The largest media debates of our time

Submitted by: Sam Upton 23/01/2018

One of the largest and loudest media debates of our time is which channel the consumer prefers: print or digital.

This is a debate that doesn’t just affect the marketing, publishing and advertising industries; it has an effect on every industry that needs to communicate with its customers, from banks and utility companies sending out bills and statements, to hospitals and doctors posting personal health information. It’s a debate that takes in elements of economics, market forces, neurology, anthropology and the age-old discussion of consumer choice. 

As any good marketer will tell you, print and digital both have a secure place at the communications table. They both have advantages that benefit the consumer, whether it’s the convenience of online shopping and accessing information quickly, or the tactile pleasure of browsing through a print catalogue or reading a physical book. But there remains a question of which medium the consumer prefers for which activity. 

To answer this question, Two Sides commissioned a global survey in June 2017, which asked over 10,700 consumers in ten countries about their preferences and habits when it comes to reading print and digital communications. What they found was a significant preference for print in recreational reading, such as books, magazines, news and catalogue shopping, while computers (laptops or desktops) were preferred when it comes to reading transactional documents such as bills and statements. 

Looking at UK consumers in particular, the largest percentage for popularity is with reading print magazines, with 78% of all respondents preferring to read their favourite title in its paper form, while print books came close, with 73% enjoying curling up with a literal page-turner. Newspapers (62%) and product catalogues (56%) also proved popular in print, with the nearest digital format, the laptop, a long way behind for each (13% and 21% respectively). 

Of course, it’s not unknown for people to state a preference but behave in a different way, so Two Sides then asked about the respondents’ reading habits. The results also demonstrated that print magazines, books and catalogues are preferred over their digital cousins, with printed books read by 52% of UK consumers at least once a week (compared to 25% reading a book on a digital device) and 39% reading a print magazine at least once a week (versus 19% reading the digital version). 

However, when considering behaviour, print isn’t the number one choice across the entire spectrum of media. Digital is preferred over print for the consumption of news, with 42% getting their daily news from a digital device (compared to 29% reading a newspaper). Digital also has the edge with marketing messages, with 13% of UK consumers reading their marketing emails every day and 11% reading addressed advertising mail. 

But taken overall, these results point towards consumers sticking with print communications, despite the onslaught of digital content and big businesses trying to steer them towards it. This resilience of print can be put down to a number of reasons. Firstly, the economics of digital communication mean that consumers receive huge amounts every day when compared to print, especially when it comes to marketing messages. This can lead to digital fatigue and a sharp drop in engagement with advertising. 

The significant difference in engagement between print and digital has been seen in a number of studies, most notably the work done by Readex Research, who found that despite the tremendous impact digital has had on marketing in the past decade, it’s made no difference to how well print ads are noticed and read by consumers – and in some cases it’s actually improved. 

‘Screen fatigue’ has been cited as one of the reasons why UK e-book sales plunged by 17% in 2016 to its lowest level since 2011. Conversely, the sales of print books in the UK are now at a five-year high. “There is generally a sense that people are now getting screen fatigue from so many devices being used, watched or looked at in their week,” said Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association. “Print books provide an opportunity to step away from that.”

Meanwhile, people are starting to recognise that there’s a marked difference to the understanding and retention of information when reading in print and in digital. In a global study by American linguistics professor Naomi Baron, students in the US, Slovakia, Japan and Germany were asked what they preferred to read, and a whopping 92% said physical books. “I believe that the possibility and likelihood of distraction is too high when it comes to online learning tools,” said Steven Hernandez, a student at Arizona State University. 

As well as a lack of distraction, neuroscience has found that print provides higher comprehension and recall, stimulates emotions and desires, and drives sensory involvement leading to greater impact. Taking all this into account, the resilience of print in an increasingly digital world doesn’t seem so surprising.

To download the global report, as well as the Key Findings from the UK survey, go to