Print is not dead – it just has some company


I’m sick to death of reading about the death of print – with stories written like suicide notes and printed lemming-like in our own publications, from journalists who believe an extremist fervour for “editorial independence” gives them the right to self-destruct and take everyone else with them.

I’m sick of it, because I know it not to be true.

As a journalist who covers real estate, I’ve seen markets in good times, in bad times, in amazing times, and in catastrophic times. And when things are catastrophic, there is often a sense that down is the only way things will ever go.

But every market bottoms (or tops) out eventually. And it is how you behave after the market has bottomed that decides if you will cut your losses and angrily lament to anyone who will listen, do nothing ever again out of sheer terror of a potential future loss, or learn the lessons of the fall and prosper.

My belief is this: Print is not dead. Print has just bottomed out.

We’re never going to see it return to the giddy, heady days of pre-2007. And we really do need to keep working on a more sustainable digital model to support quality journalism (one that embraces editorial independence, but not editorial idiocy). Because this is where the bulk of our audience is now, and they are there in greater numbers than they ever were in print.

Digital should be our first focus. Print no longer holds the monopoly on being the first source for information, or the fastest, or the only way to get a message out.

But print does still have a purpose. It’s a purpose that is different to the one it held originally, but that doesn’t make it any less valid.

For the print market to pick up, however, it needs to embrace this new USP. We need to start marketing the new uses for print and stop wringing our hands at the loss of the old.

What is that new purpose? We need to look at the data.

In my area of real estate in Australia, it’s true that the bulk of the dollars in advertising have gone online. As News Corporation Australia owns more than 60% of the country’s biggest online property site – – we’re OK with that.

But over past years, the best real estate agents in the country have been getting angry at us. As more of their business moved online, they have found it harder and harder to stand out from the crowd.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to brand yourself as an agent above all others – on a property listing site. Everyone is trying to do the same thing.

With my colleagues Tom Panos and Chris Jenney, we decided we needed to understand this better. We pulled apart the data that our online sister company was using and commissioned research of our own, while re-examining old research for new clues on what was going on.

This is what we found:

  • It’s true that 87% of people use Web sites when buying property.

  • But only 28% of people use online alone.

  • Online buyers are more likely to be younger (39% are aged 18-34) and they are more likely to earn less (34% earn less than $39,999 and a further 36% earn between $40,000 and $79,999).

  • 60% of all online searchers drop off by page two of the search results.

Now, I’m not going to kid you. The research also found that only 5% of people buying property use print alone.

But, really, who does use print only anymore? Online searching is great – it’s really easy. Of course, you’re going to include that when hunting for the home of your dreams.

But through the research we also learned:

  • 59% of people use print and online together when buying property (the biggest double whammy combination by far).

  • 53% of buyers use local papers and 36% use metro newspapers.

  • And 79% said the more serious they became about the purchase of a new property, the more sources of research and media they used. (Knowing where and how frequently the vendors were advertising a property gave buyers a clue about their seriousness. Print advertising, in the eyes of buyers, signals that the vendor is serious and is ready to do a deal.)

Most enlightening was the discovery that:

  • 81% said they looked at their property section in their newspaper even when not looking to buy a new property.

  • 70% expected to see high-quality, big ticket, and dream homes in their newspapers.

  • 83% said their real estate section helped them understand which agents were active in their area.

From this data, a picture started to emerge that tallied with the anecdotal and qualitative insights our agents have been giving us over the past three years:

  • Print advertising helps agents and the properties they list stand out from the crowd.

  • Print is ideal as part of the marketing for above-average homes and homes in higher price brackets.

  • And print is ideal for homes hoping to attract buyers over 35 and earning more than $80,000 a year.

So, using insights from RP Data, Australia’s largest provider of real estate data (and owned by Core Logic in the US), we started to see what else was out there that could prove or disprove this hypothesis.

RP Data tracks realtor performance, as well as myriad other insights. They gave us a list of the top 20 agent offices determined by volume of listings. It showed that 83% of the top 20 agents had a print campaign in 2012, but only 54% of agents outside the top 20 used print during that period.

Their results also found that agents who used print and online together commanded 80% of the agency market, and 96% of the properties for sale. But those agents who used online only controlled only 20% of the agency space and just 4% of properties listed for sale.

These figures show conclusively that the most successful agents in Australia use the combination of print and online to ensure both the properties they sell, and themselves, stand out from the crowd and gives them a clear market advantage.

The final piece of research, called Media Maximiser by RP Data, was also compelling.

RP Data examined 503,000 home sale listings nationally for 12 months, looking at when they went onto the market, what price they listed at, their marketing mix, when they sold, and the price they sold for. 

This data showed conclusively that print added to an online campaign improves the chances of a home selling by at least 20% and could significantly reduce the time it spends on the market.

It tallies with insights from leading Australian agent John McGrath that there are three kinds of people in the real estate market at any time:

  • Active buyers, who are looking to buy a property now and have done all the homework and are ready to purchase.

  • Market monitors, who are thinking about buying in the near future and are perhaps just starting to get their finances in order or research the steps they will need to take.

  • And passives, who haven’t thought about buying at all (but if their dream home comes onto the market, they’ll suddenly spring to life).

While online is great at leading active buyers to suitable properties, and is a vital port of call for market monitors once they start to research, print is the laid-back, relaxed experience of checking out the “property porn” and seeing what’s on the market, getting inspired and amazed – and realising that the dream home you’ve driven past every day for 10 years is now on the market.

Active buyers think with their heads. They negotiate hard to get the price they want to pay.

Passive buyers, when they see their dream homes, buy with their hearts and don’t mind paying a premium if it gets them the deal.

Market monitors use print to motivate them to go online.

Wouldn’t you want all three to be at your sale?

Tom, Chris, and I went down this path of discovery more than three months ago and started talking to our clients about our findings, showing them the data, and adding their testimonials to the bigger picture.

From a rather scary and ongoing negative revenue slide, we ended the financial year over budget. And the early feedback from agents has been this: “Finally, print is getting its act together.”

Print is not dead. It has just been shell-shocked. It’s time to shake ourselves down and tell the story of our vital role. Not as an alternative to online, but as a partner that brings different skills and value to the table.