June 30, 2015 Last Updated 7:18 am

Reader surveys that show print preferred over digital not worth the paper they are printed on

Oddly, print advocates sleep better at night knowing they are producing digital products that readers prefer to read in print – that should give them nightmares

The readers of magazines and newspapers prefer print to digital. Everyone knows this. We can all go home now and feel better, print wins. End of story.

If you buy this, and have no doubts, I suggest you ask yourself one question: where are you reading this, in print or on a digital device?

magiPhone-820In other words, maybe these surveys are asking the wrong questions of readers. Often surveys ask readers if they prefer reading magazines and newspapers, ones designed for print, in printed form, rather than the same print products replicated for display on digital devices. Instead, the questions that should be asked are 1) how much time are you spending today reading print, versus reading on digital devices? 2) has the amount of time you spend reading on your digital device grown over the past few years? and 3) what do you read on that digital device?

That readers would prefer reading the print products of publishers in print, rather than digital, sounds like something that might make a publisher sleep better at night. But when you think about it this way – that readers don’t think much of the digital products print publishers are producing – then nightmares may ensue.

A story that might help explain what is going on:

A movie producer, leery of the growth of television, commissioned one of his market research people to survey movie goers, asking them whether they preferred the new medium of television over movies. A few weeks later the marketing man comes back with his results: movie goers overwhelmingly prefer to see their movies in movie houses, with television seen as delivering an inferior product.

Phew, says the movie producer, I can sleep at night.

A few weeks later, though, walking down a NYC street, he passes a store with TVs in the window. A crowd of people are outside watching the TVs. The movie executive smiled, I know something you don’t know, you’re not going to be happy watching those TVs, he thinks to himself.

But a couple weeks later, passing the same store, he once again sees a crowd of people there. He stops, and notices that they are watching Milton Berle. They laugh at the skits, stare at the screen during the commercials, and suddenly a thought comes to him. We asked the wrong question!

The next day he calls in his marketing man. We asked the wrong question, he tells him. We asked whether a movie viewer prefers seeing films – ones often shot on 70mm stock, in Technicolor – on the big screen, or on tiny black and white screens. We got back the obvious answer. Instead, we should have asked what do you like to see TV screens, what kind of programming.

The marketing man comes back a couple weeks later and gives his report: movie goers still love seeing films in movie theaters. But they are now spending more time watching TV. While watching TV they are viewing variety shows, comedies shot specifically for TV, live events, and such. If you want to succeed on TV, the marketing man says, you have to produce the kind of content viewers will want to watch on the TVs they are buying.

Today, when I read that consumers still prefer print I immediately wonder the questions were that were asked. I wonder why one even bothers asking them for their preferences? That is a judgement call, made by the consumer and subject to interpretation. I’m a digital publishing professional, and I can tell you that I definitely prefer reading the print version of Martha Stewart Living in print than the print replica edition now being produced by Meredith. So do the readers of the replica edition. Look at the reviews in iTunes! So, what’s the point? Asking me that question gives me no usable data.

BJP-3-featureInstead, any survey comparing print to digital should not include questions involving judgement. Instead ask the reader how often they find themselves reading content on their mobile devices, tablets, desktops? Has the amount of time increased in the last few years or decreased? What do they read on this devices? These can be answered with data that can be confirmed (preferences cannot).

I can probably tell you what the findings will be, and so can you: more time is being spent on mobile devices than ever before and that when reading on those devices they are not reading, for the most part, products being produced by print publishers. They are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc. They are also on the NYT’s mobile website or mobile app, the BBC, and other sites and apps designed for mobile reading – see some print publishers are reaching digital readers.

Many digital-only publishers are asking themselves whether it is wise to think of the print model when creating new digital publications. Should they stick to the traditional monthly publication schedule? Should their digital publications look and feel like a print product? or should they replica the web? be something new? what do digital readers want and expect that print readers do not? how can the features and capabilities of the digital devices themselves change their digital publications (social sharing, use of the camera, calendar, notifications, etc.)?

A publisher should never be proud that their print product is preferred over their digital product. Instead, they should be creating great products in print and great products in digital. They know they are succeeding in this when the reader answers a badly designed question like ‘which of these products do you prefer, this print one or this digital one?’ with the answer ‘I don’t know, you can’t compare them.’

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