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Lots of organisations ask us whether they should continue to produce printed publications, or whether digital or electronic formats are the way to go. Everyone has budget constraints and electronic options such as e-bulletins or SMS messages can seem seductively cheap. They offer the possibility of reaching large audiences at a low cost. On the other hand, the lifespan of an electronic document can be short. We all have very full inboxes, and I personally only read an e-bulletin if it’s from one of the short list of organisations I’m genuinely interested in. That means I archive at least 90 per cent of them without reading them.

By contrast, print can seem like an old fashioned and expensive option at first glance. All that paper and ink, not to mention postage if you’re planning on sending publications direct to your clients. And isn’t it very environmentally unfriendly? The answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, isn’t quite so straightforward.

One of the dangers of electronic marketing is the belief that more is better. After all, why print and post 1,000 brochures when you can send out 50,000 email alerts for a fraction of the price? In fact, while this scattergun approach can work in some contexts (for instance, when promoting a generous retail discount), it is seldom effective for more complex messages. If it’s the role of your organisation to persuade, recruit or influence, quality is likely to win out over quantity. And in this context, quality definitely includes how relevant your mailing list is. Sending out 50,000 emails won’t achieve a landslide response if the demographics of your list mean your message is only relevant to a fraction of those people. In addition, you are likely to annoy or alienate the majority of recipients who don’t want to hear from you.*

Print has been around for centuries, and there are good reasons why it is still a relevant option. The mere fact a printed document has a physical presence means it is likely to have more permanence than its electronic cousin. It may get put in a briefcase or left on the coffee table, providing opportunities for rediscovery and perusal at a later date. And printing needn’t be environmentally irresponsible. Most paper is certified as having come from sustainable sources, and an accreditation confirming this can be included on your publication. By opting for smaller print-runs and carefully focusing on your target audience you can minimise wasted resources.

In practice, most organisations benefit from producing a combination of printed and electronic publications. The electronic ones are often sent more frequently because of their lower cost, while the printed ones work better for information that will be referred to more than once. Whether printed or electronic, it’s vital to ensure that the right people receive your publications, and that they contain information that is likely to influence them in the way you want.

 

*Whether you’re distributing printed or electronic documents, you must make sure that you observe relevant laws in your jurisdiction. For instance, in many parts of the world it is obligatory to include an unsubscribe link in emails, while sending unsolicited emails is prohibited. There are fewer restrictions around printed documents, although many countries operate an opt-out register and sending unsolicited mail to people on this register is prohibited.