How Deep Can the E-Bite Really Go?

By | November 4, 2011

I’ve got a mix of news items in my head that I’m trying to process. In yesterday’s blog post, Dr. Joe reported that printing shipments are up .3% on a current dollar basis compared to September 2010. On an inflation-adjusted basis, they were down -3.5% compared to the prior year.

Around the same time, I was reading a variety of other posts. Among them is that Google+ now has 40 million users. As I’m reading this online guru talk about the value for e-marketers, I’m thinking, “Ugh! Another social media site? I can’t keep up with all the social media sites now.”

Really, how many ways can consumers slice themselves up? At some point, whatever slice of attention marketers do get will be so think as to be all but useless.

Then there was the article on how Houghton Mifflin Harcourt is pushing its new $60 print edition of The American Heritage Dictionary, complete with online version and tablet and mobile phone apps. Part of the “big deal” nature of the story was that HMH’s research showed it wasn’t just older consumers who were drawn to the print edition. It was the younger, digitally enabled consumer functioning in a multi-format world, as well.

You know what? I’m with them. Unless I’m some kind of alien, I can be sliced and diced only so many ways before the slices are just too thin. Just as a direct mail piece can cut through all the online chaos, a printed book, manual, or report cuts through the social media, mobile, online clutter and gives me something e-media cannot — simplicity.

So how deep can e-media bite? Print shipments are down on an inflation-adjusted basis, but not precipitously. When you look at Dr. Joe’s chart, in fact, the numbers are fluctuating but appear to be holding at some level of stasis over time. Maybe there is a reason for that.

Could it be that the easy pickin’s for the electronic world have been skimmed off? That the deeper cuts into traditional print will be much harder? Or even in some kind of desperate search for simplicity, we might even see a rise in print shipments again?

I wonder.

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11 thoughts on “How Deep Can the E-Bite Really Go?

  1. Mark D

    I have two teenagers, both of whom have been e-centric for reading and study through their formative years to date. I state ‘have’ because they are now including and preferring a different media for reading enjoyment – print. It started in the spring when one of them received an offer from USAir to convert their small unused mileage balance for magazine subscriptions. They chose People, Car and Driver, Seventeen, and a couple of others. Once the magazines started to arrive, they both stated how much more enjoyable it is to have the magazine their hands. Another way to look at it is they prefer the publication available in its physical form because it is so much easier for them to explore the entire context of same, resulting in a serendipitous information gain. Based on this experience, one of the two pretty much turned off the Kindle and prefers physical books borrowed from the local library. They both have mentioned that since so many e-channels are now available, the e experience is not what is used to be. ‘Used to be’ coming from a teenager is an interesting take on the e subject, giving validity to the last statement in your commentary.

  2. Peter Gorgone

    I read this somewhere, so I cannot claim credit, but one marketer put it this way: “what was old (print) is new again. I

  3. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    My husband’s family doesn’t even own a television, and he grew up without one. Their house is lined with books — good ones — and they are one of the most well-rounded, interesting (and others-focused rather than self-focused) families I’ve ever met. It’s amazing what happens when you’re exposed to the power of the written word. It changes you. There is something being lost in our culture with the loss of the printed word. If the pendulum swings back, we’ll all be the better for it. Give someone a book for Christmas!

  4. Bryan Yeager

    I guess I don’t quite understand the correlation you are trying to make between Google+ and print. Each can be considered a viable communication channel depending on a number of factors, including goals, reach, audience mix, budget, and much more. Your quote regarding the proliferation of social networks could be similarly applied to books (both print and digital): “Ugh! Another published book? I can’t keep up with all the books I want to read now.” You have to make a conscience decision about the books you want to read, just like you have to make a conscience decision about the social networks you participate in.

    Let’s look at the facts: marketers and advertisers are shifting their ad dollars away from traditional/offline media channels and moving them into digital media channels. Why? They have bought into the perception that digital is more cost-effective, more measurable, and more interactive than traditional media. While this perception can certainly be challenged, marketers have clearly found success with digital, which is why they continue to shift their budgets there. Additionally, printers that want to bring in more business are becoming Web-enabled to reach new audiences and conduct business more efficiently and effectively. The online channel cannot be ignored, and those who ignore it will find this out the hard way.

    Of course, I am primarily referring to print in the context of marketing and advertising. Print has great benefits in terms of quality/readability, navigation, and as Mark D mentioned, serendipity. Nevertheless, there is a great benefit to interactive digital media beyond consumption. If you didn’t catch the “60 Minutes” segment from a few weeks ago about “Apps for Autism”, you should definitely check it out. Interactive iPad apps are being developed for people with serious Autism that prevents them from speaking with people. These apps provide an interface for these people to construct sentences and communicate with people, essentially giving them a “voice” they would never have had before. These types of digital innovations can have a profound impact on peoples’ lives.

    The time for bellyaching about digital media in the printing industry is over. There is no doubt that print can have numerous benefits over digital media, that digital media can have benefits over print, and that the two can be leveraged together to create truly compelling campaigns and applications. Ultimately, it is all communication, and the medium or mediums that can most effectively meet the goals of the communicator should be leveraged.

  5. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    I’m not bellyaching. Nor did I suggest that print is better than digital media. My question was simply whether there are limits to the depth of the bite digital can take. That’s a totally different issue than “bellyaching” over digital media or saying print is better.

    My point is that when you read a book, you open the pages and read. You can easily manage half a dozen books on a coffee table. But managing six different social networks can take up your whole life. Any one social network can eat up all of your available time. It can be all-consuming. Addicting.

    That isn’t criticizing digital media or suggesting that it’s not a great medium for marketing. It’s simply playing realist about just how much digital input consumers can take while still giving marketers a slice of their attention sufficient to accomplish the marketer’s goal. Slice someone up too thin and, sure, you’ll get a piece, but is that piece enough to actually do you any good?

    I think it’s a legitimate question worth asking.

  6. Bryan Yeager

    Sorry, but I think this is an “old world” perspective. I’m not saying your point is not legitimate, but I think it is generational. Look at the upcoming generation; they might as well be called the multi-task generation. They manage multiple online profiles, have multiple text message conversations with their friends at the same time, and browse the Web on their smartphone while watching TV. What’s more, they can do all of this fairly adeptly; they can handle doing multiple tasks better than their predecessors. This is the new reality.

    I certainly understand the point you’re trying to get across regarding the slice of attention, but I don’t see it as being any different than the issues marketers have faced for decades. The average US consumer sees hundreds, if not thousands of marketing messages per day, both in print and online (and with printed pieces telling people to go online). According to InfoTrends research, marketers already use an average of three media types per campaign to get their message out. They are not relegating those media types purely to digital, but a larger share is going in that direction.

    My ultimate point is that the digital is going to continue to proliferate and evolve, and printers need to adapt accordingly. There will be more new social networks, and others will grow out of popularity as some already have. As more people conduct more activities online, it is going to continue to be a premier destination for marketing and advertising. What’s great is that because online marketing (and print marketing that is integrated with online components) is measurable, a marketer can tell you if that slice of attention was indeed valuable and effective or not.

  7. Bryan Yeager

    Also, there is a very interesting article published on AdAge that talks about the “next generation marketer” and how they will “have to be well-rounded multi-disciplinarians who understand not only creative, but also digital marketing, social media and new technologies”.

    Furthermore, according the article, these marketers will need to have these five key skills: Ability to read and speak data, be agile learners, have a deep understanding of digital, have integrated marketing capabilities, and have industry-specific knowledge. I think this truly speaks to what the new reality in marketing is.

  8. Heidi Tolliver-Walker Post author

    I agree with all you’ve posted, Brian. I talk about these trends myself. I live on my iPhone, scan QR codes, send out e-newsletters with social media icons, have an online store (, have a Facebook page, LinkedIn profile, and I Tweet, and have a mobile-optimized website.

    My points are simply this:

    1. The growth of e-media for marketing and the value of print are not mutually exclusive. When I question how deep the bite can go, this isn’t questioning the value of electronic media.

    2. Multi-tasking, all-digital media users are just that — one generation. We can’t just market for a single generation. Until the multi-tasking-all-digital generation is the ONLY generation, we still have millions of consumers with dollars in their pockets who are not wired this way.

    3. Younger generations may be great at multi-tasking and they may love digital media, but they are still human. The human brain can only be split so many ways before each section of attention becomes less effective.

  9. Mark D

    Very interesting comments. Humans are not capable of multitasking or time slicing. Rather, we are switchers, moving from one task to another One curious aspect to switching is we incur a time loss as the brain goes from processing one cognitive source to the next. I don’t know if anyone has studied this time loss in any detail, but as more and more cognitive channels become available, it must have some effect on processing.

  10. Adam

    I think that it is important to bear in mind that consuming media in print form requires one skill. Digital media requires several skills insofar as finding the media, collating all of the relevant information, interpreting the intention of the author, and more than often responding to the media in the form of a reply or comment.
    Many aspects to digital media would simply not make it into print, which can either be a crutch or a defining feature of digital media. Likewise this absence of information could be a limitation to print, or a sign of more rigorous quality control.
    In short, each medium has its own advantages and disadvantages and thus will not lead to either being “killed off” soon.

  11. kit hamilton

    How deep can the e-bite go? It’s an interesting question. Not sure that there’s a good way to answer it except to say that when there comes a time that 100% of the people prefer e-communicating 100% of the time, it’s maxed out. It’s anyone’s guess when/if that time will come.

    What we are seeing is that, as channels evolve and grow and lose their new and nimbleness, they can also lose some of their appeal. eMail for example: Spam, sheer volume and the advent of social media have all contributed to it losing some of its luster, and now analysts are going so far as to predict its ultimate demise in the not too distant future.

    The e-bite could go all the way – but only when and if it gets to the point that it truly outperforms all other options in the eyes of the consumer. Until then, the true challenge is in effectively making all channels, e- and traditional, work together to provide one face to the customer.

    More thoughts to be found on this on our blog …

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