By Darren Gilbert

The advent of the internet – and hence the introduction of the digital media space – has placed an undeniable focus on the future of the print industry. It has also resulted in a question: in the face of an expanding online world, what are the prospects for print advertising?

One may be tempted to go even further and ask the question of whether or not the medium is dying. But if you do, you’d be going too far. That’s according to Adam Weitz, founder of the American-based full service media and advertising design company, New Harbor Design, who in a YouTube interview labelled this question as one that is asked out of pure laziness.

What he said after the interview is where things become interesting. Now, don’t be swayed by the fact that he is American because what he has to say is relevant to the medium no matter where you live. When it comes to print advertising and its future, the question he believes should be asked instead is: ‘Who are your customers and how do you connect with them?’ If you were to speak to Shirley Bester, client services director at Bester Burke’s Cape Town office, you’d get a similar sentiment. If you want to ask a question around the viability of print as an advertising channel, first understand the stance and demands of your consumer.

“We have to learn how customers are consuming print and what type of information they prefer to see there,” says Bester, who adds a familiar mantra: in approaching any medium, always ask yourself what you want to achieve. In our technologically savvy world, one where the Audit Bureau of Circulations South Africa’s latest figures make for a somewhat depressing read, there needs to be a revisiting of what print means in the lives of consumers. It is here that you will find what Bester believes – that print still has an important part to play in the communication mix.

Of course, it’s going to be a different role, she adds. If print wants to survive, it not only needs to adapt to consumer demands, but also has to shift the way in which it does things. For Farida Fotouhi, president of branding, marketing and advertising agency Reality2, this means the reinventing of print ads for a digital world. On her company blog, she wrote of the value of print in today’s cross-platform digital environment, indicating that instead of print ads fighting against digital transformation, they can [and should] act as “an entry point for a sustained online conversation”.

That might not sound comforting to anyone working in the medium but it is necessary, and Bester agrees. “The way that we link everything now has changed drastically; the way each medium communicates is changing. No one needs to panic though, [because] print isn’t being kicked out the door.” However, it should be part of an interactive communication solution. “Print needs to lead you somewhere [in order to add depth]. The Mercedes-Benz advert [done by 140BBDO] where you used your mobile phone to interact with a print ad is a perfect example. In that instance, print advertising became something more.”

“A lot of people used to say that TV was going to die with the [rise of the] internet, but that never happened. If anything, it has changed the way we interact with it. I believe that is the same for the future of print.” It’s not a debate about how to approach a paperless future. One only needs to look at the Amazon Kindle for proof of this. Despite the ‘revolution’ that was predicted when it was first launched, people still purchase physical books. And despite the uptake of digital, the same will happen with print advertising. As Bester points out, “as long as the consumer wants [to consume] print, you are going to have print advertising.” She feels you can expect that ‘want’ to last for at least another decade.

It’s also necessary to look at the restrictions of the South African market that we find ourselves in, says Bester. “In South Africa, bandwidth is nothing when compared to overseas so you are limited in what you can achieve digitally. Also, a lot of [Bester Burke’s] clients don’t have a digital eco-system yet, so they would need to rely on some other medium to be a link. Also, as it stands now, our clients are not that confident in going [completely] digital and would be uncomfortable [doing] so.”

This points to the fact that print advertising is as relevant as ever. But, as Bester warns, you need to be clever about using it. Print is not dead or even dying; it’s simply that your consumer is transforming. You need to understand the audience that you are speaking to and, when necessary, adapt to their needs and wants. Get that right and the future of print ads in our digital world will be bright.

What do you think? Do you disagree? Let us know on our blog.