Print plus on-line delivers benefits

In the early days of the Internet, Web sites were designed to drive browsers towards 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.

This model of interaction with customers had worked so well and so predictably that we simply moved it on-line, largely unmodified. That was by no means wrong, but as Web technology and our comprehension of that technology both evolved, the approach proved limiting. Our improving understanding of the Web’s 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 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 communications strategies take advantages 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.

On-line material has no production costs other than those of creation (paying writers and designers) and distribution (download costs, if any), and eliminates the cost difference between full-colour and black and white publishing; printed materials have similar creation costs but add high mailing costs and a nearly four-fold cost increase with full-colour printing. Sound and video offer benefits impossible to attain in print. In contrast, paper is more familiar (many people remain uncomfortable with on-line information), more accessible (many of us lack full-time access to an Internet connection), more portable (nobody reads on-line information in the bathroom), more exchangeable (you can pass a magazine to colleagues without violating copyright) and more legible (print remains easier to read).

This suggests a solution that has only recently become popular: use both media together to leverage their different strengths rather than relying on a single one. 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 available both on-line, with supplemental content, and in print, as a 100-page magazine with less detail. This design choice recognized that many prospective clients were managers who spent relatively little time on-line, and who preferred printed information.

Keeping the print version short made it attractive to busy managers, who lack the time to read longer articles that compete for their attention and who are often satisfied with a summary of the topic. The Web version of the magazine serves 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.

Hart ([email protected]) is a translator, technical writer, editor and a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication. He lives in Pointe-Claire, Que., where he works for a forestry research institute.

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