The rise of digital devices hasn't brought about the end of print. This is an obvious fact, but it still bears repeating because the doomful tone still lingers in some corners. Expecting that the millennial generation will gravitate away from printed products completely has become a common angle, and the collapse of the bookstore industry seems to be a sign of this prediction coming true. However, the actual picture of print in the 21st century is more nuanced. New uses for printed products are emerging, and the interactions between physical media and technology are taking interesting forms.
Case study: Print and digital photography
One of the most significant digital media takeovers occurred in the photography space. In a few years, the whole ecosystem of film and photo albums was taken over by digital cameras, then smartphone cameras. However, as Printing Impressions columnist Phil Riebel recently pointed out, this space has actually proven that there is still demand for physical media. The case of print services for digital photography may point the way to profits for leaders in related industries, as the idea at its core translates well: People today still value print as a specialty service and are willing to pay for it.
Riebel focused on Recently, a company based on providing high-quality printed albums of digital-native photographs. The photography firm's Scott Valins told the author that he has found that paper-based image viewing is "innately human." With customers eager to receive physical versions of their memorable snapshots, it's becoming clear that there is still an aesthetic element to print media that digital screens cannot match. This is a lesson that applies in other fields as well. Printed versions of media have become boutique items rather than the default – but there is still interest in them, especially when it comes to important items.
What is it about paper? Valins suggested that the material "integrates the senses, prompts creative thought and begs for exploration." This means that more artistic applications may be better suited to physical media. Print providers may find new opportunities in fields that are defined by the visual flair of their products, or others that are based on storing records. People may be hesitant to commit their memories to digital settings, and capitalizing on these feelings could be a valuable avenue for printers looking for new lines of business in an era when communications are no longer carried out through paper documents.
One more lesson from the Recently case centers on the company's connection of digital and physical media. The whole process is based on creating paper items, but relies heavily on customized software. Print service providers of all types will likely find more success if they integrate IT into their operations at a base level. While physical production is the main goal, the printing industry's customers are people who are used to technological convenience. Delivering a streamlined experience that incorporates many digital features may make a print provider's offerings more appealing and help the company connect with a young audience.
Same resilience shown in book market
Further proof of print's continued appeal comes from the book sales space. According to Pew Research, sales of digital reading materials are slowing. Print has not done the same, which should send an encouraging message to printing business leaders who have heard that their particular products are set for irrelevance. If the convenience of eBooks can be stymied by the appeal of printed media, the same effect is possible across related spaces. The same forces that Valins noted in the photography market may be at play here – people want to have a hands-on sensory experience.
The Pew study noted that an initial interest in the future of print was intense during the early days of the eBook market. Everyone in the industry wondered whether the physical book could survive. Now, with years of data accounted for and tablets joining eReaders as media consumption devices, the numbers are clear. While 63 percent of respondents read a print book last year, only 27 percent read an eBook. That is a signal that there is something about physical media consumption that not even a serious digital movement can dislodge. Print providers will simply have to find what appeal their products hold in the new, IT-powered market.
Serving a niche audience
Companies that once served as print juggernauts – offering products that carried the weight of corporate communications, for example, may find that the print industry that exists now is nothing like the one they remember. However, as the case studies above prove, there are ways in which printed products are still judged superior to their supposed replacements. Human nature, and specifically a desire to interact with media using multiple senses, may ensure that many products stay valuable in the years ahead. Producers will simply have to find new marketing messages that resonate today.