By Daniel Hedger
What the closure of more print publications tells us about today’s media landscape and the importance of branding and engagement.
The recent news that Blitz Publications and Multi-Media Group would be closing three of its longstanding mastheads should, unfortunately, not come as a shock to anyone still working in print media. It’s even more unfortunate because it doesn’t have to be this way.
The number one reason more print publications are failing is falling sales revenue. Newsstand sales and subscription numbers could be relatively steady, in fact, if slightly declining, but once the advertisers start backing out, that’s when the real trouble starts.
Outgoing Pacific Mags boss Peter Zavecz recently commented on this very phenomenon, calling falling ad sales as an “over-reaction to loss of audience – the revenue declines have been far more pronounced than the audience declines.” He claims media agencies (and by extension clients) have “unfairly treated magazines because they haven’t been able to properly manage the engagement magazines bring and brand-alignment associations, what that brings.” Print circulation figures are often used as the be-all and end-all to prove how well a publication is doing, but Zavecz says that’s too blunt a metric. “You can stick a balloon in the sky and claim all of Sydney saw you but that doesn’t mean people engaged with you and that’s what magazines deliver.”
This is something I saw in my years in print publishing: younger clients and agencies that had never read, bought or understood the appeal of print, despite, as mentioned, a relatively stable readership, at least in comparison to revenue drop-off. Consider some of print’s benefits:
• There are no ad-blockers in a printed publication, unlike online, where one study found 70 per cent of mobile users had ad blockers installed or thought about it. In a magazine, alternatively, ads are (or should be) well-designed pieces of art with a commercial proposition. If done well, they contribute to, rather than take away from, the reading experience.
• Tactile engagement and relationship with a product. Studies have shown that consumers trust print media much more than online news and advertising, which to some extent still has the reputation of tacky and potentially unsafe (‘What am I actually clicking on here?’). You engage directly with a printed product, because you physically have to touch it and are thus less prone to being distracted.
• Social proof. The calibre of companies that do still include print in their marketing strategies tend to be high-end: Mercedes, Rolex, Tag Heuer. Businesses with an interest in appearing upmarket have not abandoned print just yet. Print can be an expensive proposition, so many luxury brands have understood the benefit.
Speaking at a recent event, Martin Wanless of Mahlab Media presented new research by Media Works that showed adding a print component to advertising campaigns increased campaign effectiveness by 20–40 per cent. “In 2016, in my opinion,” Wanless said, “only a digital dinosaur would ignore print.” (In addition, digital advertising is proving pretty ineffective, in Australia in particular, where we have one of the lowest click-through rates for banner ads in the world.)
But try telling any of that to your 22-year-old media manager who has never even been inside a news agency and doesn’t remember a time when you couldn’t get any content you liked for free.
If print is to still be viable, it needs to be part of an integrated campaign that includes digital platforms without devaluing its (admittedly) most expensive product. It’s convincing new or naïve clients the importance of branding that becomes the real challenge. People are now conditioned to want a quick ROI without much of an actual investment. (And remember the old quick/fast/good dilemma.)
So we come to the real crux: branding and engagement. No matter what the delivery system — digital, print, a combination of the two or, hell, a sky writer — a company’s brand is its most valuable asset, if it’s to have any staying power.
A brand’s integrity is much more important than click-throughs. Worrying so much about automatic return is misunderstanding the role of advertising. That’s an out-dated theory of media called the hypodermic needle theory, which says that any piece of communication will be automatically received and accepted by the audience. We all know from our own lives this isn’t how it works. Did you buy your car because you saw ONE ad that programmed your brain to want that car? Of course not. You gradually built up a trust with a particular brand, you did your research and decided on the car for you.
But clients and media agencies often put the cart before the horse. People don’t know why they make the choices they make and media agencies can’t show any numbers for branding and awareness. You can’t survey someone about why they bought x product over y because branding can (and should) be subtle and, ultimately, almost invisible. You engage with a brand because you’ve developed a relationship with it.
At Hook Media, when we create content for and on behalf of clients, advertising is never the end goal. We have so far been lucky to work with companies that understand the importance of having a strong brand and that associating yourself with high-quality content, be it video, photography or written articles, will drive sales down the line. We want our viewers to be engaged with the brand first and foremost. No need to put a sales call to action on every single thing. Build it and they will come.
It’s taking the long view, but ultimately it’s where things are headed. The smart companies are the ones that have strong brand integrity and a strategy for getting their name out there, without having to feature product shots beckoning you to BUY BUY BUY. Those kinds of businesses might get some click-throughs — but guaranteed they’re not getting people interested in engaging with their brand.
The challenge is to convince clients and media agencies that whatever the strategy, the focus should be on long-term development of a brand that customers will want to engage with.