I saw the future last week in Las Vegas. It happened at the 2007 4A's Media Conference, in a room flanking the Venetian's jangling slot machines and fake gondolieri.
I was sitting on a panel among my fellow committee chairs, ready to answer my first question. My mission was to change the perception that print is static and traditional, and to provide insight into the opportunities and challenges before us in this increasingly digital media landscape. Print has a great future -- anyone could see it, I thought -- and then came that first question. Handwritten on notecard, it bluntly read, "Is print dead?"
Ouch. Like anyone else in the print industry, I was used to this type of talk, but for some reason, this was particularly wounding (perhaps because I sat before 500 people who expected my answer to be yes). I had been so excited to sit on the panel and to let print have a voice amidst the industry's constant talk of TV and digital, that to be confronted with such a frank dismissal of the medium was a bit of a letdown, to say the least.
I took a breath and rallied myself: "Not on your life!" I answered with passion. "Not on this life, your avatar life, or your Second Life. Print is not dead."
How to survive
I am certain that digital is not going to kill publishing. But the "Is print dead?" question, coupled with the audience's eagerness to hear that the medium was on its last legs, reminded me that to survive, we need to think about print in radical new ways. This is both a scary and an exciting time for publishing, depending on how you look at it. I choose the latter.
I recalled the thoughts Jim Stengel, Proctor & Gamble's global marketing officer, had shared in his presentation earlier that morning. He stressed the importance of strong brand relationships rooted in "authenticity," "trustworthiness" and "generosity." These attributes build a connection that feels personal and leads to true engagement. Those of us who work in print would be wise to listen up.
Brand relationships and authenticity are, after all, the critical foundations of print. Given the past decade's focus on digital, it might seem counterintuitive that the same qualities that make print unique prime it for success in the attention economy. For starters, consumers engage with the advertisements in magazines more than in any other medium. Indeed, in a recent study by Starcom MediaVest Group, when respondents were asked to pull magazine pages they felt were valuable to their reading experience, one-third of the pages they pulled were advertisements. A magazine is a total brand experience -- everything, including the advertisements in a given title, can easily strengthen readers' engagement with the overall brand. Build on that strength.
The right direction
And there's more good news. As an industry, we're moving in the right direction, engaging consumers more profoundly by developing opportunities for readers to interact with content wherever and whenever they want.
Most notably, it's no longer only about in-book. Building a publication's brand through a multitude of platforms -- digital, books, TV, radio and event extensions -- expands the brand's relevance. Such cross-platform brand-message alignment will strengthen consumers' connection to a publication -- and to the book itself -- rather than lead them away. This is why consumers today are far more engaged with print brands than ever before.
Secondly, and even more thrilling from where I sit today, publishers partner with companies like MediaVest to develop innovative solutions for building our clients' brands, rather than just trying to sell a page in the book.
Yes, we have come really far.
Work to be done
But as I stared at the audience in Las Vegas, I realized the journey isn't over; there is still much work to be done. Therefore, I am calling for a widespread change in the publishing community, starting with me, in order to move forward in our on-demand world. Let's free ourselves from outmoded ways of thinking and acting. As much as print brands have managed to connect with consumers, they need to act in even more aggressive, more creative -- dare I say even radical -- ways to maximize their engagement with consumers. Let's take a fresh look at everything from content to messaging to distribution, starting with the following:
1. Be media-agnostic. As a publisher (note to publishers: come up with new titles for yourselves -- publishing is now only part of your job), you should be thinking of your content as media-neutral. It's not print vs. online vs. broadcast. Rather, it's print married with online to deliver synergy, building brand loyalty and connections. The companies that are getting it right today are those that embrace this new, holistic vision of media: print, online, whatever -- it can all be the domain of the publication brand.
2. Begin a dialogue with the consumer. It's not enough just to spread a publication across platforms. To truly adhere to the ideas of brand connection and authenticity, magazines must actively engage across media, which means giving up some editorial control. (Forgive me, editors!) Don't just talk at consumers. Give them an opportunity to voice their ideas on multiple platforms, including in-book. This may not work in all areas of publishing, but there are plenty where it would.
3. Improve accountability. Accountability is increasingly becoming a problem, one we can no longer ignore. Now up against online media, we are competing with areas that deliver accountability immediately. It's critical that the industry begins to develop and support new measurements that deliver on engagement, intent, return on objective and return on investment. Tools that can capture timely and credible metrics on an issue-by-issue basis are not only exciting -- they're necessary. To paraphrase a colleague, much of the media industry would rather be 80% right today than 99% right in three months. That's short-sighted. So go ahead and sign up for ABC's rapid report. And no complaining. Just go ahead and do it.
4. Speed up. Another thing I see advertisers demanding in coming years is shorter lead time on ads. It's a no-brainer that a title's ability to issue paperwork closer to on-sale times will become a necessity. It's bizarre that it takes four to six weeks for someone to begin receiving a subscription. In a world where one can watch any movie or TV show, listen to any song or view a video practically instantly, consumers will wait four to six weeks for nothing, let alone a magazine.
5. Manage circulation. Manage verified circulation closely. Verified is not a bad source of distribution, but there's great concern in the industry about the wide fluctuation in volume from issue to issue. In addition, no more sourcing verified copies to make up for rate-base underdelivery. I assure you, this type of transaction will not be tolerated nor qualified by agencies in the future.
6. Solve the mystery of the Incredible Shrinking Newsstand. The industry must get to the bottom of the dropping activity at what was once print's most reliable measure of vitality and its busiest selling point. We've all talked about it long enough -- I know I'm adding my voice to an almost deafening chorus -- and now it's time to do something. At the very least, further research could help to alleviate the misuse of verified copies; at best, it could give us a deeper understanding of how consumers want to get their magazines if they're no longer eager to pay top dollar.
7. Enter an age of free content. No, doubters, this is not the same as the death of print. It's a sea change. I predict nonpaid, opt-in models will become the norm. I would rather have consumers say they want the magazine and have it delivered to their homes than wastefully dump titles in waiting rooms and the like. I guarantee we would see a lift in engagement scores in magazine readership when, to get his or her favorite title for free, all a potential magazine reader must do is ask for it. Let's face it: How many titles really make money on circulation anymore?
It's fitting that the catalyzing event behind these recommendations for the future of print took place in Vegas, because in order to move forward in this industry, we must be willing to gamble. The world of media is dynamic. There is no clear blueprint or surefire business plan to guide you. What there is instead is a lot of pressure to "get it right." Let me liberate you from a lot of that pressure with this challenge: Don't be afraid to place your chips on something new. You may lose some of the time, and you may break the bank. But don't let uncertainty inhibit you from delivering the new, creative solutions the industry needs to thrive.
I have often said that print is the original anytime, anywhere medium. If we continue this dialog, continue to challenge how we operate, continue embrace and incite change, I'm confident that print will continue its incredible metamorphosis, becoming not only the original but the ultimate anytime, anywhere medium. In other words, the Vegas odds on the industry are excellent, and if we do our jobs right, print will have a second life (possibly much of it on Second Life) without losing its first.
Robin Steinberg is senior VP-director of MediaVest print investment and activation. In this role, she oversees development of strategic integrated publishing solutions for MediaVest clients such as Coca-Cola, Kraft and Wal-Mart and unites this discipline within the AOR strategy and investment teams. In addition, Robin chairs the Magazine Buyers' Advisory Committee and the 4A's print committee.