Does Print Still Work?

For years, print advertising was king. Magazines, newspapers, direct mail, and other print media dominated the market.

In the past decade, however, digital advertising has slowly taken over. Social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube have become host to millions of users daily. Businesses have taken advantage of this, scrambling to buy social media ads. Content marketing, video marketing, and other forms of digital advertising have become more popular as well.

In 2019, the inevitable finally occurred: digital ad spend outstripped traditional ad spend for the first time.

After all, digital ads are immediate. They are sometimes less expensive, potentially reach a larger number of people, and can be more easily customized.

And that’s why print marketing is dying a slow death.

Or is it?


A Heart Still Beating

Surprisingly, studies have shown that while digital marketing is on the rise, print marketing still retains its effectiveness – when it’s done right.

In 2016, while the digital marketing craze was already obvious, a survey by Marketing Sherpa noted that most consumers trust print ads more than any other advertising channel

Not only that, but a neuromarketing study put out by Temple University found that readers remember information from physical ads much more quickly and confidently than digital ads, and their emotional response to print ads is stronger as well.

So what makes print ads so powerful?

Studies have shown that reading digital text requires substantially more cognitive effort than reading printed text. The brain sees the internet as a smorgasbord of ideas, as a vehicle for multitasking, and as a source of entertainment and diversion. Pop-ups and low-quality content abound. All of this primes the brain to become more distracted, less focused, and more fatigued while reading online text. 

Reading printed text, on the other hand, is a much more relaxed experience, free of other media trying to capture your attention. Readers are more willing to slow down and process the information in a printed ad. Consequently, they are more capable of responding emotionally to a print ad than they are to an ad in a digital environment.

In addition, readers browsing a magazine are not usually searching for specific information, as they often are when online. Instead, they are organically taking in whatever the medium offers them. They trust print to have higher editorial standards, and therefore see it more credible. And in today’s virtual world, print’s scarcity makes it seem even more trustworthy.

And of course, the rare print ad will be able to make its medium into part of the ad itself.

This ad for Carulla Knives uses rows of newsprint to catch the eye.


This ad for Frontline Flea & Tick Protection is on the floor of a shopping mall. Its location allows shoppers on the lower level to become part of the ad, looking like fleas on the back of an itchy dog.

When Print Works

So when should you choose print over digital media for your ad? You may want to opt for print if you fit into one of the following categories:


  • You have a niche audience, especially one that tends to be less digitally advanced. For example, almost 30% of Americans over age 65 are not Internet users. People in rural areas, those without a high school diploma, and certain religious or cultural groups may be less likely to be online as well. Print advertisements will be more likely to reach these readers than their digital counterparts.


  • You are targeting a luxury market. Print is physical, luxurious. People can take it anywhere, even places where there is no wifi. It also stands out from the digital background that seems to be everywhere. Think about a full-page ad, filled with vibrant colors, printed on glossy paper. There is no way to recreate that feeling on a screen. That’s why those in the travel, hospitality, and other luxury industries, might be more likely to opt for print ads than digital ones.
It looks good… but not as good as it looks in print


  • You want to impress potential clients or customers. As the proliferation of digital increases, people receive and consume less print, so anything tangible stands out more. One software company sent me a glass maze with my company logo on it, and offered me free lunch to talk to them. I declined, but it definitely got my attention.
  • You want to reach users who are blocking digital ads – either intentionally or unintentionally. According to Statista, over a quarter of all US web surfers use ad blockers. Not only that, but even when ads aren’t technically blocked, most users develop “banner blindness,” where their brains are trained to not notice anything that resembles an ad. Instead, their eyes zone in on the content that they want and ignore (or don’t even see) any advertising on the page.
  • Your ad carries a complex message. Online readers aren’t reading deeply—they are darting about. Print offers deeper engagement. The absence of hyperlinks means that print readers are consuming media more intently, and will be able to think more deeply about the content of an ad.
It takes a few extra seconds to process this clever Volkswagen ad.


  • Your advertisement is designed to create an emotional reaction. The more relaxed pace of reading print allows for a strong emotional tie to what your readers see.
This ad, printed in TopGear Magazine, seems simple but packs an emotional punch. That’s why it works best in print, rather than in digital form.

When Print Doesn’t Work

That doesn’t mean that print marketing is always the answer. Ads for more practical purchases, like office supplies or items that are not dependent on brand, are often more effective in digital format. In these markets, print is often used as a supplement to digital, rather than as the primary advertising channel.

For online services, it makes sense to use digital advertising — your ad can drive viewers directly to a landing page with a special offer or allow them to trial the service for themselves. And for “instant” offers, print can also be a challenge, since it takes time for printed ads to reach users and provoke the necessary action. 


All About the Metrics

Digital marketing offers more metrics than print. The perception that you can measure everything is part of the allure that has made digital so trendy. A lot of businesses are spending a fortune on Pay Per Click (PPC), Search Engine Optimization (SEO), or ads for Yelp and similar services. 

It’s true that digital ads are easy to track. Although you would think this would allow you see how well your ads are performing, at times this can have the opposite effect: because there are so many metrics, the platform can basically “snow” you into thinking that your ads are effective, regardless of whether that’s true. 

That’s because there are different types of metrics. Some are Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) which are the numbers that really matter to you. Examples of general KPIs in your life are your weight, your kid’s report-card grades, and how many years you’ve been married. In business, these are your gross sales, your margins, and the number of customers you have. For digital marketing, your KPIs would be your signups , conversions, or sales. They’re the numbers that matter

But then there are other numbers that we’ll call “vanity metrics.” They look impressive—but they don’t mean much. For example, take the metric of “impressions,” the number of times your ad was shown. Who cares how many people saw your ad (and probably ignored it)? For social media, some vanity metrics are pageviews or likes. It feels good to have people liking your content, but those numbers may have zero impact upon your business objectives. 

 So at the end of the day, it’s important (as always) to pick the right medium for your audience, rather than blindly choosing digital ads because they offer stronger metrics.


Frequency Over Reach

Now there is one caveat to all this, which marketing experts tend to call “frequency over reach.”

“Frequency over reach” means that print ads require repeat exposure to be effective. You simply cannot run a print ad once and expect it to work. People need to see an ad numerous times before it registers and eventually motivates them to act. (This concept is disputed by some in the marketing industry, but I am firmly in the “frequency over reach” camp.) 

So if you decide to use print advertising, run your calculations for the long run, not for a “one and done” effort. I recommend that you make the investment of doing any print campaign in the same place for at least half a year, preferably a year. 


This is part 1 in a series that addresses various marketing media that might seem old-fashioned, irrelevant, or ineffective. But when used correctly, they work very well — maybe better than more trendy marketing media. This post examines whether print marketing is actually dead. Part 2 will ask the same question about direct mail, and Part 3 about billboards and other outdoor ads. See all the articles in the series here.