The Print Media Zombie Apocalypse

In 2007, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously declared: “Print is dead.” Perhaps he really meant “Undead”, because I sure do see a lot of print still roaming around in 2012!

I mention this because I recently came across some leading magazines from theB2B Healthcare Vertical and it left a great impression on me. Imagine my surprise when upon examining many of these publications, I saw some with folio sizes ranging from 100-300 pages! The content was terrific. Many of them have thick and glossy paper stock, strong binding, dozens of advertisers, custom inserts and all of the other trappings of great B2B publications. As a media professional with a deep respect for print, seeing all of this nearly brought a manly tear to my eye.

As a marketer you may be tempted to dismiss this as an anomaly. After all, healthcare is a booming industry and it makes sense that advertiser spending in this market would buck many of the trends brought about by the current recession and the digital media revolution. Surely, you ask, the health of these brands can’t be compared to other market sectors?  I think that conclusion is a bit hasty.

In my role at Just Media, Inc., I work in many other vertical media markets, including: Government; manufacturing; education; energy; public safety; and several others.  While these markets may not all be booming in quite the same way as healthcare, we still continue to see strong folio sizes and advertiser support among many of the leading publications in each sector. There may be a slow decline, but nothing terminal and there certainly has not been a wholesale abandonment of print.

So if these vertical markets are so strong in print, why is the “death of print” in B2B so often accepted as fact?

Surely, the Pied Piper of B2B print’s decline has been the Enterprise IT Media market?  You may fondly recall the past glories of many of the iconic brands in this space including InformationWeek, CIO, eWeek, Computerworld, Network Computing, Network World, and several others. What were once strong publications have over the past 5-7 years shown a considerable decline in ad revenue, publishing frequency, folio size, editorial support and in some cases, they have closed down entirely. (Full disclosure: I was formally a salesperson for one of these pubs from 2005-2010 and have a great respect for these publications.)

What caused the IT Media market to abandon print at a much faster rate than other sectors? I can offer up two theories from my experience.

First, consider that technology marketers are by their nature more likely to be early adopters of technology themselves. As new digital media platforms evolved, progressive tech marketers were eager to stay on the cutting edge. It didn’t hurt that digital advertising provided for the first time instant ROI metrics, as debatable as the value of some of them may be (i.e. Cost per Click).

Second, the technology sector is unique from others in that many of the leading advertisers actually had some vested interest in the growth of digital media! Perhaps the best example of this is Mr. Ballmer’s own company, Microsoft.

For years Microsoft was one of the vendors that could be counted on to place 2-3 or full page ads, if not more, in a large number of the leading IT publications. Then, in 2007 Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously said “Print is dead.” The advertising strategy of the company soon followed that directive, and print ads dwindled down drastically. Other marketers, not wanting to be out of fashion, followed suit and also pulled much of their print advertising. This crippled the publications, and those that survived became much smaller and thus looked much weaker; causing even more advertisers to feel that the death spiral had begun.

Why would Microsoft be so hasty to declare the death of print even when reader demand for print was in fact still very high?  Recall for a moment that Microsoft purchased online advertising platform aQuantive back in 2007. This acquisition gave them an online ad serving platform (Atlas) and an online ad agency (Razorfish), among other capabilities for online advertisers and publishers. You can understand why Mr. Ballmer might be incentivized to push the market toward media spending that lines the pockets of Microsoft!

Microsoft wasn’t alone of course. Most of the leading technology vendors, with Google leading the charge, offered products that profited either directly or indirectly from the growth of digital media and advertising. While this is not the sole explanation for the decline of IT Print media, I think it plays an important role.

I mention this not to bemoan the death of IT Print media, nor to criticize the decisions of technology marketers that led to this precipitous decline. Rather, my objective is to explain why the trends of the IT Media market should not necessarily be held up as a template of how other B2B media markets have evolved or should do so in the future.  B2B markets such as Healthcare, Education, Government and Manufacturing may in fact be better barometers for the print landscape!

Here is an interesting fact:  A 2012 Folio Magazine B2B Publisher CEO Study showed that for B2B Media companies across all sectors with over $5M in annual revenue, 45% of their revenue is expected from print in 2012. For Media companies with less than $5M in revenue, that number is even higher at 56%. Do those numbers surprise you?

What I would like you to take away form this is simple: Print isn’t dead; it’s alive! When it is the right thing for our clients, Just Media, Inc., will continue to recommend print as part of a media strategy. It will continue to evolve, and tablet magazine publishing will present us with new challenges.  The core value of print advertising remains strong and relevant.

Kevin Flint
Just Media, Inc

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