Why Print Remains So Important to an Increasingly Digital World

See why consumers continue to have an affinity for print, and how this time-tested medium fits into today’s digital consumer landscape.

Laurie Weller
September 19, 2018
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This year marks Printing News’ 90th anniversary, and as we close in on a full century of industry coverage, the question remains: What is the future of print?

In fact, printed communications continue to have widespread appeal, even as the digital revolution has transformed the consumer landscape. Consider research reported in Science Daily, which shows that newspaper readers overwhelmingly prefer paper – 89 percent of the total amount of time readers devote to newspapers goes to the print edition, versus four percent for online and seven percent for mobile formats.

The same dynamic holds true for book readers. Pew Research Center recently found that 65 percent of Americans had read a print book during the previous year, “more than double the share that has read an e-book (28 percent), and more than four times the share that has consumed book content via audio book (14 percent).”

While according to a recent CNN report, the average American adult spends more than 10 hours a day consuming media digitally, research also shows that people are naturally drawn to print. Here’s why.

Digital Fatigue

For one, says Daniel Dejan, print and creative manager for Boston-based Sappi North America, the volume of digital communications consumers confront today is nothing short of mind-boggling.

“I often refer to it as a tsunami,” he said. “And there are no boundaries with digital communications. Anyone with a computer and access to Wi-Fi can upload. So, we have this plethora of information, data, communications, video, music, opinion and rumor.”

Plus, he adds, printed communications typically undergo a review process before they reach consumers, which gives them credibility. “If I write something that is going to be printed, there’s a copy editor – or it has to be approved by legal,” said Dejan. “If I create a design, there is a creative director who has to approve it. These kinds of checks and balances within print guarantee its quality and accuracy.”

Jay Sheffield, account executive for Monterey Park, California-based Continental Colorcraft, attributes printing’s staying power in part to new eco-friendly solutions that consumers – especially younger generations – value.

“People are getting more interested in what a brand stands for and how it impacts the environment,” he said. “So, we get more requests to print on recycled media, and we only use soy-based inks. Most of the papers now are FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified.”

Versatile and Reliable

Dr. Gillian Hayes, a Kleist professor in informatics at the University of California, Irvine, emphasizes that it is the flexibility of print that makes it so valuable to consumers.

“You can print something and set it on a table, and that table can be inside in the dark or outside on a boat, and it will work,” she said. “And you can take out any pen or pencil and make notations, and that will also work. Digitally, we are just not there, yet.”

According to Marcie Obstfeld, president of Irvine, California-based Power Promotions, print remains in demand today because there are so many applications for it.

“There is a way to imprint virtually everything,” she said. “It may be some sort of attachment to a product, but now our answer to clients is almost always ‘yes.’ This is made possible by the different techniques available now, which can create everything from edible imprints to tiny prints on the side of your eyeglasses. And you can say ‘yes’ to small quantities, too. It may be more expensive, but not like it used to be.”

Printed communications also offer a measure of security that their digital counterparts lack. “Pilots are moving to iPads and apps for their maps and avionics, but they still use printed logbooks and other documents because it is safer to have that paper as a backup in the air,” said Hayes.

Investments in printing also pay off for brands. “Direct mail has a huge ROI,” said Sheffield. “And just look at the packaging in an Apple store – even for an earpiece. Then you get that brand new iPhone home, and it comes in a sexy box to increase your perceived value of it. That is the impact of printing and packaging.”

Appealing to the Senses

While consumers are drawn to the dimensionality and utility of print, Dejan notes that our connection with the medium goes well beyond form and function.

“Print stimulates our senses,” he said. “A perfect example of this is how we have recorded the scent of printing. If you close your eyes, can you recreate the smell of a library, or a bookstore, or textbooks when you crack them open. It is an important aspect of our relationship with print, as is the sound of paper – how newsprint sounds when you are turning the pages, versus a magazine. These all contribute to a strong reader experience that is not recreated in a digital environment.”

And the expanded range of specialty finishes available today are simply mesmerizing to consumers, says Dejan. “There is a lot of research being done now involving retinal scanning on how the eye is attracted to the special effects of printing. Pearlized inks, metallic inks and foil stamping are not duplicated readily digitally, and they capture the consumer’s attention.”

Sheffield adds, “Our clients want to have a bigger wow factor, especially in industries like cosmetics, packaging, gaming and entertainment.”

But it is the sense of touch that truly separates the printed page from the screen. “We have learned how to produce beautiful coatings with a soft touch, as well as sandpaper – everything from very, very light imprinting to heavy effects,” said Dejan. “These all stimulate our fingertips and play a subliminal role in how we evaluate the quality of the printed piece. The better the paper quality and the more interesting the surface, the more the print impacts our valuation of the brand and the company.”

And the more unique the print is, the more likely it is to find its way into digital channels. “Brands are trying to draw customers in to be loyal through social media; everyone is talking about it,” said Obstfeld. “One way you get more bang for your buck is to get an image of your printed product on Pinterest. If it is an interesting and unusual image, it will get retweeted, it will go more viral, and it will have wider appeal.”

Striking the Right Balance

In terms of staying power, printing is up there with the wheel, lightbulb and other iconic inventions. However, there is no mistaking the impact digital experiences are having on consumers today.

“You see this best in kids,” said Hayes. “They are born into a world of touchscreens, and that is how they see the world. They walk up to a big screen TV and touch it. They try to swipe paper books. They struggle to see the differences.”

Digital experiences are profoundly impacting older generations as well, she adds. “We expect higher fidelity graphics in print today and interactive experiences. All these things work within an ecosystem, though; they work together. We tell our students to think about the whole ecosystem when they are designing because there is going to be a role for all platforms. What is important to understand is the need to create a unified experience across elements.”

Dejan agrees. “If it’s a question of looking for data or information, then digital communications play a very important role,” he said. “But if I want you to have a deep understanding of, appreciation for, and relationship with my company, brand, product or service, I want you to read ink on paper because you will remember what you have read, and you will value it.”