Disrupting the Future CoverA version of this post is going out to subscribers of the Economics and Research Center newsletter. (What? You don't subscribe? Well then, be sure to sign up here.) It contains excerpts from the forthcoming book Disrupting the Future by Dr. Joe Webb and myself. Watch for the announcement of the book's release, and for its free download. We are also actively soliciting your comments about these excerpts.

We will be posting more excerpts over the next three weeks to coincide with the ERC's Thursday newsletter.

We hope you enjoy this sneak preview of this exciting and (we hope) controversial book.

Catch a Wave: Swimming, Surfing, and the “Power” of Print

We were amused last week to see this news item, which got a fair amount of comment, for and against, on the social media and here at the Print CEO:

Five leading magazines launch ad campaign touting the benefits of print.

Magazine publishing executives are returning their focus to print, after spending much effort in the last year in taking publications digital. Five leading publishers announced today, at the opening day of the 2010 4A’s Leadership/Media Conference in San Francisco, that they will join forces to push an ad campaign promoting the power of print.

Hooray! The industry is saved! We especially liked one particular quote, which lends itself perfectly to endless parody:
The first ad spread features a photo of swimming superstar Michael Phelps with the headline “We surf the Internet. We swim in magazines.”

Good grief. This is such a 1990s view of the Internet. Does anyone “surf” the Internet anymore? Sure, we did a long time ago when there was no Google and no particularly compelling place to go. We used to surf to try to figure out which search engine to use—Yahoo!, AOL, Lycos, Webcrawler, Altavista, and Omygoshicantremembertheothers. Today, there are many destinations, and we have more bookmarks in our Web browsers, pointers from our friends and colleagues in social media, and, of course, Google, that we hardly have time for it all.

So, we guess you could say, you can surf the Internet, which is boundless (limited only by our ideas and the number of computers connected to it) or you can swim like Michael Phelps in a well-defined place (a demarcated lane in an Olympic swimming pool), that is heated, chemically balanced, closely supervised by lifeguards, and is not subject to the weather or any other random factors. And Michael Phelps. Does a swimmer in the environment we described above convey the new world of any place, any time, any format, any device communications? No. The imagery is of a specialist, only good at one thing, and nothing else, with no resilience, flexibility, or wiggle room. This is not to take anything away from Michael Phelps, of course, or his achievements at the Summer Olympics, we just question the wisdom of using a one-trick pony (or sea-horse, perhaps) to represent print when online media are capable of many more things.

(We also can’t help but recall this classic Onion story: “Michael Phelps Returns to His Tank at SeaWorld.”)

Anyway, the venerable BoSacks (publishing guru Bob Sacks)  hit the nail on the head in a subsequent Print CEO post:

I guess my complaint is their marksmanship. There isn’t any. The people who put this campaign together to protect print don’t have a clue what they are doing and who to aim at. It is also clear that the instigators of this campaign don’t use the Internet or any digital component therein. I say print has much integrity and life left in it, but you wouldn’t know it by this desperate ad campaign.

The campaign claims to target advertisers, shareholders and industry influencers. Well, listen up, my friends, you just insulted them all. The media buyers live in a digital world. When you bellow in one of the ads that, “The Internet is fleeting. Magazines are immersive,” every media buyer knows that is pure bunk. It is the Internet that is immersive, and the kids that buy the ads and spend the advertising money know it. They live on Facebook, Twitter, and hundreds of other social network sites and programs. You display an utter lack of contemporary culture and knowledge. You show your dotage at every opportunity. Don’t attack your customers where they live. Media buyers live on the Web and only visit magazines. And in my book, visiting is okay and can still be very profitable, but not if you try to tell them that they live in a fleeting, soon-to-be-evaporated world. That is a lie.

Oh, and the other tag line—“We surf the Internet. We swim in magazines.” Oh, really? Perhaps you missed the report that the Web is now the second most trusted place for news—second only to TV.  Perhaps you missed the news that 57% of the Web’s social media users are over the age of 35. Perhaps you didn’t know that Facebook has more than 400 million active users, and of those active users, 61 percent of Facebook’s users are middle-aged or older.

All I am saying is that the campaign is a total waste. Exactly to whom is it directed and exactly what are your expectations on an ROI? Is this the campaign that will save the nation of print?

Look, I love print and have been deeply involved in it for over 40 years. It is a beautiful technology. It still has great merit and worth. We will survive by being what we are—useful, informative, reasonably priced and unbreakably transportable. We have the best editors and writers on the planet and have the ability to band together thousands and sometimes, hundreds of thousands, of like-minded readers to our brands on a regular basis.

When  they say “we swim in magazines,” one can easily imagine folks in quaint, Victorian-era beachwear sticking a tentative toe in the water while repeating “we are not being amused” and clucking their tongues with derision. Meanwhile, online, we’ve gone from “surfing” the Internet to the equivalent of using that “surf” as a hydroelectric power source.

Funny: the MPA tried this in 2006:

The consumer magazine industry will unveil a new advertising campaign on February 27, showcasing the medium’s ability to engage consumers and improve advertisers results, it was announced today by Nina Link, President and CEO, Magazine Publishers of America (MPA). This campaign is the next phase of the industry’s three-year, multi-million-dollar marketing initiative that launched last year to promote the value of magazines to advertisers.

And it was obviously so effective that they felt the need to repeat it. So much for the “power of print.”

We are mentioning this because the solution to the printing—or publishing—industry’s woes is not another futile “Got milk?”-type promotional campaign. What will save our industry are fundamental changes in the way we do business. It’s not just about buying a new piece of equipment, or trying in vain to create demand for print. It’s about challenging our assumptions, questioning the conventional wisdom that guided many print businesses in the heyday of the industry, but now is no longer valid and relevant. It’s about understanding media choice and realizing that print is one communications medium among many and that to be a true communications company one must be conversant in all media, strategically and holistically.

All of this is covered in great, painstaking (but we hope not painful) detail in the forthcoming book Disrupting the Future: Uncommon Wisdom for Navigating Print’s Challenging Marketplace. In the previous book Renewing the Printing Industry, we offered alternative strategies that print business owners could use to recast their businesses. The new book takes the discussion even further and explains how the transition from “printers” to full-service communications providers is a critical strategic path. Disrupting the Future explains why the old business advice and common wisdom that guided the industry for decades no longer has the right context, and provides a new set of guidelines, advice, and “uncommon wisdom.”

Ultimately, it’s our goal in this book take printers by the hand and walk them through the steps needed to transition to a new kind of printing business, to get away from the old discrete job-based approach to printing (we receive a file, print it, send it out the door, bill for it, and that’s the end of it) to the new continuous process-based approach to communications in general (we manage and monitor all a customer’s communication needs on an ongoing basis and bill on a retainer basis at predetermined intervals).

This and the next several blogposts comprise excerpts and condensed portions of Disrupting the Future.

Why that title? “Disrupting the Future” is another way of describing “innovation”—which is the only way the industry will survive. The book discusses disruptive technologies—specifically, means of communication that provide alternatives to print, be it radio, television, or the Internet. But, let’s not forget, print itself was the original disruptive technology. But, like any technology, it was eventually superseded by new and newer media. The industry needs to find ways of not combating, but adapting to and building upon prevailing trends.

The future of print as it stands today is clear: continuing decline, throwing more workers to the streets, and more owners out of business. Can you think of a more important future that should be disrupted, and a more urgent time to disrupt it?

The strategies we outline in the book are vital, because trying to increase the awareness of print is not the answer. After all, people are aware of print—that’s exactly why they stopped using it. They bring their recycling bin filled with printed items to their curb every week or two. Sure, they may still surf the Internet, but they’re drowning in “junk mail” (or at least they feel that way, even though mailing volumes are significantly down). Making people more aware of print today is a classic “be careful what you wish for, you might just get it” situation. After all, they might say, “Darn, I do get a lot of junk in the mail, don’t I? Maybe I should support do-not-mail legislation.”

So, people are aware of print; they just often choose not to use it. Disrupting the Future explains this in a unique way, and changes the focus from the print medium, to the print business as a communications catalyst. It will not be for everyone—but then neither is entrepreneurship.