Print or online: Which road to take?

If you love the printed word, you may have shuddered when you were asked to put your beloved publications up on blocks. But wait—there’s no need to retire your print pieces.

By Kirsten Lambert

If you’ve worked in a not-for-profit since B.I.—Before the Internet—you may have witnessed the following scene as Web sites gained traction.

“We don’t need to print anything anymore,” says the executive director slyly, rubbing his (or her) hands together. “We can put everything online! Newsletters, membership directories, conference brochures—nothing needs to be mailed out, ever again. Now we can save thousands of dollars a year!”

If you love the printed word, you may have shuddered when you were asked to put your beloved publications up on blocks. But wait—there’s no need to retire your print pieces. Your organization can communicate via print and online vehicles. In fact, it’s hard to do business without both.

Avoid shovelware
In the late ’90s many organizations simply took their print pieces and slapped them online. This resulted in something mockingly called shovelware. Shovelware is akin to building a four-door sedan, then trying to compete against cheaper, more fuel-efficient cars by skipping the paint job instead of redesigning the chassis.

Although PDFs have their place, the technology was often overused. In many instances, a perfectly delightful print publication was turned into a PDF and posted onto a Web site, without any attempt to rework the piece for online use. No longer would the publication land in the mailbox, its cover enticing the reader to leaf through its pages. The reader would have to hunt online for the latest issue of the newsletter, read a book or two while the file downloaded, then print out the document.

As a result, pages and pages of documents cluttered up Web sites. Publications went unread. Readers logged off in frustration.

How print and online can share the road
The best strategy employs a combination of vehicles. News releases, for example, can drive people to your organization or program using a multipronged strategy.

In some instances, a press kit is still best sent in the mail—for example, when it includes a video news release or a product sample. A follow-up e-mail to the reporter, with links to more information, can increase the likelihood of coverage. Posting the release to your organization’s Web site will further increase the chances that a reporter or the general public will see the news.

Joseph Ugalde, vice president of marketing and communication for the San Francisco-based International Association of Business Communicators, reveals how IABC combines its distribution methods.

“For anything we do in print, we will point readers back to our Web site so they can find more details online. With award programs, we point them back online to enter. We do this for events, everything.”

Each vehicle has its strengths
If you understand the pros and cons of each vehicle, you can harness the power of each method.

Print is the most portable and works best for longer documents with lots of big or complex graphics. E-mail is ideal for short, urgent messages, especially those that require a response. Web sites work for content that has concise text, needs frequent updating and contains links to more information.

Ugalde says, “With print there is a certain amount of lag time, so content-related things we have in print, like our magazine, have a few weeks’ delay; print can’t really address timely issues as much as overall trends. For more timely things, we use an e-mail supplement.”

In his manual “Integrating Print and Online,” Steve Crescenzo outlines the strengths and weakness of print and electronic vehicles.

Strengths: readability, portability, availability, credibility, consistency
“Technology is not consistent,” Crescenzo says, “but a print publication is. Unless there is some horrific mistake in design or in the printing/production process, you know exactly what your readers are going to see as the final product. That is not always the case with technology.”

Weaknesses: expensive, one-way, not timely
“No, print can’t be timely,” admits Crescenzo. “But does that mean you kill it? Absolutely not. But you do have to retool your print vehicles. …”

Strengths: a sense of urgency, requires little effort from users, cheap
“Obviously, e-mail blows print away with its timeliness,” says Crescenzo.

Weaknesses: saturation, hard to read, inconsistent software, availability
“It used to be that, when people heard that little bell … they’d get excited. … That certainly isn’t the case anymore. Junk mailers, spammers, marketers and relatives are all sending them dozens of unwanted messages a day, and they are sick of it.”

Online content
Strengths: room for information, links, better retention, timeliness, interactivity
“Unlike e-mail and print, you have limitless space on an intranet [or Web site],” Crescenzo explains. “With print, you have your eight pages (or whatever your page count is). With e-mail your space is limited because: (a) it’s so hard to read e-mail, and (b) people refuse to read long e-mails.”

Weaknesses: users have to make an effort to get there, hard to read, often disorganized, availability, consistency, often bad reputation
“The first generation of many intranets [and Web sites] was a disorganized mess,” Crescenzo says. “The common wisdom was to dump everything online—publications, manuals, brochures, white papers, presentations and anything else that anybody could think of. … Because of the disorganized nature of early intranets [and Web sites], many of them developed bad reputations.”

Jill Hronek is director of communications for The Sherwood Group, an association-management firm in Northbrook, Ill. She looks at various factors when deciding if a client should post news online.

“We consider how quickly something needs to be distributed, what kind of budget we have, whether it’s appropriate information for online reading and whether the size of the document can even be put on a Web site,” Hronek explains. “You can put a giant document on there, but it will take an hour to download if the user has a slow connection.

“If we don’t have a clear audience for a print piece, we will put it on a Web site and visitors can request a hard copy by ordering it from us or subscribe to the publication. But we typically decide based on budget and appropriateness, in that order.”

Know your audience
The old adage is true about the three factors to consider when buying real estate: location, location, location. You could apply a similar concept in picking a spot for your communication real estate: audience, audience, audience.

By knowing your audience and measuring their responses to your efforts, you can shift gears according to their needs. Here are some questions to answer about your audience:

Are they tech-savvy? The method for delivering messages should depend partly on their computer habits. For example, are they computer programmers? Then an electronic delivery method may be their preferred way of receiving information.
How old are they? Traditionalists, who were born before 1946, prefer to receive information in a print format. Baby boomers like phone contact. Gen Xers—those born after 1964—prefer to receive as much as possible via e-mail.
What is their level of education and income? Though a majority of the U.S. population is estimated to be online in 2005, there is still a digital divide. That means that millions of people don’t have Internet access. And that doesn’t even account for those in other countries.
How do they spend their time? Line workers in manufacturing facilities probably don’t have desks at work, let alone personal computers. If they don’t have computers at home, you are better off sending them print pieces.
What do you want your reader to do with the information? If you are trying to get someone to mail something, such as a dues payment, a notice with an envelope would allow them to complete the task quickly and easily. If you want them to complete an online survey, an e-mail directing them to the survey will be most effective.
How many of them can you reach electronically? Before creating an e-mail message or Web content, find out how many of your readers are online. “The rate of e-mail addresses we have for members has increased so much over the past four to five years,” Hronek says. “We used to feel good if we had 50 percent of members’ e-mail addresses, but most if not all of our clients now have e-mail addresses for more than 95 percent of their members. People recognize that’s the way business is done nowadays.”

Next month: How some not-for-profits decide what to publish in print or post online.

Kirsten Lambert is principal of Watermark Communications, a Chicago-based communications and marketing consulting firm. She has worked with numerous corporations and not-for-profit organizations in the past 18 years.

How do you decide what to print and what to publish electronically? Share your views with other readers by sending your comments to Nonprofit Communicators Update at

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