The extended holiday season has officially started, which means a mailbox disappearing daily beneath an avalanche of catalogs. I love it. I mean, I don’t love the vast majority of catalogs, which land with cheap paper and dodgy layouts (“let’s go for the threw-up-every-product-in-the-store look, OK?”) and which are vamoosed to the recycling bin with barely a glance. What I do love are the gems: the Tracksmith catalog that (almost) makes me want to strap on some running shoes and collapse at the end of the block. Or Patagonia, educating and inspiring me while serving up a fleece sweater or four. It’s the kind of compelling corporate storytelling that Leff’s VP of strategy and planning, Alia, recently wrote about.
Now, of course, the same material appears on company websites. But … well, it’s just not the same. You’ll often hear people my age (ahem!) wax rhapsodic about the glory days of print publishing, and it’s usually greeted with eyerolls. But I’m not suggesting a print nostalgia kick. What I’m suggesting is this: if you’re not incorporating print into your content strategy, you should.
A few things have reminded me just how important print remains. The first was the usual rush of content ahead of the holidays, a digital avalanche that at least has the benefit of (dis)appearing into cyberspace rather than clogging a mailbox. The second was the release of Jonathan Franzen’s latest doorstop, Crossroads—evidence that old-fashioned literary novels are still capable of making a splash.
But the thing that tipped the scales for me was more innocuous: the release of retailers Sid and Ann Mashburn’s first-ever print catalog after 14 years of ever-more-successful business in the digital and physical worlds. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a customer for nearly all of that time.) Ann Mashburn worked at Vogue in a past life and admitted she was surprised by her reaction on receiving the fully formed catalog. “It made me realize that there is, in fact, a big difference between the things we see on our screens and the things we hold in our hands,” she wrote.
“There is power in the tactile. I have read dozens of books on my Kindle, only to completely forget the title or the author or both. When I look at my bookcases, on the other hand, I am transported by the colors of the book jackets. In a minute I know not only the name of the book, but where I was in my life when I read it. I can feel the feelings I felt, not just about the plot, but maybe how lonely I felt while reading it alone on the subway. Or I might open the book and find a bookmark from a candy wrapper that I was obsessed with in 1999. Print is memorable.”
We tend to forget digital publishing is so new and, for the first 20-odd years of its existence, was little more than a facsimile of print—same layout, same static experience. What we’re seeing now is that print and digital have independent strengths and applicability, albeit with the same fundamental criteria: both need, at their heart, great content delivering distinctive, engaging, and compelling insights to the right people at the right time.
On the digital side, there’s an acceleration of utility beyond what’s possible with print: immersive, interactive, motion-rich content that plays to those strengths to educate and inform. On the print side, not much has changed format-wise, of course (designers may howl at that comment, but you know what I mean). But good print products are becoming more distinctive and targeted.
Former journalists well remember the days just before digital decimated print media, full of bloated weekend newspapers with a dozen sections, a pseudo-magazine or two, and a complimentary wheelbarrow to get the thing home. Today, newspaper publishers have realized what matters is distinctiveness. News has become a free digital commodity, so it’s personality and depth of insight that drive loyalty—great columnists, compelling investigative reporting, and the kind of content traditional media can deliver thanks to unparalleled resources. And great print products recognize that readers’ time is limited, but they make the investment worthwhile.
The same applies to using print for content marketing. Be judicious, ensuring the content is worth the investment; the point is to surprise and delight, not just land the equivalent of a printed PDF. A newspaper printed every day for attendees at an event like the World Economic Forum in Davos, showcasing your thought leadership and presented with personality and verve? Fantastic! (If someone’s done that, great; if not, consider this Leff’s trademarking of The Davos Daily.)
So, the next time someone rolls their eyes at the suggestion of a print product, argue it’s not just a quirky alternative but critical. There’s something about holding beautifully presented content in your hands that digital can’t match, and, after all, you can’t cut an article out of your laptop. But, as with all content, make sure it’s really, really good. And a wheelbarrow wouldn’t hurt.