February 14, 2023

The Print Newsletter Dilemma

Photo by Yannik Mika on Unsplash

When can we quit spending money on print newsletters?

More and more, all types of organizations (especially member-based, local nonprofits, cooperatives, and clubs) are asking this communications question. Like most marketing dilemmas, the query seems simple enough. However, devising the correct solution can be challenging because each organization’s needs, resources, and makeup are unique. And even when sharing a common interest, members’ characteristics may be diverse.

If you are asking this question, it likely means your organization is producing a print newsletter that you distribute by mail and a digital version that you distribute via your website, email, and social media. You’ve probably noticed that paper stock and printing are more expensive than web server space and bandwidth. So, when budgeting time rolls around, cutting print material makes an enticing target, especially compared to its digital counterpart.

The question also concerns how members’ attitudes contrast by age and geography. Younger audiences everywhere prefer digital communications. They appreciate its economy, immediacy, and interactivity. Some even view print newsletters with outright contempt.

On the other hand, older and more rural audiences are still respective to print. They are also on their smartphones, but some like print newsletters better. Why? Perhaps they find the permanency of printed media comforting. Maybe it’s a physical reminder that they can read it at their convenience – without scouring through countless emails. It could be easier for them to read than on a small screen. Or maybe there are some other reasons.

Because – Reason and Emotion.

Understanding why your members value or disparage your print newsletter is the first step in answering the question. Their reasons may even change the way you phrase the question. Instead, you may ask what you can do to make your print newsletter more economical or make digital and print versions both more valuable to your members.

Only your members know their reasons for sure. Fortunately, all you have to do is ask them why they prefer one over the other. Survey your members with a statement stuffer or an online form or within the newsletters. Or ask around. In addition to their preference for print or digital, ask if they notice when they receive the newsletter — and if they read it. Their responses may surprise you.

Of course, web analytics can quantify digital engagement, which is why we, as marketers, love digital: We can adjust the content in real-time based on its performance. Sadly, the measurements for print engagement are limited. And, because the content in print is static, the best we can do is adjust it for the next printing months later. But these features matter to us and may have little to do with what members value. By asking your membership directly, you’ll get the best qualitative data about your print and digital newsletter and its content in general.

A member’s preference can be rational, emotional, or both. It’s easy to calculate the expense of that preference, but how do you judge its actual worth, especially if it’s an emotional choice?

At tdg, we often have to pick which of our creative ideas are the best to share with clients. An approach we like is rather than selecting the one that’s the least hated, go with the one that’s the most loved. Logic is often the default of the indifferent – so all things being equal, joy for a few trumps indifference for all.

But in the case of print v. digital newsletters, not all things are equal. Regarding logic, digital is the winner by a long shot. Most people will be indifferent to the subject and default to a digital preference. But you may find a few members with strong attachments to the print newsletter, making killing it off much more difficult. Maybe you don’t have to.

What are the options?

While you can’t always please everyone, as a member-based organization, you owe it to them to try. Here are a few options to consider before killing your print newsletter:

  • Make your print newsletter opt-in: This one probably seems obvious, but if you are automatically mailing out your newsletters in addition to the digital version, you should stop doing so. Instead, ask individual members if they would like to continue to receive a print version in addition to the digital edition. The result will be an accurate print quantity that’s better on your budget.
  • Reduce printing costs: Consider printing on lighter paper. Or redesign your newsletter to eliminate printer bleeds to take advantage of standard paper sizes. But be careful; these savings will be at the expense of quality.
  • Reduce the publication frequency: Instead of recurring monthly, consider publishing your print version every other month or quarterly. You may need to add a few more pages for additional content, but you have substantially trimmed your overall expense for printing and mailing.
  • Differentiate the print edition: This goes hand in hand with the last option. If you reduce your print edition, keep sending your digital newsletter more frequently. Necessarily, the content will vary slightly between the print and digital editions. Your digital editions are timely by nature. Make up for the lack of timeliness in your print edition with more in-depth articles. Differentiating the editions expands their value to their respective viewers.

By presenting options, it may seem we at tdg are proponents of keeping print newsletters – we are not. Nor are we opponents. But we are fans of doing what works. And, usually, more channels are better for communications than fewer.

So, you’ve done your due diligence. You’ve reviewed all the options. And you are still asking the original question. Then the final nail in print’s coffin may be this: Design print and digital separately.

PDFs are great until they aren’t.

Today, electronic communications are so ubiquitous that a time before smartphones and social media seems nearly unimaginable. If the digital edition of your newsletter exists exclusively as a PDF file, it may be a remnant of a bygone age. And that may be a problem. Why?

Adobe Systems released the PDF (portable document format) in 1993 to easily share documents across disparate computer platforms. Slim by today’s standards, PDFs were comparatively bulky in the era of 14.4 dial-up Internet, and early web users stayed away. However, desktop publishers were eager to sustain carefully crafted layouts across print devices. They embraced the format, and the rest of the print industry gradually followed. Of course, Internet access and speeds increased, and before long, users stopped balking at PDF file size.

Then someone thought to share the pdf of their organization’s print newsletter on their website. At the time, building and maintaining web pages were specialized skills, so reusing print-formatted content instead of creating a web-based version seemed a significant time saver. But as digital technology became more integral to our daily lives, it became apparent that a legible and attractive layout on letter-size paper could appear hard to read on mobile device screens.

Hopefully, your organization evaded this historic design oversight. These days, it’s crucial for websites to employ best practices for digital display and ADA compliance. Fortunately, CMSs (content management systems) make adding display-friendly content relatively easy. Sharing a pdf of your newsletter for download is still a convenient feature, just not as a substitute for a web-based version. Designing separately for print and web editions takes more time, though usually marginal. If your organization strugglings with time resources, prioritizing the digital edition is likely the wise choice.

There may be no painless solution to the newsletter dilemma, but hopefully, the answer can be found – primarily by listening carefully to your members. Of course, tdg is ready to help come up with the solution tailored to the needs of your entire organization.

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