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Are You Changing with the Times?

Posted on Tuesday, July 30, 2019 at 12:30 PM

Follow the industry where it's headed, but beware hyperbole about the digital future.

By William Dunkerley

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." This quote is often attributed to genius Albert Einstein. It's easy to think some magazine publishers are guilty of that very thing. Their editorial product was conceived in the print era. In response to declining print revenues, they've transplanted basically the same concept to digital and expect it to produce more revenue.

We see another variant of this in the strategy of a client I recently worked with. She has a print product that has performed well for many years. She's still producing it, defiantly ignoring digital, and expects a continuation of the historical sales results. That led me to humbly express a corollary to the Einstein quote: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results amid a changing environment."

Times are changing. It behooves us to adapt.

Where Magazines Are Headed

Recently I ran into an associate from long ago. He snickered when I told him I was still involved with magazines and asserted they are a dying breed. I replied, "That depends on what your definition of a magazine is. What about digital?" He had no retort to that.

Unmistakably, the concept of a magazine is evolving along with the emergence of digital. And it's obviously important for us to grow in whatever direction the industry is taking us.

But it is also important to understand what that direction really is. We are presented with a lot of misleading claims about both the death of print and the sweepingly great future we'll find by going all digital.

Drunk on Digital Spin

The trouble is that both claims reflect a strong element of spin that can be misleading. In part it's led many publishers to shutter their print editions. Among those we've reported on are:

--Ladies' Home Journal
--ESPN The Magazine
--Beer Advocate

Some of those publishers may have just been drunk on digital. For others, going digital was simply their last resort. Take Newsweek, for example. Its failure in print had little to do with the evolution of digital. The magazine fell victim to rampant mismanagement and misdirection. We did an extensive analysis back in 2010 on what went wrong. (See "Why Newsweek Magazine Failed.)"

Advertising Missteps

For other magazines, the abandonment of print seems to have been precipitated by their failure to sell print advertising successfully in the face of ad industry changes. They tried selling in the same old way over and over again while expecting the same result. What they really needed were new strategies and skills.

It's true that a lot of advertisers have been dazzled by the predictions of digital growth and the promise of a bright digital future. In response, many of them clamor for digital exposure.

Exaggeration has plagued the depiction of that future, however. Growth figures have often been expressed in percentages. They sound impressive. But if you look at the actual revenue numbers, they tell a slightly different story.

I recently saw substantiation of this on the WAN/IFRA website. The site shows growth in digital advertising revenue and a decline in print revenue. The growth reports are expressed in percentages. But if you look at the dollars, the numbers paint a different picture. The market size for print is $50.3 billion, while digital is just $12.0 billion.

What's more, the growth in digital may not be entirely a result of consumer preferences changing from print to digital. Some of it may simply be attributable to the advent of the new digital ad medium's availability.

Print vs. Digital Ad Efficacy

There is also the question of the relative effectiveness of print versus digital advertising. There's been a lot of hype involved in that too. No matter how flashy the new digital ad opportunities may be, sooner or later there will be a reckoning about their effectiveness. Are the ads going to sell products and services for the advertisers?

Banner ads have already shown that they don't measure up. Pop-ups have led to rampant use of pop-up blockers.

One of the main benefits magazine ads have for the advertisers is that we provide a halo effect that emanates from consumer trust in our editorial product.

MarketingSherpa conducted a study that asked, "In general which type of advertising channels do you trust more when you want to make a purchase decision"?

Who consumers trust. (Click here for an enlarged view.)

Print ads come up on top. Pop-ups, banners, and native advertising are way below. That adds up to a clear role for print advertising in today's marketplace.

Implementing Smart Changes

With all that said, it is nonetheless indisputable that consumer reading practices are changing. And it is incumbent upon publishers to shape their content accordingly. Blindly declaring "print forever" is not the answer. But neither is abandoning print for a shiny digital future that may have been misrepresented to us all.

Oh, and that Einstein quote? It looks like it was misrepresented too.

According to Business Insider: "As it turns out, insanity might be crediting that quote to Einstein over and over again. He never said it."

That's backed up by QuoteInvestigator.com: "There is no substantive evidence that Einstein wrote or spoke the statement."

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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