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The Gutenberg Parenthesis and why print is trusted

November 13, 2023  By John Blyth

There are parallels between the pre-print era and our conversationally charged digital age according to journalist, author, and media expert Jeff Jarvis in his new book The Gutenberg Parenthesis.

In conversation with Print Power managing director Ulbe Jelluma, he explains that before print, words were passed around mouth to mouth. The story changed along the way and there was little sense of ownership and authorship. After Gutenberg’s Parenthesis (the proposal that the history of literary culture from the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press in the mid-15th century until the turn of the millennium would, in the future, come to be regarded as a blip), knowledge is again passed around mouth to mouth, or let’s call it click to click. This knowledge also changes along the way and there’s less of a sense of ownership and authorship. Experts are not honoured anymore. Instead, the network and everyone who can speak is honoured.

He went on to say there is an opportunity here where print, especially with the rise of ChatGPT, does hold more authority than digital. He said we should value what we’ve learned through print and how we can use that wherever appropriate.

The growing distrust in sources such as social media was highlighted in the global 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer. It reported a shared media environment has given way to echo chambers, making it harder to collaboratively solve problems. Trust was especially low in social media. It stated businesses can play an essential role in the information ecosystem. It can be a source of reliable information, promote civil discourse, and hold false information sources accountable through corrective messaging, reinvestment, and other action.

Print is trusted

study by the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, found more than half of the population (56 per cent) considered national newspapers to be trustworthy, rising to 63 per cent for regional daily newspapers. And while 28 per cent of Germans expressed mistrust in the established media in 2019, that dropped to 16 per cent in 2020. Just five per cent of those surveyed trusted news on social media networks. According to Statista, 71 per cent of Dutch citizens reported trusting in the printed press. Finland and Denmark were next, both with a 70 per cent share of people trusting the written press. It is interesting to note some of the most financially stable publications are free weekly regional newspapers that often invite readers to submit local stories resulting in relevant content creation with reduced costs. These publications also cleverly apply cross-marketing by publishing a shorter version in print with a QR code linking to longer online coverage. It has enabled them to keep, or even grow, their advertising business because of their stable (and active) readership.

This trust is proving appealing for advertisers. The Harvard Business Review points to evidence suggesting a shift is underway. The largest increase in traditional advertising (television, radio, newspaper, events, and outdoor advertising) spending, up 10.2 per cent, was predicted for B2C service companies followed by B2C product companies, up 4.9 per cent. Interestingly online retailers are leading this with an 11.7 per cent increase in traditional advertising spending predicted over the next 12 months. It’s no surprise that even digital giants like Google and Amazon use traditional forms of marketing to promote their products and services, including printed direct mail and advertising.

Among the reasons given for this were:

Cutting through digital clutter – Marketers are looking for a way to stand out from the digital noise. Consumers spend many waking hours online and are increasingly numb to conventional digital advertising and engagement. In contrast, MarketingSherpa reports that more than half of consumers often or always watch traditional television advertisements and read print advertisements that they receive in the mail from companies they are satisfied with. Ebiquity states traditional media channels — led by TV, radio, and print — outperform digital channels in terms of reach, attention, and engagement relative to costs.

Capitalising on consumers’ trust in traditional advertising – Marketers can use traditional advertising to build brand credibility and trust with jaded buyers. The same MarketingSherpa survey found that the top five most trusted advertising formats are all traditional, with print advertising (82 per cent) coming out top. It was followed by television advertising (80 per cent), direct mail advertising (76 per cent), and radio advertising (71 per cent). British and American consumers were found to trust traditional advertising more than social media advertising.

Exploiting the digital lift of traditional media – Digital technology can lever traditional tools such as direct mail in powerful ways. For example, mailers can be paired with unique URLs or scannable QR codes that enable consumers to learn more. These tools can be used to capture granular data, for the creation of robust marketing analytics. This also reduces the advantage of digital channels.

It is not just trust that is positively affected by print. Action is too. In a recent study automation specialist Quadient found that almost 62 per cent of British consumers say they are more likely to open a physical letter than an email. Thirty-nine per cent said this was because letters feel more personalized to them and their needs than bulk email messages, while 42 per cent said there is no risk of hacking, phishing or being infected by viruses. A further 37 per cent said they appreciate the lack of spam messages received through physical mail.

Dynamic and stimulating print developed on accurate data ensures trust, as well as the successful capture and retention of attention. Creative imagery with digital print enhancement, or personalized content that reaches the recipient at the most effective time, is highly engaging. Blending the on- and off-line worlds with printed QR codes and augmented reality (AR) capabilities drives activity. And the increasing use of gamification elements like such as scratch codes also contribute to stickiness, engagement, and ultimately revenue.

Individually, or together, these can deliver memorable communications that are trusted enough to instill confidence and encourage action.

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