Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Can you ditch Print?

As budget season approaches many non-profit communicators are looking for ways to save money and still deliver value. Every year, they have searched in vain for the magic bullet that will do this cleanly and without pain, and they have been disappointed. This year, something has changed.

We're at a place and time where technology is changing everything. Over the past several years everything and everyone has slowly been moving online. For years we have asked the question about print vs. online. Is print dead? Can it be replaced with online? Up until now, my answer has been no. I've argued that print still had life in the multi-channel world and would continue to do so, even if the future was clearly an online one.

My thinking has changed. I still believe print has a role, but I'm convinced that many non-profits can do what a few years ago would have been unthinkable. They can ditch their print materials. They can replace them with online equivalents. And they can do so in some cases with only a minor loss of distribution and a great deal of savings. Print may not be dead, but the time has come to realize that some non-profit organizations can not effectively operate without it.

This is a hard thing for me to say since I cut my teeth on print communications early in my career. I was a print journalist. I was a creative lead at a print ad agency. I pushed a lot of paper, and it did sterling service for me and my masters.

My change in thinking has come with the realization that the technology that is changing our world is in fact changing us, too. We aren't the same as we used to be just a few years ago. I now have a smart phone that lets me go online from whereever I am. I go online to get my software -- email, data, and others -- rather than use resident software. I am better connected to clients, friends and family through social media than I was ever before. The technology I use has changed, but I have changed. The idea of sending a letter, reading a newspaper or opening a piece of junk mail all seem foreign to me now. I don't watch as much TV. I hardly listen to radio. My banking is online. My entertainment is, too. And it's not just me. Recent research shows that for the first time half all US adults are now using social media. Mail volumes in Canada have been dropping for four years straight.

And the communicator in me has changed, too. I am awash in online measurment that can tell me so much about how effective my communications are. The inability of print communications to do the same shocks me more and more each day.

Does print communications still make sense? For some of us, the answer will always be yes because of the nature of their marketplace. But for many, the answer is no. We've turned a corner. We can now replace our print newsletters with email versions. We can now publish our annual report online. We can send out email invitations instead of print ones. We don't need glossy brochures or fancy sales sheets -- it's all better online.

For many, the main stumbling block will be direct mail. Here, the numbers still show print is the best money-maker. But the seeds of direct mail's doom are being sown in every mailing. With response rates of under ten percent in many mailings, charities are by definition flooding mailboxes with unwanted junk. With mail volumes dropping, that means that most of what now comes in the mail is now direct mail marketing and is seen by most people as junk mail. Email and social media have spoiled us. We have embraced the persmission-based anti-spam laws and internet browsers that let us turn off the tap of unwanted online communications, and yet we must endure junk mail again and again, making us more and more numb to mailings and their content. Every piece of direct mail ultimately is contributing to its downfall. And I sense that will be sooner than we think.

The old arguments for print will likely be made again. Not everyone is online, they will say. Online will deliver far fewer numbers. Both are true, but both are also becoming more meaningless every day. Yes, not everyone will get our email or social media, but the numbers who do not will be in the minority and are shrinking fast. Yes, email newslettter circulation will likely be far less than the optimistic print circulation numbers we have been using, but they will be more accurate and true.

So, I say it is time to be bold in this year's budget and take the plunge. Reduce or even eliminate print communications. You'll likely save money, get better measurement and a stronger, integrated communications program.


  1. Hi John

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

    And let me preface my comments by saying, consider the source. My agency spends time across many channels, including a huge chunk of it in the digital space, some in DM (where a large part of my background is), and to a lesser extent other direct response channels.

    And whilst your comments certainly provide some impetus for changing things/changing the paradigm I can't agree with teem wholeheartedly.

    Ive spent a lot of time over the last few years looking at data from a heap of charities - in Canada, Australia, the US, UK, Hong Kong and NZ to name but a few. Here's the upshot:

    Yes, online contributions are growing. No surprises.
    No, dm income is not growing. But for many it is holding its on and at least stagnating, not necessarily dropping.

    In your neck of the woods the benchmarking work I've done there showed that around 1/3 of all income from the charities we benchmarked was driven from the mail. So to suggest we should stop mailing people overnight is fraught with huge danger. And invariable would cost these charities collectively tens of millions of dollars (and I'm talking around 15 charities). My point is the sector wide impact would be enormous.

    All of the data in each other developed FR market Ive looked at indicates exactly the same trend.

    Yes I can see where traditional stuff can/should be replaced by electronic equivalents - pieces that don't require a response in the main (updates, donor care, receipts etc).

    But when you're talking about mail/print responsive donors and you're talking about pieces that actually require a response - sure, support with online comms, but certainly don't replace.

    Your donors do the talking for you. Not from what they say, but what they do (i.e. whether or not they respond). That's the best empirical evidence you can get.

    A great example of where a shift is occurring is the area of face to face fundraising. Donors recruited on the street to a monthly gift. Average age typically 28-34, or thereabouts. They don't respond to long letters, boring newsletters and the like. They do however through mobile devices like, respond to and engage with more relevant commas - video content, podcasts, sms, email, mini surveys and polls, advocacy pieces, phone calls. Here we're throwing out the old model and replacing it with something that fits the needs of the audience who demand it.

    But I do worry about simply suggesting its time to throw out what works because of our own experience. As we know, we aren't our donors and whilst you, I and many fundraisers might be moving to reading our news online, sifting through stuff on our tablets, responding to texts etc - we can't assume supporters in the same mould as us necessarily will. Do what the data tells you.


  2. John, this has come up in many of the marketing classes I have taught at the Foundation Center in Atlanta. As a nonprofit marketing professional I do agree that a lot of print can be reduced however, the key is always to "know your target market!" If you are not sure whether they will be open to receiving all communications electronically, do a survey (direct mail and through email). We've done this with several clients. The results usually indicate that the nonprofit can reduce print significantly but not completely. Supporters have made it clear that by eliminating print for them specifically, they will feel detached from the organization. Like with any kind of email communications I always recommend direct mail should be based on an opt in and opt out strategy. Let your supporters decide what's best for them.
    Susan Burnash
    Purple Duck Marketing

  3. I mostly agree, except when an organization has a lot of walk-in traffic, or when they meet with clients off-site to market services. Of course, in that case you can always whip out the laptop and go to your website as part of your presentation, but you'd likely still want to provide print copies as takeaways. Job fairs still use print copies of collateral as well. At least, for now....

  4. This will most certainly be a never ending debate: whether or not print is still relevant and will it still continue to be relevant. Only time will tell in the future, but as far as the present, I agree with the other comments in that you can't eliminate all print materials.

    The perfect example is when you are meeting possible donors or doing a presentation you need to have something tangent about your organization.

    Sure, online marketing and online materials will work and it is definitely more convenient and costs less, but it doesn't replace print materials such as campaign supplies for your non-profit.