The role of print in thought leadership

16 November 2017 - 05:06 pm UTC

Print is beautiful, engaging and can be a vital cog in a well-executed thought leadership campaign. But we need to fundamentally change the way we think about it as a medium.


In the last 5–10 years, the combination of economic downturn and the rise of digital media have created, if not a perfect storm, then certainly a fairly damaging typhoon for print. According to a recent market research report on the UK printing industry, revenues since 2010 have decreased at a compound annual rate of 3.4%. Indeed, in 2013 the satirical website The Onion deemed print to be in such peril that it ran a mock obituary; “The influential means of communication,” it read, “was 1,803 [years old]”.


As someone who claims to appreciate a fine piece of print work — the feel of different paper weights and stocks, ink densities, varnishes, laminates, foils — reading reports of print’s demise is distressing, even when some are largely in jest.


In terms of thought leadership, does this mean we should be switching the bulk of our resources to digital distribution channels? Should we bother with print at all? Or, more usefully, should we be re-evaluating print — its relative strengths and weaknesses — to establish how it best fits into the post-digital landscape. 


Print works


Traditionally, a thought leadership campaign coalesced around a long-form report, written and designed expressly for print. And this approach makes sense. When you have content that’s 6000 words or more, with a range of complex, sometimes disparate points, nothing holds the reader’s attention like print (with the exception, perhaps, of an e-book).


The trouble is that there’s now a host of other channels available to readers, many of which work better with focused, atomised content. So putting all your eggs into one printed-report-shaped basket is no longer enough if you want your thought leadership campaign to stand out.


None of which is particularly earth-shattering news. Most good thought leadership already contains a variety of digital elements alongside print. However, where some campaigns might be missing a trick is in not grasping where print’s real strengths lie.


Sometimes, with overall cost in mind, volume is prioritised over paper quality. Other times, there’s a lack of understanding as to what’s possible. Or print is just an after-thought, afforded the bare minimum time and effort. Either way, the result is invariably printed thought leadership that is utilitarian, uninspiring and ineffective. 


Bold, bespoke, beautiful


Ruth Jamieson’s recent book ‘Print is Dead. Long Live Print’ chronicles the explosion of independent magazines. The future of print, Jamieson says, is being shaped by creatively led, innovative titles. Magazines like WRAPKinfolk and Disegno are pushing the boundaries of quality, design and format, thereby thriving where more traditional titles have seen their circulations nosedive.


The lesson that thought leadership can take from this trend is that print can offer exceptional quality, eye-catching impact and the potential for innovation. While digital channels can provide a cost-effective route to a larger audience, a beautiful long-form printed report placed directly into the hands of a small number of key influencers or clients can have just as much effect on a campaign’s ultimate success.


By this measure, print becomes a luxury item — but one that adds real value (think Neymar rather than Adel Taarabt). Something that is produced in smaller quantities, but with drastically higher production values and canny targeting, so that it stands out starkly against the drab efforts of competitors. It also becomes a complement to digital content, rather than a rehash or replica of it.


The only challenge left after that is finding the editorial teams adaptable enough, the designers creative enough, and the printers open-minded enough to produce this new wave of bold, bespoke and beautifully printed thought leadership.