own smartphones and tablets keep these devices within one metre from their person, everywhere they go, throughout the day

Mobile revenue now accounts for 59% of Facebook’s total revenue


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