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What the decline of print means for digital

What the decline of print means for digital Rebecca Lieb

Plenty of sobering news about the print industry has been released over the last week. Yes, print is in steep decline. So is print advertising. It's important not only to ponder and understand why print is declining so precipitously now, but also to draw some lines into the future and understand how this trend might impact digital media going forward. The implications are big for advertisers and publishers alike.

The most stunning story is from eMarketer, predicting that online advertising will surpass print ad spend -- this year.

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The firm estimates digital newspaper ad revenue in the U.S. grew 8.3 percent to $3.3 billion in 2011. Meanwhile, newspaper print ad revenue dropped 9.3 percent to $20.7 billion. Magazines fare only slightly better. In the U.S., print ad revenue is expected to rise a below-anemic 0.5 percent to $15.34 billion this year, up from $15.3 billion last year. Digital magazine ad spending grew 18.8 percent to $2.7 billion last year.

This is due not only to the internet, of course, but to a proliferation of mobile devices that decouple newspapers and magazines from dead-tree publishing. It's already happened with books; e-reader editions outsell both paperbacks and hardcover books on Amazon, and have for some time.

As e-reader devices conflate with tablets (think: Kindle Fire), readers are inevitably eschewing print in higher numbers still. Among tablet owners, according to a recent International Data Group survey, 72 percent of professionals worldwide say they're buying less since owning a tablet. Seventy percent buy fewer physical books, and 49 percent buy fewer DVDs. (And naturally, readers who can afford tablets are in a much more desirable demographic to most advertisers than those who cannot.)

Like Facebook adoption a few years ago, tablet adoption is in its hockey-stick phase. There were 64.7 million tablets in the world globally at the end of 2011, according to IHS iSuppli. By the end of 2015, that number will metastasize to 287.2 million.

What can be interpolated from all these trends -- a proliferation of tablets, content migrating to digital formats, advertising dollars accelerating their shift to digital from print -- is that not only print is changing. The ways that print adopts to digital formats is changing as well in ways that will fundamentally change the use and perception of the written word over the next few years. Writing has always been literally flat and two-dimensional. That's going to change -- and very soon.

Already, there's a growing market for enhanced ebooks, books created for digital formats that go beyond flat text into video, audio, games, and other multimedia and interactive features. As prices for tablets plummet (the Kindle Fire is priced at just over $100, and you can get a free Nook by signing up for a year of The New York Times), books will become more like apps. In fact, it will soon be hard to delineate where "book" stops and "digital platform" begins.

Before purists get all up in arms, don't worry. There will always be plain-text versions of the Bible, Shakespeare, "War and Peace," and other classics of literature. But going forward, publishers will look very closely at how they can enhance the titles in their catalogues, or turn books into a single component of transmedia storytelling.

Marketers, take note. These changes in the written word -- how it's conceived, presented, and experienced -- apply to you, too. For a soon to be published research report on content marketing, we recently interviewed 56 marketers, many of them at Fortune 500 companies, about the content channels they're using. They were asked what's important now, what channels are diminishing in effectiveness, and where they plan to place more marketing emphasis in both the short and long term future.

Overwhelmingly, these marketers say they're looking to video in the future (with mobile running a close second). "Visual information" is on the rise overall. What's on the decline? Articles. Columns. Digital PR. Long-form content. White papers.

Do you see a trend here? I do. The written word is in decline in digital channels. It won't ever vanish, but it is diminishing and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. Publishers and marketers alike are compelled to start considering, now, how to add more visual and multimedia material to written pieces to make them stand out, to encourage opt-in and tune-in from target audiences, to deliver appropriate content to mobile platforms, and to make complex information easily and visually digestible -- in a hurry. (Infographics are becoming very, very popular with marketers, as are charticles with publishers.)

Now, this is not a call for hysteria (the written word is dead!) or overreactive fiats (nothing we produce can contain words anymore, ever!). Both those statements are utterly false and nonsensical.

But we are seeing some very real and very fast moving trends here: a shift away from paper and on to digital devices; advertisers following those eyeballs; changing consumer expectations as they consume written content on faster, cheaper, multimedia-capable devices; and marketers' need to create and deliver messaging that's experiential, compelling, engaging, and that drives the message home in an easily digestible format.

So, that white paper your department is working on? By all means publish it as a written document. But at the same time, you'd better start concocting ways to deliver its message in interactive, digital, visual, and multimedia environments.

Or risk being the sound of the proverbial dead tree falling in a very dense forest.

Rebecca Lieb is an analyst, digital advertising/media, for Altimeter Group.

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Rebecca Lieb has published more research on content marketing than anyone else in the field.  As a strategic adviser, her clients range from start-up to non-profits to Fortune 100 brands and regulated industries. She's worked with brands...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Kevin Coffey

2012, January 25

Nice piece... Certainly agree on the need to develop more compelling content that can be utilized in cohesive ways across channels. However, given the trends you identify (move towards more device-centric consumption), would be interested in your thoughts on whether the longer term growth prospects for digital ad dollars could be challenged by adoption of devices? I believe that the e-Marketer digital ad estimates are for website/screen based online ad spend. But to your point, consumers are buying more tablets, and consuming more and more content - visual and otherwise - away from the computer screen, and on mobile/tablet/e-reader devices, where there are far fewer ads. eMarketer estimates that U.S. mobile ad spend is much less than overall online... just surpassed 1 Billion in 2011, and will hit $1.8B in 2012. That gap could be hard to make up, should audiences really start shifting content consumption habits from computer screens to devices, quickly. Certainly, larger mobile audiences will help, but it seems mobile ad formats (and overall monetization) have a ways to go to become more appealing to marketers and a solid source of revenue for publishers. (Though this time round many publishers are monetizing by actually revenue selling content via subscription or apps.) It will be interesting to see how it plays out.