The immersive experience of print

This week I was privileged to present at the PPA Business Media Summit at the Intercontinental Park Lane. I shared the stage with such luminaries as Bruce Daisley, MD of Twitter and John Barnes, MD of Incisive Media. The moderator was editor and writer Jon Bernstein, formerly of The New Statesman and Channel 4 News.

My role was to outline some research findings that the PPA had commissioned me to produce. I ran an online survey, using Alligator research, amongst 400 professional people sourced from the databases of the PPA’s Business Media publisher clients. They ranged from engineers to lawyers, financiers to marketing and pharmaceutical professionals. Business media spreads far and wide.

Anyone who has ever been employed knows business media does a good job and my objective was to put some figures behind the great work it does. Jon asked me some interesting questions in the Q&A that followed my presentation.

This blog piece is about the first question he asked me. It was about the fact that respondents were more regularly reading websites than the business media print products. What of the quality of that engagement, he asked? Does the immersive nature of print give it the upper hand?

Firstly, comparing regular reading of print and online is a little ‘apples and pears’ because print has an issue date and websites are constantly updated. It makes it hard to choose a common metric. For print I used “read at least one out of every two issues” and for websites, “at least once per fortnight”. The same? Not really, but close.

The issue date issue is part of the answer to Jon’s question. A magazine’s arrival is an event. It isn’t as ubiquitous as tap water; it’s a glass to enjoy. 71% of my sample liked to take their time reading business media, though 67% are constantly checking business media websites for breaking news.

The Engineer is a business magazine that went out of print a few years ago. Centaur brought it back – one of several print publications to do a Lazarus. Engineers told me how ecstatic they were to see it come back yet none of the content disappeared, just the ‘event’ and the magazine moments; the magazine’s arrival, the moment, as one engineer told me, that you’ve set the machine running and can sit back with the magazine. No dodgy Wi-Fi issues or grubby fingers on smart screens. The only issue is the one in your hand.

Some of us have been around print for years and we have habits and associations that are hard to break. Recently I was handed a free NME at a tube station (that companion of our youth is now without cover price) and it felt a bit guilty and a bit special to just be given one. It went in my bag as something to look forward to.

However, I was in a focus group with the youngest of smartphone touting millennials the other day and they told me about the joy of print; glossy fashion magazines with page after page of delicious fashion advertising.

So it isn’t just about the old romantic notions of print held only by those of us who remember a pre-digital world. It is about appropriate platforms. Print is personal and can look beautiful so it appeals across the ages.

But then my iPhone is personal and can look beautiful too. The web might have started cluttered but it needn’t go on that way. Mobile first strategies are making our screens immersive, not despite the small screen but because of it, because it is personal and beautiful. I’ve never believed that screen size matters, just design and resolution. I know a lady who tells me her husband read a novel on his watch! That anecdote sounds less and less unusual every time I tell it.

The design of apps makes for immersive reading too. Much thought goes into keeping us in their walled gardens. As a result, Enders tell us that 86% of the time we spend on connected devices is spent within apps. 36% of those with a smartphone in my PPA research had downloaded a business media app and 27% of them used it everyday. Only 2% never used it. Get someone to download and they will use it. Yes, the youngest members of the sample were more likely to have downloaded business media apps but so too were those in the boardroom. It is certainly an emerging behaviour.

App reading can be complementary to print and website reading. Those reading a print business media title regularly were very likely to have downloaded an app and so were those who read business media websites regularly too. It’s not one or the other; it’s about appropriate platforms. I like the Kindle app on my iPhone on which I read my Amazon purchases. I can immerse myself in my book, one handed, hanging onto a tube train – but I’d rather be on a sofa with the actual book. The app is just immersion on tap.

Why don’t I read via a screen all the time? Why don’t people in my research just give up on the print product? In a nutshell it is because it requires a different sort of energy and the information I read is later recalled in different ways.

Research by NewsUK last year concluded that reading via a tablet triggers more electrical activity so it encodes into memories faster than print. Print is a less stimulating though less tiring way to read and so it ends up encoding as much into our memory as tablet reading does but over a longer period. They argue, therefore, that simply comparing dwell time of print and tablets overlooks the energy spent.

Researchers in an Israeli Institute of Technology in 2011 had people prep for a multi choice exam either using screen based or print based course material. When given only 7 minutes to prepare both groups did equally well. When given an indefinite period to prepare the print group did much better. The researchers put it down to print encouraging people to read with goals and revisit paragraphs to ensure they understand. Behaviours consistent with the NewsUK view that print is a slower boiling pot.

If there is a lesson for business media publishers in all this it is that you don’t need to make screen reading exactly like print reading. Publishers tried that and it isn’t a bad starting place because it made them de-clutter. However, digital reading will be all about interactivity and personalisation in future.

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