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Print plus online delivers synergies

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2001. Print plus online delivers synergies.

In the early days of the Internet, Web sites were designed to drive browsers toward a company's traditional information products, such as printed materials. This approach arose from our limited but rapidly-evolving understanding of the Web's potential, but was also motivated by an understandable desire to stick with what we already knew worked well: Companies had decades of experience in using printed materials to persuade readers to contact them, whether by phone, mail, or in person. The print-based model of interaction with customers had worked so well and so predictably that we simply moved it online, largely unmodified. That was by no means wrong, but as Web technology and our own comprehension of that technology both evolved, the traditional approach soon proved limiting.

Our improving understanding of the Web's potential, combined with better tools for meeting that potential, has begun to reveal many new possibilities. For example, where Web pages once relied exclusively on primitive HTML-only coding, we can now create pages as elaborate as anything possible with conventional print technology; moreover, we can now link with databases to generate dynamically updated Web pages, customize sites to fit client-established profiles, and include dynamic media such as sound and video—both to entertain and to provide information that we can't communicate in any other medium.

These options are expensive or entirely unavailable in print, but the Web makes them economical and relatively easy to implement. As a result, we can now achieve more than we ever could in print, faster and for less money. This permits an entirely new possibility that reverses the traditional paradigm: Provide our content on the Web and use print to lead people to that content.

The technical writer's mantra of choosing the correct medium for the message's content and audience shows how to do this. Good communicators recognize that every medium has unique strengths and weaknesses, and that well-designed communication strategies take advantage of the strengths while minimizing the weaknesses. Combining two or more media can produce a synergy far greater than the sum of the parts by letting one medium's strengths compensate for another's weaknesses.

Online material has no production costs other than those of creation (paying writers and designers) and distribution (administration and download costs), and eliminates the cost difference between full-color and black-and-white publishing. In contrast, printed materials have similar creation costs but add high mailing costs and a nearly four-fold cost increase to obtain full-color printing. And, of course, sound and video offer benefits impossible to attain in print.

But despite these advantages for the online medium, paper has its own advantages. For example, printed materials are more familiar (many people remain uncomfortable with online information), more accessible (many of us lack full-time access to an Internet connection), more portable (nobody reads online information in the bathroom), more exchangeable (you can pass a magazine to colleagues without violating copyright), and more legible (print remains easier to read).

The fact that both media have compelling advantages suggests a solution that has only recently become popular: Rather than choosing a single medium and sacrificing some of the other medium's advantages, use both media together to leverage their different strengths. Consider, for example, the approach adopted by Cisco Systems, a cutting-edge Internet company that might have been expected to dispense with legacy technologies such as print. Instead, the company's iQ Magazine is now available both online, with supplemental content, and in print, as a 100-page magazine that provides less detail. This design choice arose from an audience analysis that recognized that many prospective clients were managers who spent relatively little time online, and who consequently preferred printed information.

Yet keeping the print version short also made it attractive to busy managers, who lack the time to read longer articles that compete for their attention with reams of other printed matter and who are often satisfied with a summary of the topic. But when that summary piques their interest, the Web version of the magazine is readily available to serve those who need more detail. The combination provides flexibility and a focus on audience needs that would be difficult to achieve with either medium alone.

Count on seeing other companies take advantage of these synergies as awareness of this approach's potential grows. Of course, not everyone reads this column, so it may take some time for the message to spread by itself. As a technical communicator, you've almost certainly spent time deciding on the best mix of online help and printed documentation for the products you document, and your experience in this area uniquely equips you to help your company make the leap to an appropriate mix of online and printed materials. Take the time to work with your managers to identify areas in which your employer could obtain the synergies I've described, and start working on solutions.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved