Skip to content

Digital Vs. Print

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences in content for the Web vs. for print.

Many well-meaning marketing folks out there think of a website as simply an online version of the brochure and a digital repository for what already existed in print.

But if your organization’s marketing focus is on designing for paper first and then retrofitting for digital later, you’ve got a big problem.

Why should you make a serious investment in your digital brand, at the expense of print?

Digital’s potential reach is large — likely much larger than print’s — so invest accordingly. If your brand is like most, you have a presence on major social media networks and a website. You probably also have documents such as whitepapers, annual reports, case studies, brochures, forms, and/or other “glossies.” You likely offer them in PDF versions on your site and as print collateral for in-person encounters.

While those print documents have a place, do not over-invest in them. Even if you just did a run of several thousand printed pieces, and distributed every single last printed copy (which in itself is unlikely!), chances are still good that over time, many more people will connect with you on-screen than off.

Social shares signal search engines, and together social and search amplify your organization’s potential reach in a way that a printed brochure simply cannot.

Plus, print can be expensive to create these days.

Brochures and other print materials are probably not how most of your customers are finding you, following you, researching you, nor transacting with you. All those actions are likely occurring on social media, on third-party review sites, via search enginesespecially Googleand on your website itself.

But is your website’s usability an afterthought? How is its search engine optimization? Do you have an unpaid intern running your social media accounts? Do you have a content marketing strategy?

If your marketing organization is designing documents for print first (20+ page annual report, anyone?) and then just copying and pasting its text as the HTML version for the website  — or even worse, just posting the print collateral online as a PDF download — you can be sure you’ve annoyed many of the very people you were trying to serve.

And I’m going to harp on PDFs for a moment:

  • Overreliance on PDFs is a problem. Usability research has repeatedly found that unless they want to print, users rarely want PDF content when browsing online — particularly if they discover they’ve been sent to a PDF unexpectedly.
    • They may be on a mobile device, for example, and not appreciate the unexpected usage of their data plan.
    • Plus, forcing users to browse a PDF makes the user experience about 300% worse because PDFs are optimized for letter-size paper rather than reading on screen (particularly small mobile screens).
    • The PDF format’s strength is for printing documents, not online presentation, so if something is really likely to need to be printed, by all means, offer PDF as an option. But the HTML content on your website itself should be compelling enough to stand on its own, no PDF download required.

And along the same vein, the Web is a whole new medium. It has different rules than print, and what works in print may not work so well online. For example, eye-catching visuals are key, but so are fast load times. When making that investment in digital, remember:

  • You should forget a lot of what your English teacher told you because writing for the Web is different than writing for print. People don’t actually read online; they scan. So you should make paragraphs shorter and let your stats pop out by writing numbers as digits (7, not seven), and using the % sign, not “percent.”

So next time, rather than doing business-as-usual and creating another glossy brochure or annual report for print first and throwing it up on your website later, focus instead on developing SEO-optimized, user-friendly, highly visual, fresh, and timely Web content.

Even better, design for mobile first. Then you’re sure to have content that scales well to the digital medium.

Because the contemporary customer wants snackable, sharable digital content that loads quickly and renders beautifully, in the proper aspect ratios, even on small screens. And they only want PDFs for printing.

And remember: between search and social, digital’s reach is simply greater than print’s for most organizations — sometimes 10 times greater. So, make sure your investment is commensurate with the potential reach of the medium!