Is print media dead?

Written by Keith Errington  |  18, June, 2019  |  0 Comments

shutterstock_130538774is print media dead?is print media deadThe digital transformation of our lives has swept all before it and radicalised the way we transmit and receive information – the way we view information and store information.

With its root firmly in analogue and ink on paper, has the time now come to declare print dead? Is it time to bury it, along with fax machines, VHS tapes and punch cards?

Well, it turns out that print is still alive, and, depending on use, very much thriving. And there is even a good case to be made for marketers to keep it in their arsenal of marketing solutions.

The Decline in Traditional Print

Like almost every other industry in the past one hundred years, printing has been transformed by new technologies.

After working for centuries using metal type, the introduction of phototypesetting in the 50s and 60s started a rapid process of transformation leading to CRT typesetting in the 70s and eventually to the desktop publishing revolution of the 80s.

This desktop publishing revolution was enabled by a combination of three technological developments: the Apple Macintosh computer, the Apple LaserWriter printer and the page description language PostScript, developed by Adobe. This meant that anyone (with appropriate training and aptitude) could use early programmes such as Aldus PageMaker (the forerunner to Adobe InDesign) to create printed documents.

The impact of this has been far-reaching; typesetting companies became bureaus, and eventually died out as files were sent straight to the printer rather than be typeset and art-worked first. Many of a business’ smaller jobs that would have been sent to a printer in the past, were now printed by users themselves.

Over time, software became more sophisticated and with the widespread adoption of email for communication, even newsletters and direct mail moved to digital. There were clear advantages; electronic communication was instant and virtually free.

The Impact on Publishing

In the wide world, the digital age had an impact on traditional media too. Over the past two decades, the print circulation of newspapers has nose-dived, in many cases halving in number, and in one case – The Independent – moving wholly online and giving up print production altogether.

In fact, most newspapers that have a website see a massive disparity in the audience between print and digital. The Financial Times prints less than 200,000 copies of the newspaper and yet has an online audience of 11 million.

The only printed newspaper currently on a clear upward trend (as of 2018 figures from ABC) is the Evening Standard, which is now an advertising-funded free-sheet given away to commuters. In fairness, The Times has seen a slight improvement in its circulation too, but it’s near the bottom of the league. If you carry these trends to their logical conclusion, then in a few years’ time, it’s possible, as some people have predicted, that there may well be no newspapers at all.

Magazines too have suffered, in the UK dropping from a total circulation of 820 million copies in 2011 to 374 million in 2018 (Statista). Most sectors have seen a drastic reduction in 2018 with the worst being Children’s Magazines (-72.8%), Soap (-34.3%) and Men’s Lifestyle (-26.7%).

There is some hope for magazines though as the Home Improvement sector has seen a modest increase (0.2%). News & Current Affairs and Women’s Traditional have also been growing (4.6% and 5.7% respectively). But the largest growth is in the Women’s Interests – Other sector which has seen a significant, and impressive gain of 15%. (All figures from Statista).

Ironically, magazines may get a new lease of life through digital newsstands such as Apple’s newly launched Apple News Plus, a subscription service currently only available in the Us and Canada, where subscribers pay $9.99 a month to have access to around 300 magazines.

Yes, but what about marketing?

A number of factors have contributed to a decline in printed Direct Mail for marketing and an increase in the use of email.

The biggest factor is undoubtedly cost. Direct Mail is many times more expensive than an email campaign – the printing and distribution costs of Direct Mail are significant compared to the virtually free cost of email. According to a study from Citi Post Mail, direct mail has an average ROI of £7 for every £1 spent, whilst email has an average return of £38.

It is potentially easier to track and analyse responses to an email campaign as people click on trackable links. Whereas Direct Mail campaigns can be responded to in a number of ways – many of them not directly attributable back to the campaign.

Personalisation is easier and more sophisticated in an email campaign compared to the minimal personalisation that’s possible in a direct mail campaign.

These reasons may be why 82% of companies use email marketing, but only 50% are using Direct Mail.

The problem with email

However, email marketing is not without its problems, and in the recent past, these have increased.

Firstly, its effectiveness is on the decline, it’s simply being overused, and recipients are rightly getting fed up with it. Whilst in the UK 13.8 billion letters are sent every year (38 million a day, of which 12 million are direct mail), that figure is dwarfed by the 74 trillion emails that are sent every year, with over half – 56.52% – of those being spam (2016 figures).

With 70% of people in the UK saying they receive too many emails, they are more hostile towards email and it is getting difficult to get past spam filters and attract their attention.

Secondly, the introduction of GDPR has made the sending of an email campaign to all and sundry illegal. Businesses must now ensure that their recipients have opted in to receive emails. Furthermore, they must explicitly get their permission for every piece of data they store on them and only use it for the purpose the recipient has agreed to.

The advantages of Direct Mail

Despite the ease of email marketing and it’s impressive ROI, there are a number of powerful advantages to Direct Mail.

  • Lifespan: The average lifespan of an email is two seconds, with direct mail it is seventeen days
  • Memorability: 44% could remember a brand after seeing a digital ad, against 75% who received a direct mail
  • Action: 79% act on direct mail immediately compared to 45% who act on email straight away
  • Response rate: Direct mail generates a 4.4% average response rate versus email’s 0.12%
  • New Business: Direct Mail generates 10% more customers than email and even has a cheaper cost per acquisition (£39.59 versus £42.55).

The difference between email and direct mail

In a survey for the Royal Mail, customers chose the words that they associated with each type of communication. Here they are listed in order of popularity:


  • Quick
  • Spontaneous
  • Interesting
  • Informative
  • Smart
  • Informal

Direct mail

  • Formal
  • Official
  • Considered
  • Believable
  • Important
  • Reliable
  • Informative
  • Personal

What’s interesting about these lists, is the clear difference between them. Mail is seen as more trustworthy and important than email and interestingly, it is also seen as more personal.

In the same survey, 56% of people said that mail makes me feel valued, but only 40% said the same about email.

Research by Kantar Millward Brown and Bangor University examined the emotional response to on-screen and printed adverts, they found:

  • Tangible materials leave a deeper footprint in the brain.
  • Physical materials produced more brain responses connected with internal feelings, suggesting greater “internalization” of the ads.
  • Physical material involves more emotional processing, which is important for memory and brand associations.

What’s clear is that the two mediums have different strengths and trigger different emotional responses, implying that each should be used depending on your campaign and its goals.

When to use Email and when to use Direct Mail

In the Royal Mail survey, customers were asked through which channel they would prefer to receive certain types of communication.

By email they preferred to receive:

  • Information about companies not used before
  • Other products and services
  • Confirmation or follow-up messages
  • News and updates

By direct mail they preferred to receive:

  • Brochures & Catalogues
  • Welcome Packs
  • Bills or Statements
  • Loyalty Rewards

Two types of communications were almost evenly split: Reminders and Issues or complaints.

This research is a great guide as to which channel to use for different types of marketing communication.

Research by United Mail has shown that using a mixture of the two channels makes for the most effective marketing, with customers spending 25% more when businesses use both channels.

The return of the brand magazine

Businesses are starting to recognise that to make an impact with their marketing they need to do something different, and in today’s digitally overloaded world, that different can be print. In particular, new companies looking to make an impact have started publishing their own print magazines with impressive results.

Some B2C businesses have been so successful with their free brand magazines that they have launched them with a cover price – Superdrug’s Dare and the ASOS magazine have both been placed on sale after a period of being distributed for free.

As a way of showcasing good content in a unique, valued format, the brand magazine is proving to be an effective way to grab the attention of the target market.

An obituary?

So is print dead? No. It still has its uses – and still a powerful medium for marketers. While newspapers and magazines are certainly desperately struggling to stay breathing, direct mail and content print publishing is alive and well and is starting to experience a resurgence.

The Insider Guide to Developing and Using Buyer Personas