PRINT: Eliminate or Escalate?

Posted on May 12, 2020 in Blog, Insights

My colleague and friend, Adam Olenn, and I have been debating whether print is dead in school communications. Here is what Adam has to say, so pay attention.—Carol Cheney

2020. Corona races around the globe and the 21st century comes of age as everything goes digital. Email, messaging apps, meetings, even happy hour happens online as colleagues and friends in different time zones agree that it is, in fact, five o’clock somewhere.

And as they reevaluate everything in their business model, communications and alumni offices wonder, “Are we really still sending out a magazine on smashed tree pulp?” Most are, though a few have stopped the presses in favor of ‘digital only.’

To be fair, almost every print magazine has had a digital correlate for years, if not decades. And digital content is astoundingly flexible. Managed properly, one magazine can deliver a couple months’ worth of blog stories, social media articles, text blasts, and more. So, what are we waiting for? Out with the old, in with the…

Not so fast.

Digital can do many things (see paragraph one), but it can’t do everything. Sometimes, there’s no replacing analog. To riff on Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote that “the medium is the message,” the delivery vehicle is part of the value proposition.

Digital magazines are delivered primarily via email, and secondarily in chunks through social media channels or on the website. These channels have great advantages—low cost, infinite scale, easy forwarding and sharing. But they have some significant drawbacks as well.

In the case of social media, the torrent of information flowing in each of our many feeds creates a cognitive overload that forces us to react to, rather than think about, the content coming at us. When you’re playing whack-a-mole, you don’t have time to wonder what species of mole you’re whacking. Just like, share, click, click, on to the next. And the competition is stiff—seismic political dislocations, global pandemics, pictures of your sister’s new baby…these attentional demands create a noisy environment for your thoughtfully written magazine.

Email, direct and personal as it is, suffers in a similar way. Clogged inboxes have approximately half of American consumers feeling overwhelmed¹. And how do we respond to this torrent of messages? Read, respond, delete. When things get hectic we’re even more arbitrary: scan inbox, delete, delete, delete.  Even those messages we want to read (when things calm down) end up slipping below the fold. Sometimes we get to them, sometimes we don’t.

How is this different from the magazine that sits on a coffee table or bathroom rack for weeks on end? In terms of content, it’s not. But that physical artifact is doing subtle work whether or not we open it—brand reinforcement.

Independent schools face a daunting challenge I call the ‘relevancy gap.’  Students and their families may organize their entire lives around a school for fifteen years, all the way from finger painting to college essays. But as soon as they set foot on their college campus, they’re a Cavalier. Or a Wolverine. Or a Trojan. And despite all the wonderful years together, independent school begins to fade. Just ask your development team.

As marketing gurus Al Ries and Jack Trout point out in their marketing classic Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind ², branding and positioning are basically about keeping your offering ‘top of mind.’ Those brands that stay top of mind enjoy a roughly 2.5x (250%) sales advantage over the ones you have to work to recall. And what better way to stay top of mind than to plant a sign in your customer’s living room?

Of course, they won’t let you install signage. But they will let you send them an attractive magazine and keep it on their coffee table for a Sunday morning read, or in their bathroom for contemplative moments. And in those moments, they’ll dig into the kind of long-form journalism that is so enjoyable on paper but is kind of a chore on glowing screens.

The mere physicality of print also invokes a powerful psychological principle called the ‘endowment effect.³’ In short, it says that you begin to feel ownership of something the moment you take physical hold of it, and with that sense of ownership comes a higher perceived valuation. Apple puts this principle to work in their showrooms by keeping demo laptops open at an awkward angle. When customers happen by, the first thing they do is reach out and tilt the screen, physically adjusting it to their preferences. This makes them start to think of the computer as ‘theirs,’ which raises the laptop’s perceived value by triggering loss aversion. A magazine that readers can actually hold does similar work.

So, by all means, get digital. But remember, just like birthday parties and graduations and Mother’s Day celebrations, there is enormous value in that which is real, solid, and tangible—so don’t leave print off the table.

Adam Olenn is the CEO of Rustle & Spark, a marketing and communications firm that helps clients connect with customers in print, experiential, and, yes, digital media.