Has Print’s Grim Reaper Met Its Match?

Print is becoming a communication enabler



Eve Padula, Marc Mascara


Starting back in the early 1990s, the death of print has been prophesized repeatedly. As early as May 2004, newspapers had become the least preferred source for consuming news among young people, so consumers as well as technology fueled the rumors that the Grim Reaper had arrived for print. Over 15 years ago, Carnegie Corporation published a piece entitled Abandoning the News. According to this article,  39% of survey respondents under the age of 35 expected to use the Internet for future news purposes. Meanwhile, only 8% of respondents said that they would rely on a newspaper. This death march expanded from newspapers to transactional and direct mail. In the early 1990s, “junk mail” was at its height, and the desire to reduce clutter, increase convenience, and save the trees all contributed to the steep decline in bills, statements, and other types of direct mail.


Has the Grim Reaper Arrived for Print?
(Source: Mickey Olivia Finley)


Winds of Change

For a few years now, we’ve seen a change in consumers’ communication preferences. The frustratingly persistent COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this shift and brought it to the front and center—the good, the bad, and the ugly. According to Keypoint Intelligence’s recently published Value of Customer Communications Forecast, businesses sent a total of 309 billion mail pieces and digital communications to North American consumers in 2019. We project this volume to reach 363 billion by 2024, demonstrating a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.3%. Whereas printed communications are expected to decline at a CAGR of -2.3% through 2024, digital marketing messages will increase at a CAGR of 5.6% during the same timeframe. At the same time, however, the decline in print does not tell the whole story—it actually symbolizes a flattening trend in relation to the steep drop-off that was projected about 10 years ago.


It is possible that the same consumer preferences and technologies that once contributed to print’s predicted demise are now actually championing print, giving the Grim Reaper some pause. Keypoint Intelligence’s most recent Annual State of Marketing Communications survey reveals that younger consumers are more receptive to printed communications than their predecessors. Respondents under 35 were considerably more likely than their older counterparts to agree that most of the direct mail they received was relevant to them. What’s more, about half of these younger consumers looked at most of their direct mail and spent more time with direct mail that was personalized and relevant.



Other findings from this same survey were as follows:

  • Over 71% of consumers under age 35 wanted to be able to decide which channels their providers used to communicate with them.
  • Nearly a quarter of consumers under 35 believed that providers who sent printed marketing pieces were more serious about winning/keeping their business, compared to under 14% of those aged 35+.


Technology has also contributed to the shift back toward print. As we emerge from the pandemic, today’s consumers are demanding personalized and relevant marketing communications from printed and digital channels alike. The technologies for digital marketing messages have improved dramatically over the past 10 years, but the same is also true for printing technologies. Digital printing has answered the call for highly personalized and relevant printed applications, and the dreaded “junk mail” is no longer cluttering our physical mailboxes the way it once had. To be sure, direct mail is the less cluttered channel in today’s world, as consumers are inundated with e-mails, texts, and other digital notifications. A previous blog discussed the phenomena of channel fog and channel fatigue, exploring how widely publicized data breaches and ongoing concerns about digital security are prompting consumers—even younger ones—to rethink their communication preferences.


The Postal Service Faces a Crisis

Although print has made great strides over the past few years, the future is not all a bed of roses. The recent positivity associated with printed communications is being challenged by big business and governmental regulations. Two days ago, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy testified before a House panel committee on oversight and reform with the US House of Representatives. The United States Postal Service (USPS) is experiencing a crisis in terms of finances and services, and DeJoy announced that part of his strategic plan could include the slowing of first-class mail. That said, the agency must explore new revenue sources, including pending price increases. For now, let’s set aside the political aspect of these hearings and focus on what directly impacts the newfound positivity for printed communications.


Although the postal service was once stable and still handles the timely delivery of most printed communications, it is now facing a crisis that could directly impact consumer preferences all over again. If consumers lose their faith in the USPS, this will in turn tarnish their faith in printed direct mail. According to a testimony by Joel Quadracci (President and CEO of Quad),  consumers are losing confidence in the USPS every day. Quadracci reports that Quad is the largest printing establishment in the US, handling 8 billion pieces of mail annually—roughly 12% of all marketing mail volume to date.


Representing the Coalition for a 21st Century Postal Service, Quadracci stated, “From a combination of service and pricing circumstances over the past year, our coalition and the industry as a whole are alarmed about and questioning not only our own continued use of the postal system, but the overall impact on postal volumes and revenues, and the Postal Service’s continued ability to fund and do its job.” 


Although the industry may be challenged and disrupted by a digital substitution for paper-based communications, Quadracci attests that print works. The best way to reach consumers continues to be getting marketing materials into homes and hands. Through direct mail, print accomplishes this goal. In fact, print is expected to be the top media channel used by local advertisers in 2021. According to eMarketer.com, businesses are expected to spend over $31 billion on printed communications this year. Retail e-commerce, which has taken on new life since the pandemic hit almost a year ago, works best with a  coordinated marketing plan that uses print in conjunction with a multi-channel marketing effort. Direct mail is the foundation of any such effort.


Quadracci went on to say, “The industry’s faith and confidence in the USPS to perform is critical; without that confidence, alternatives for mailers throughout our coalition will become more attractive out of necessity.” Unfortunately, the industry’s confidence in the USPS has already been shaken, and this (coupled with proposed postage rate increases) will ultimately impact consumers’ sentiments about print. If and when the USPS quagmire is straightened out, however, print will be well-positioned for future success.


The Bottom Line 

In today’s market, shifting consumer preferences and ongoing technological innovations in digital printing equipment are elevating print to a new plateau as an enabler for all consumer communications. Print can be used to engage consumers with everything from interactive augmented and virtual reality components to packaging with an immersive unboxing experience. It can also drive consumers back to digital communications for a true omni-channel experience. Rather than allowing the print Grim Reaper to continue chasing this communication channel, businesses and government entities must realize that paper-based communications are a vital component of economic growth and customer satisfaction. Printed direct mail is uniquely positioned to enable all types of communications with its ability to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds.


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