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Print Advertising for the Marketing of Photonics and Laser Technology Products

Here, I discuss which roles different types of print advertising can play in the marketing of photonics and laser products.

By the way, you may also be interested in my more general article on photonics marketing.

We need to distinguish between printed materials which you can distribute yourself and those which are distributed by a publisher.

Printed Materials for Your Own Distribution
Printed Publications
Functions of Print Advertising
For Whom is Print Advertising a Good Option?

Printed Materials for Your Own Distribution

For many purposes, you can use printed advertising materials, which you can largely or entirely produce in house and distribute yourself. For example, you may produce single-page product descriptions, folded flyers or multipage brochures which you can hand out to visitors to your company or when you have a booth in a trade show. That can be very targeted advertising; you can pick exactly those small materials which exactly fit to the interest which your contact has expressed.

flyer for RP Fiber Power software
Figure 1: A carefully designed flyer for a product can be useful as a handout.

You should also think about plausible functions of such materials. Usually, the presented information is too sparse for replacing other sources. For example, our own software flyers (see Figure 1), having just four pages, can never replace the far more detailed descriptions on our website. However, such leaflets can serve as a reminder to have a closer look elsewhere – and can be more effective towards these ends than business cards, for example.

business card for buyer's guide
Figure 2: The back side of a business card can contain relevant information, going far beyond a name and contact information.

Although business cards may not look like a central theme in the context of print advertising, they deserve some further remarks. In times of the Internet, it would be easy to transmit address information through other channels. However, as mentioned already, business cards can be convenient reminders for planned actions. So you should always have some of them with you and hand them over where appropriate. Make sure to improve their function, e.g. by manually writing a hint for the discussed topic on it; the other person may then become active when looking through the collected business cards again. Besides, you may use the back side for additional information, with which you can try to motivate people to have a closer look; see Figure 2 for an example. Also consider making different versions, which you can use depending on the topic which is of interest to the people you talk to. For example, I have a standard business card used when talking about software or consulting and a special one for people for whom our buyer's guide is relevant.

The amount of work for generating print materials may be moderate for a business card or for a single brochure, but overall, it can be a lot of work if you have to cover plenty of products with all kinds of brochures and leaflets, as they often require careful artwork. Note that persons with different capabilities are often involved – beginning with an author, who well understands the materials and has good writing skills, continuing with someone for design and layout, and finally, you need to get the materials printed.

In simpler cases, you can easily print in your company, e.g. using a laser printer. This approach gives you maximum flexibility; you can just print more as needed and never have to fear that you will run out of required materials (perhaps even during a trade show if you can have a printer there). For some designs, however, where e.g. you have to print to the edges, or you want some special surface finish, you need more professional printing equipment and may thus have to use some external printing service. As soon as you do that, there is a substantial fixed cost for each printing badge so that it is worthwhile to do it only for substantial volumes – at least a few hundred, better many thousands. That is obviously problematic if you have materials which often need to be updated, and where it is hard to estimate how much you will need. Also, consider the time to make sure that there is absolutely no error (before printing huge amounts), and the need to monitor remaining volumes so that you can order new print jobs in time. (I remember noticing only shortly before an exhibition that some flyers were outdated!)

You may also produce a product catalog which you send out to existing or prospective customers. Obviously, this can be quite a lot of work to produce, if you have many products, and the information is then usually not that well targeted. A lot of the printed paper will be thrown away before it is looked at even once. Only if you are lucky, your catalog will be regularly used at least in some offices as the first address when some items are needed.

In conclusion, such printed materials can be quite valuable, and sometimes quite targeted and efficient, but often the circumstances are less favorable, and you end up investing a lot of time and wasting materials. Just be aware of the relevant aspects, so that you can will decide on what to develop and print, and in which way.

Printed Publications

It is a common method to place advertisements in printed publications like trade journals and journals of scientific or technical societies. Typically, you would get a certain area such as a whole page, half page or less, on which you can do what you want – obviously, with great care concerning the message to bring over, the precise wording and the graphical layout. The selected publication then has a certain circulation – for typical photonics trade journals some tens of thousands – so that the number of targeted readers is more or less fixed. The cost for a single advertisement like that will typically range between a few thousand USD for a small format in a journal with moderate circulation, to more than 10,000 USD for a full-page advertisement in an important trade journal.

Your audience is characterized not just by a circulation number; you need to be aware what kind of people are reading such publications. Usually, the publishers provide some quantitative data, where however the precision usually lies only in the numbers but not in their meaning. The data is usually based on questionnaires which they asked their readers to fill out – often as a condition for a free subscription. You can easily imagine how much fun it is for a reader to check numerous categories, and what level of precision is typically applied to such tasks. Besides, the categories usually have to be rather broad, and you cannot be sure about the level of expertise and (more importantly) the function of the readers in their institutions – in particular, are they making or influencing purchasing decisions which are relevant for you? You often get data on such things, but it is hard to imagine that those really provide reliable information. Well, at least you get some feeling for what audience you can address there.

Photonics Trade Journals

The internationally leading trade journals in the area of photonics are the following:

Both have been established several decades ago, and I think everybody in the field knows them. They cover the whole area of photonics, not specializing in a field like lasers, for example. Both journals have huge circulation numbers worldwide (i.e., not only in the United States), although I am not sure how many people actually find the time to read them.

Generally, such journals are distributed for free, and they are packed with advertisements. (Quite obviously, print advertising is not dead.) The underlying economical model for the publishers is to generate revenues entirely or at least largely from advertisers. However, that model cannot work with advertisements only – who would be willing to read that? One always requires some substantial editorial content, which makes it worthwhile for readers at least to look through the publication, scanning it for interesting content. And in this process they may also get influenced by advertisements.

So, the publishers have to look out for competent people who can deliver the editorial content, as far as they cannot do that with their own personnel (which of course is to be limited because of the involved cost). Typically, they get such articles for free, even from highly competent authors, because they can offer them something else: the advertising value. The deal is that an author delivers a multipage article (which may make him or her busy for a full working day) for free, and the compensation is the resulting recognition in the field. That can be rewarding for a scientific researcher (who at least works less that way than for a regular scientific publication) but also for company people.

Some authors exploit the opportunity in a less than decent way, delivering articles which largely contain self-advertisement (often with little attempt to disguise that) and little value for the readers. For example, they essentially just describe some new products of their company – something which would normally be done in the form of paid ads. Obviously, the editors should prevent such abuse, if necessary, by rejecting articles – and this for two reasons: They should maintain a high quality level to keep the reading audience happy, and they should strive to get advertisements paid. Often, however, they don't really enforce such things – particularly if the author is from a company which also places a lot of paid advertisements!

In my personal view, that problem has deteriorated the quality of most trade journals substantially so that many will presumably not do more than quickly scan the new issues, and may be totally discard some of them when they are short of time. In the long run, that problem undermines the advertising value of the publications and thus also the economical potential to create revenues for the publisher.

Unfortunately, it is difficult for advertisers to check how severe that problem is. Print advertising gives little chance to check how much the advertisements are recognized. A few of them try with special short URLs, where their web server can count how many people come in that way. If only few people do that, it might indicate failure – but one cannot be sure whether people recognize the ad and only did not want to enter the URL. One may try to motivate people by offering coupon codes, e.g. for discounts, but that may not be appropriate for most photonics products. A perhaps better method, which, however, takes substantially more work, is to interview a substantial number of potential readers.

By the way, some advertisers are keen to realize the concept of native advertising, where advertisements are closely embedded into editorial content without distinguishing them much graphically from that content. That way, they want to counter the well-known phenomenon that readers only search for editorial content and mentally “filter out” advertisements, which are not of actual interest for them. Banner blindness, for example, is a serious concern.

To some extent, native advertising can be legitimate, and it can work (and be acceptable for readers) if the advertisements have a direct relation to the editorial content. However, problematic ethical implications can arise if the line between the editorial content end of the advertisement is blurred. In particular, it is problematic to create the wrong impression that the advertising message is endorsed or even written by the author of the actual document. To avoid an unethical manipulation, it should always be clear what belongs to the editorial content and what is a paid advertisement.

The publisher sometimes has to make delicate decisions. They obviously need to keep their advertisers happy, but on the other hand, they should avoid a significant risk of losing credibility. If the economical pressure is strong and at the same time there is an impression that readers are not that critical, questioning all decisions may be taken.

As an advertiser, you should be aware that your ads can be effective only if they are placed in a journal with a significant fraction of high-quality editorial content, which also enjoys a good reputation. So try to evaluate whether many people would like to spend a lot of time with reading an issue, and let the result influence your decisions. In some cases, it is possible to get a placement next to a certain high-quality article, raising the value of your ad.

As a side remark, similar considerations apply to online advertising, of course.

Authoring Articles in Trade Journals

As explained above, it is essential for publishers to obtain high-quality editorial articles, and to a significant extent they depend on external offers for that. You may now consider offering high-quality articles to an editor of a trade journal, which (by definition) creates substantial value for the readers but may at the same time have some advertising value for your company. If you get it done well, there will be several winners:

  • the readers who can learn interesting things,
  • an editor who has got something useful for his journal, and
  • your company (or yourself) having the advertising value – which can be substantially higher than that of an expansive print ad.

However, it is not easy to do because a lot is needed: first of all, a suitable subject which is of interest for many and suitable for the journal, then a substantial technical expertise combined with writing skills, then the time to do it, then the efficiency to do it fast but still with high quality, and finally the connection with an editor whom you can convince. Well, the latter should be the smallest challenge if you have done a good job several times. I tell you from my experience that many editors are more than happy having found someone who combines the above-mentioned qualities – particularly if you add some others, such as reliably delivering the materials in time. By the way, please don't offer them garbage while telling them that you got the idea from my article!

Other Photonics Journals

In addition to a few trade journals, there is a great variety of other photonics journals. Some of them are freely available, helping them to get a substantial international circulation. Some examples:

There are also journals which only society members regularly receive, for example:

(If you miss some important journals here, I am happy to take on suggestions!)

Here, one usually reaches a smaller and highly focused community – which may be worthwhile if one wants to target a specific audience.

Further, there are many scientific journals in the area of optics and photonics. Usually, they do not do much advertising – particularly not when single articles are downloaded (which has become quite common).

Functions of Print Advertising

Obviously, print advertising cannot be very targeted; you do reach a substantial number of people in the field, but without having much control and information on their nature and function. Only to some extent, you can control this by selecting a particular publication. Therefore, print advertising can hardly be considered as effective and efficient for lead generation, i.e., for acquiring concrete sales, unless you have a broad product portfolio, so that precise targeting is not required, and a corresponding type of ad.

On the other hand, print ads can be effective for branding. If people repeatedly see advertisements for a certain company, ideally recognizing a characteristic company logo combined with a characteristic layout, they begin remembering the company. Even more, they would often become more likely to feel that this is a serious supplier in the field – even if the actual evidence for that is absent. Such feelings may become quite relevant later on when it comes to a purchase decision. People will often not be aware how exactly the feeling of seeing a reliable business partner has been created, especially if the branding exposure happened a while ago.

It is important to emphasize that branding requires repeated and consistent messages. Obviously, that makes such campaigns rather expensive. For example, consider the placements of half-page ads in a typical trade journal, costing well above 5000 USD or more per issue. Well, you often get significant discounts if you do that regularly, but this is an only for one particular trade journal. If you want to cover several journals and/or different aspects (e.g. different product lines), you soon end up spending well over 100,000 USD per year for print advertising alone. The resources of a smaller company are then quickly exhausted.

For Whom is Print Advertising a Good Option?

At this point, many people may decide that they cannot afford it. Be careful, however, to avoid a serious error. The central question on marketing activities is not really whether you can afford them, but whether they are worth the money. If you do something which is costly but generates high profits well above the level of the costs, it would obviously be stupid to say that you cannot afford it – unless the problem is that you simply do not have the money before the profits come in. And there is, of course, always the risk that the profits will be lower than expected. Besides, a large company may easily afford some expensive ads, but may only waste money with them.

The actual reason why print advertising is tentatively better suited for large companies is not that they can afford it. It is rather that they can draw more benefits from it! Imagine a large distributor, selling many high-value products in a large geographical area; such a company can enormously profit from a print advertising campaign which raises its standing as a well-known and hopefully reliable provider. The advertising does not need to be very targeted because they cover a wide range of products. On the other hand, a smaller and much more specialized company may not substantially profit from such a wide-range campaign, where most of the targeted people have no interest in their particular offers.

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