Print Advertising vs. Online Advertising

If you’ve been running traditional offline print advertising – in local newspapers, magazines or trade journals – chances are you’ve been subject to your share of sales pitches asking you to move some or all of your advertising online.

Print advertising vs. online advertisingOften these pitches come from the same publishers of your print ads who smartly have added online properties to their advertising packages.

You may have been tempted.  The pricing seems more appealing.

You may have even tried it.

But most of you have understandably not fully transitioned over to online.

I wouldn’t either – not until I could measure my results and then compare.

But I would be very open to it. I really would.  Here’s why …

We’re reluctant to change

Perhaps this is a sign of my age, but I like print publications.  I like holding a newspaper or magazine, flipping through the pages.  I much prefer reading a newspaper than reading news online – and I am someone who spends a good part of my day online.

I subscribe to many online publications in my industry, but when given the chance, I will always opt for the print publication.

I know I’m not alone in this. A large segment of the population grew up on print.  Transitioning to an online world has been a slow, somewhat reluctant move.

Because of this personal experience, many business owners and marketing directors remain unconvinced that advertising online could ever be as effective as advertising in a print publication – and as a result, are unwilling to pay top dollar for online.

Which is more effective – print or online?

Is it more effective to run an ad in a newspaper’s print edition or on that same newspaper’s website?

Based on price, the answer is clear.  Print is far more expensive than online.

But is that price disparity a reflection of true effectiveness or perception?

In some ways, perception is all that matters.  If ad buyers think print is more effective, end of story, right?

But doesn’t it come down to this:

How many people will actually see your ad?

What is the purpose of the advertising media?

It’s to reach a specific audience.  That’s it.  Nothing more.

Forget about whether the ad itself was effective.  That’s a separate discussion.

We are only talking about the media channel here.  And you have to ask how many people – qualified prospects – will actually see your ad with this publication?

Let’s see how effectively print and online can reach a target audience.

Start with Print Advertising

It’s no secret that Print Advertising is suffering.  Just look at the size of your industry trade journal or the magazine insert in your Sunday paper.  They have become wafer thin – all because they have fewer ads. And fewer ads mean fewer pages.

(Ironically, if you are still advertising in these publications, your effectiveness may actually be increasing because you have less competition and your ad is more likely to be seen.)

Getting back to my original question, how many people will actually see your ad?

  • Think about how many people get the publication (how many subscribers).
  • Of that, how many actually see the publication.
  • Of that, how many actually open the publication.
  • Of that, how many actually get to the page where your ad appears.
  • Of that, how many actually see your ad on that page.
  • Only then, does your ad even have a chance of producing a response.

This drilling down process is very sobering.

Now consider Online Advertising

Publishers vary in how they charge for online advertising, but many charge by the cost per 1000 impressions.  Impressions are actual page views.

(Other methods include a fixed amount per month based on estimated traffic, or cost per click where you are only paying when someone clicks on your ad.)

With online advertising, your ad will appear in one of several ad blocks that appear on a page.  Naturally, the best spots are at the top where your ad will be seen even if the visitor doesn’t scroll down.   Lower priced spots are available near the bottom of the page.

Some publishers have the ability to target online visitors by demographics, geography and sometimes by previous behavior.  Geography is particularly important because many of the larger publications distribute far beyond your advertising market.

Guaranteed impressions

When you buy on a cost-per-impression basis, your impressions are guaranteed – assuming the publication is being monitored and audited by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB).

If you pay for 20,000 impressions, your ad will appear on the screens of 20,000 readers.  Guaranteed!

Now, how many impressions can you reasonably expect from that same publication’s print edition with a circulation of 20,000 subscribers?

How many of those 20,000 subscribers will actually see the publication, open the publication and reach the page where your ad appears?

I can promise you it will be a lot fewer than 20,000.

Written by Bob McCarthy


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This article may be reprinted without permission as long as the article includes the following credit:

Bob McCarthy is a direct response consultant helping businesses develop measurable marketing programs across multiple marketing channels. You can read his blog, The Direct Response Coach, on his website at Bob can be reached at 508-473-8643 or at


Bob McCarthy is a direct response copywriter and lead generation specialist.

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About Bob McCarthy

Bob McCarthy is a direct response consultant and copywriter with a focus on direct mail, email and digital marketing. Bob works with B2B, B2C and Non-Profit clients. You can download his free ebook, "Making Snail Mail Work: 13 Lessons in Direct Mail Strategy."

8 comments to Print Advertising vs. Online Advertising

  • This is an excellent article. As an small business advertising specialist, I have done a lot of print and online ads over the years. Both can be effective if done correctly, but my personal preference is print. Print has a longevity that online ads do not. I also know that I, myself, do not notice the banner ads on most sites so the impressions are often wasted.

  • Thanks Leigh Ann
    I’ve always had an intuitive preference for print, but when you start looking at the numbers – and how many people will actually see your ad – I like the idea of guaranteed impressions, which you only get with online. But in the final analysis, it comes down to response (measured against costs).

  • We’re at the moment considering what to do. Have done years of print advertising (and one the side some online testing), but get more and more the idea that online has less and less effect. Subscriptions drop, number of pages drop and quality drops. And as you state: getting the readers to see your ad and acting on it is questionable and almost untracable. Online could have many advantages like targetting as you mention. But also on websites it is a fact like Leigh Ann above mentions: do you see the ad and do you notice it. A CPC would be even more realistic than CPT/CPM. That would really be a prospect coming to your site.
    We could advertise (we do now on some of the sites of the magazines we have printed ads in) on these websites, but you do not mention the possibility of Google Adwords, so that you can advertise that Google thinks are relevant to that visitor. If he searches for ‘yachts’ he could see an ad of us, and later if he visits a news site, he would again see a banner of us… Power of repetition??

  • Thanks Paul

    You raise some great points.

    Google Adwords is an excellent option that I recommend to everyone. Google Adwords actually has three different programs – search advertising, display advertising and remarketing (retargeting).

    You’re familiar with search advertising – getting your ad in the “sponsored” section of a search engine page. Display advertising puts your advertising on websites, blogs and other online properties that have partnered with Google through its AdSense program. Remarketing sends your ads to people who have previously visited your website.

    All three of these programs can be set up as a pay-per-click campaign which is very appealing. But be warned, a click is not a lead. It can take 20 or more clicks before you get a real lead. You just need to watch the numbers.

    But Google Adwords isn’t the only advertising that can be tracked and measured. With both online and offline advertising, you can measure performance of each ad placement on a cost-per-lead basis. This eliminates all the guesswork that often goes into advertising decisions.

    To do this, though, you need to get away from “image/brand advertising” and start using “response advertising.”

  • kevin conway

    BUT, you’ve missed several key points/elements of Online vs Print advertsing.

    1). You say in the beginning “I wouldn’t either – not until I could measure my results and then compare.”. There’s your #1 problem. You CANNOT measure Print advertising. Other then primitive word of moth of “cut out coupons”. With Adwords for examples you know how many people read your ads , how many from that walked int your business (ie went to your web site), how long there were there, exactly WHERE they left (ie a specific web page), etc etc etc.

    2). I can test and edit my online ads continuously until I see an improvement in impressions and conversions

    3). I can setup tracking so I can see which searches and ads lead to a purchase

    I can go on and on, but the advantages of online advertising over print is endless. There is a reason why print ad revenue are DOWN 90% over the past 5 years and online ads are UP 200% over the past 5 years. Same reason why 90% of consumers don’t use the Yellow Pages anymore. They use Google.

  • Hi Kevin

    Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate your enthusiasm for online advertising. In fact, I share your opinions to a large extent.

    I thought the point I was making was that online advertising offered many advantages over print.
    But I don’t agree you can’t measure print advertising. You can – in much the same way you measure online advertising.

    You make an offer in your ad, and then you send readers to a dedicated landing page, or have them call a dedicated phone number. Both are trackable back to a specific ad or media channel. Both allow you to collect contact information with the response.

    Online advertising is easier, but print works too.

  • I found it very interesting when you talked about how many people will see your ad in print advertising, especially considering how many people see or even open the publication. I think I have always assumed print advertising was on its way out, but I never actually stopped to look at the figures and see what the truth was. Thank you for the information about figuring out how many people not only even open the publication your ad is in but get to the page it’s on and see it, then use it! This is really important to look into.

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