Print, technology and marketing economics: The rules have changed. The rules remain the same.

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newspaper print media

When I started business back in 1988, the media industry was undergoing a revolution. The introduction of “desktop publishing” dramatically lowered the capital costs for entering the publishing business. Although massive hot-lead linotypes had gone out of use in the previous decades, the replacement — typesetting into a computer console and printing out the results in strips of paper — still required significant capital expense. You would go to a service bureau to have this work done, or pay for it as part of a commercial printing service.

Meanwhile, colour imaging, while much easier to handle with web offset presses, still also required expensive scanning and then plating; a single picture would cost $100 or more to produce.

Desktop publishing, where the text and materials could be laid out on a piece of paper and sent directly to the printer for plating and imaging, knocked the socks off of production costs. Then in the next stage, digital imaging, allowed the whole service bureau scanning stuff to disappear. Costs dropped through the floor. But we still printed.

Now, of course, print is under threat from online advertising, with its exceptionally quick responsiveness and fast measurement. From a publishers’ perspective, if you eliminate the printing and distribution costs, you have a compelling business story and in theory, the cost of entry is near zero.

Of course, things are never as simple as they seem. There’s a basic rule of economics: If entry costs drop to near zero with unfettered competition, it is virtually impossible for most market participants to earn any more than a pittance and, in the drive for efficiency (and with the network effect) only a few very large players own most of the market. Hence, Google, Facebook and Amazon’s inordinate power.

There is one place where small remains beautiful, even more than in the past. You can focus your marketing into tight, specialized niches, that would have been uneconomic in the past. “Slivers” of market interest can open doors — the only trouble is, the doors will only lead to a trickle of business, even in the best of circumstances.

So we get to print media?  Does it still work?

In some situations, yes. As fewer marketers use print, you have less competition. Print’s tactile and easy-to-retain format give it a much longer shelf-life.

The biggest (and it is a big) problem is effectively measuring the results. While you can gather stats from online marketing almost instantly, you have a much bigger challenge in assessing response/conversion rates from print; and while there are testing methodologies (such as running A and B ads in the same publication), everything is measured in days and weeks rather than hours.

The solution of course is to test print in conjunction with online marketing. Your print ads reference a specific website/page, and you track the traffic/bump when the ad appears.If you truly link things effectively, you’ll also be able to track your conversion rate, and then determine if the advertising is profitable.

This of course is easier to do for mass, high-volume consumer purchases. The challenge is it doesn’t work so well for high cost/low volume sales, common in the AEC industry. I mean, if you need to sell 500 or 1,000 $100,000 renovation jobs to gather statistically meaningful insights, by the time you achieve these volumes the external conditions will change so much that you won’t be able to compare causalities and truly assess your results.

You are faced, it it seems with flying at least partially blind. You can assess the observations of experts, and see if you are achieving any sorts of results, but you’ll largely make decisions based more on luck than science.

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