OK, so, "digital or print" is the new "paper or plastic." Are there still times, however, when it's more appropriate to stick a stamp on it rather than hit the Send button?


It's hardly news that a growing number of businesses have turned to online tools for all kinds of B2B and B2C marketing communication. I recently heard an estimate that about 70 percent of all business communication is done online. (I'd be shocked if it weren't a lot higher.)

Some businesses opting for digital instead of print do it because they've gone green. Others want to harness the Internet's speed, reach, and other capabilities. The rest like the convenience of online or have some other strategic purpose that points them that way.

Take a deep breath. I'm not going to try to put the genie back in the bottle. No one expects a renaissance for door-to-door sales.

Still, it might pay to slow down and make sure that you've picked the better route... or, combination of tools. So, here's a list of filters to consider.

I'll start with the one I judge to be a deal-breaker.

How important is this relationship?

There are a lot of pluses to sending, say, holiday "cards" via email. Conveying "I care about you" is not one of them.

Experts tend to agree on this point. A "personal note is a much warmer, less mechanized/mass form of contact," Bob Weiss, a Denver marketing consultant, wrote recently to the Legal Marketing Association listserve. "The communications research we've seen indicates it's best to keep your contact intimacy/warmth at a consistent level."

And, then, there are some really hardcore print advocates. They're the ones who would never think of sending an e-card to anyone who really matters.

Sara Holtz, a business development guru based on the West Coast, is one of the hardest of the hardcore. "If you aren't going to write a personal note, skip the card altogether." She asks, "Do you want to leave the recipient with the impression that he or she isn't worth a few minutes of your time?"

So, assess the risks and the rewards. Ask yourself what you appear to achieve at the front end with an online relationship-related message. Weigh that against what you risk losing on the back end. If an email recipient is (or might be) turned off by the impersonal nature of your digital "relationship" messaging, it may be that you've wasted the time and other resources it took to create the message... or worse.

It's axiomatic, but if you catch yourself unclear about the net pluses of hitting Send, I suggest listening to that voice. If you were assessing mystery leftovers in the fridge instead, you'd probably apply the "When in doubt, throw it out" rule.

What does this client prefer?

Maybe your client actually likes getting your newsletters online rather than in print. They might, however, like print better than digital.

Why assume that you know? If you're sincere about putting your client's preferences first, doesn't it make sense to ask about their preferences? Doesn't it better serve the relationship and the purpose of the communication to act as if one size does not fit all?

So, ask.

Remember that the answer really doesn't matter as much as the question. Asking is the point.

Asking, furthermore, is not about programming a print-friendly option on your online whatever. That's merely a nice, technical accommodation.

Maybe that's all you want to offer your customers. If, however, you want to project more than technical proficiency, make it clear that you're asking. Asking will give them the sense that you care.

And, keep asking. Because people have a way of changing their minds.

How much is it worth to stand out?

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that something well north of 70 percent of business communication happens online. The bad news is that something well north of 70 percent of business communication happens online.

It's all in how you look at it. If you're all or mostly about speed or some other online plus, then hit Send.

The tradeoff is that your online message gets thrown into a bigger and bigger bucket full of competing messages. It's good to ask, Are the pluses worth it?

"A lot of people I've spoken to say they delete e-cards rather than opening them, Gail Paul said. She runs a "durable advertising" agency in Massachusetts. Clients "get too much email as is. And e-cards have no shelf life."

So, would you rather have your message compete with 70 percent of what's being communicated? Or, does 30 percent look like better odds?

Is it really either/or?

Sometimes the choice is as easy as "engraved-cards-for-the-A-list" and "emails-for-the-Bs." It really is "paper or plastic."

Sometimes the choice is a little more nuanced. Maybe it's "paper and plastic."

For example, a company recently performed a customer satisfaction survey. In looking at ways to stimulate the optimum response rate, the sales and marketing team wrestled with a variety of variables. It liked the convenience of an online survey while recognizing that an emailed or Web-based questionnaire is easier to ignore than a hardcopy version.

The company took the time to consider the culture of its customers (i.e., international restaurant operators). It sensed that dealing with the day's snail mail was probably a less pressured and more protected moment in the average workday. Unlike the relentless barrage of emails (or middle-of-the-night stealth messages piled up when you get to work), postal mail requires (and gets) more undivided attention.

So, the company reasoned that it would put print in the tactical mix. First, it emailed notices to its customers that the survey was coming. (The company also invited its sales reps to use the survey as an excuse to pick up the phone and talk with targeted accounts.) Then, it leaned into emails again, conveying the survey instrument and offering a print option. Finally, the company doubled back to non-respondents with a postal-mail copy of the survey and a self-addressed, stamped return envelope.

While the company is optimistic, it's too early to share any response rates. Plus, it was the first time the company had ever surveyed for customer satisfaction. So, there's no baseline data to compare against.

Is anybody there?

Back in January 2009, in a MarketingProfs article, Elaine Fogel offered three reasons why print is still relevant. Her article makes an excellent case, arguing that a lot of business emails don't reach a recipient's screen because...

  1. A lot of consumers don't have screens. Fogel notes that a fourth of all Americans have no Internet access. She adds that about one-half of all Europeans have access, yet most Asians (85 percent) don't.
  2. For those who have access, a lot of B2C email is spam... 90-95 percent, according to a recent study. Plus, there's a clear preference in favor of print marcom for women age 25-44 and Hispanic consumers.

Fogel wraps up by citing the ways our brains are wired better for reading, processing, and retaining something we can hold in our hands.

Catalog merchandisers are further proof of Fogel's arguments. "The Future of Catalogs"—a 2006 study conducted for the Print Industries Market Information & Research Organization (PRIMIR)—forecasts continued viability for print.

Despite a drop-off in the overall volume of catalogs, the study notes that merchandisers still get a reasonable ROI from print. In addition, the study found that some have discovered the efficacy of using print to drive customers to the Internet.

"The Future of Catalogs" concludes with a tip of the hat to print's greatest ally, the United States Postal Service:

The Postal Service, with its unique ability to deliver to any and/or every selection of addresses, provides direct mail and catalogs with a mass circulation and/or a highly targeted distribution system. From a distribution perspective, direct mail and catalog merchandising have a distribution advantage over all other media. By itself, this advantage could serve to maintain a robust level of catalog volume for the next five to 10 years.

Now you know why you keep getting all those catalogs between Thanksgiving and New Years. Print still works—sometimes.

Just be sure to recycle.  

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Doug Stern (www.doug-stern.com) is a freelance business writer and marketing strategist based in Louisville, KY. Contact him at 502-599-6624 or stern.doug@gmail.com.