As well as being among the world’s biggest brands, internet giants Facebook, Google and Amazon have something else in common – they have all started to embrace printed media in recent times.
Facebook has faced intense scrutiny over the past few months, not least due to the public outrage resulting from the Cambridge Analytica data scandal earlier this year, and has been attempting to rebuild bridges with its users ever since.
With its own platform facing so much distrust, print appears to have emerged as Facebook’s medium of choice to communicate various messages to the public.
It has taken out multiple adverts in newspapers, magazines and out-of-home locations in recent weeks, both to apologise for the data scandal and to heavily publicise its ‘Fake news is not our friend’ campaign.
“By choosing print for a public apology, I think Facebook is saying that the medium of print conveys a message to be taken seriously,” says BPIF marketing director Amy Hutchinson.
“Print is really powerful for online brands because it is an arena that their customers aren’t used to seeing those brands in, so it offers a unique opportunity to grab attention.”
Indeed, Facebook is not only using print to apologise. In June it launched Grow, its new quarterly thought leadership print magazine aimed at business leaders that it has made available in selected UK airport and railway station business lounges.
Amazon, meanwhile, is planning to publish a printed toy catalogue in the US in the run-up to Christmas in a bid to fill the gap left by the recent demise of Toys ‘R’ Us. The catalogue will reportedly be sent out to millions of Amazon customers in the US and handed out at the company’s Whole Foods chain.
Google has been using print for even longer. For years it has been sending heavily branded mail pieces to established customers and business startups containing marketing messages and introductory offers for its Google AdWords service.
There appears to be a number of good reasons that online giants have started to turn to print to get their messages across.
“In the age of fake news, trolls and bots, print can give that trust, authority and credibility,” says Hutchinson.
“There is a lot of cheap and unreliable information out there online and sometimes it’s difficult for a consumer to distinguish what is the good stuff and what shouldn’t be trusted.
“Although the same can happen with print it’s less of an issue because print has to go through much more of a checking phase. And because you’ve got to pay for print to be produced it’s almost like a little more consideration happens.”
While it will typically cost more for a business to produce a printed campaign than a digital one, online brands are finding that their return on investment from print is continuing to grow.
“When you look at the cost of digital media, which is going up significantly in pay-per-click terms, and then you look at the cost and flexibility of a printed communication, which is actually going down in real terms and making it more accessible, then you’ve got a bit of a tipping point going on,” says Webmart chief executive Simon Biltcliffe.
“People have realised that the panacea that they perceived as digital client acquisition and retention policy isn’t going to carry on forever.”
He adds that the introduction of new data protection rules under GDPR have also made these companies think differently about how they communicate with their customers.
Many other brands that originated online are also using print. Uber and Airbnb have both published printed magazines targeted at their customers and stakeholders; internet fashion retailer Asos saw its customer loyalty magazine reach its 100th edition earlier this year; and luxury fashion brand Net-a-Porter publishes a consumer magazine, Porter, which is intended to act like an e-commerce website.
Readers can hover their smartphone over pages in the printed issue and images come to life via the retailer’s mobile app, with an icon appearing that highlights the brand, price, a buy button for items that are available from the company’s website, and much more besides.
Go Inspire Group communications and marketing director Paul Sumner says it is crucial to use both print and digital elements in a campaign to get the best results.
“They need to be linked together. I think everybody has been trying to bridge that gap between online and offline seamlessly,” he says.
Hutchinson adds: “Print and digital are complementary channels, and each has its strengths. I think it’s about helping those brands achieve their commercial ends and the most exciting results are done with multiple touchpoints across digital and print.”
Retailers can take advantage of using both by posting follow-up personalised printed communications to customers who have left products in their online shopping baskets.
The possibilities of variable data printing are making it increasingly cheaper and easier for brands to quickly send a timely printed nudge to a customer who has already shown interest in making a purchase online to help to seal the deal.
“You get far more cut-through with print and because it’s more tactile I think it has a substance to it. It also has more stickability – it’s a tangible piece that many people in a home will see,” says Sumner.
Ultimately, the increasing move of online giants to print can only be a good thing for the industry, particularly when considering their respective marketing spends.
“A lot of these companies that have been built on understanding data and understanding their customers potentially understand what those customers might want next,” says DMA head of insight Tim Bond.
“They understand the value of multiple channels and that it’s not just about digital or print, but that it’s really about understanding your customer and how best to engage them.”
He concludes: “I think what has really changed is the ability to take that data and apply it to whatever channel they want.”
Digital brands are beginning to covet print’s credibility image
Martyn Eustace, chairman, Two Sides
A month ago there was a blink-and-you-miss-it piece of news in the technology section of the Bloomberg website. Among the items on cyber-security, AI and big data, there was a headline that ran: ‘Amazon Takes a Page From Toys ‘R’ Us With a Holiday Catalog’. The story outlined the online giant’s plans to launch a print catalogue for Christmas, mailed to US homes and distributed through its Whole Foods Market stores.
For any other retailer this wouldn’t be big news. After all, retail catalogues remain a hugely successful sales driver. But this is a firm that built its $100bn business entirely on digital platforms. For them to be turning to print when they have the world’s smartphones, tablets and desktop computers to advertise through is a remarkable advertising move.
But it’s not just Amazon that is using print. Facebook, Uber, Airbnb and Asos all have glossy magazines they use to communicate with their employees and customers, while Google regularly uses direct mail to get through to its prized business audience. And when Facebook issued an apology earlier in the year following the data privacy scandal, it wasn’t through its own vast social network, it was through full-page adverts in the world’s papers.
What lies behind this communications shift to print is a desire to be authentic, to turn brands with a lot of reach but little physical presence into something people can touch. In the rush to digitise everything, many brands have forgotten the human need for a physical presence, not only for accessibility but also to build a sense of trust.
It wasn’t so long ago that digital media was threatening to engulf print completely, pushing everyone online and pushing out traditional media. Now it seems that the companies who have made fortunes from disrupting the markets that print previously thrived in are turning to paper to communicate with their audiences in an authentic, credible and, more importantly, physical way.
Why are the internet giants turning to print?
Robin Sumner, managing director, Romax
“Printed matter in your hand has a greater authority than online presence. So brands that have a good standing or are trying to portray a high standing in society are reinvesting in paper because they understand its true value. I think people understand that if you’re going to put effort into something and you want people to recognise that effort and therefore respond to it, printed media portrays that better. You could also argue that because it costs more money it means brands are more serious about it as well.”
Martin Woolley, chief executive, The Specialist Works
“The role of printed media in multi-channel retail or even pure-play retail is a really important part of the mix for the large majority of players in that sector. At the same time that traditional physical media is supposedly shrinking, we have seen that the biggest growing sector in terms of the ability to put a message in front of a consumer is the e-commerce and home delivery area. The number of parcels, catalogues and statements that are being delivered into homes gives one of the biggest unheralded media opportunities right now.”
Mike Roberts, managing director, PMG Print Management
“Brands like Amazon and Google clearly feel that print has power and relevance and that it is going to get a reaction. If companies like this, whose businesses are digital based, are turning or returning to the provision of print and direct mail, clearly it’s because it works. For me it’s interesting that this is currently happening a lot Stateside and what we’ve now got to do as an industry is educate the UK e-tailers, as well as normal businesses, about the cut-through and the power of print.”