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Moving Towards a Manifesto About Online Versus Print Formats

by Tom Johnson on Jul 27, 2009
categories: blogging technical-writing

As part of the solution to STC's financial situation, some members have talked about making Intercom an online magazine only, removing the printed version that is mailed out to thousands of members each month. Many people think the move from paper to online would be a tremendous blow to the STC, one that would significantly decrease member value towards one of STC's most attractive assets.

Sometimes people talk about this potential move, from print to an online format, with a doom and gloom that would make you think they're foreclosing on a house or planning a funeral for a close relative or giving up their children for adoption.

When I hear these discussions, it blows me away because I can hardly believe what I'm hearing. I admit, the look and feel of paper can provide a comfortable reading experience if you're immersed in a 200 page novel lying on your bed on a rainy day. But the Intercom and other professional magazines or journals are not novels. With professional publications like these, the online format better matches the reading behavior of the audience. In fact, online formats provide more than a dozen advantages that print formats lack, including everything from interactivity to portability, feeds, metrics, multimedia, and more.

I've had some thoughts brewing all week about how people read online, not just online versus print. It's somewhat of a collage of assertions I'm relaying here. The gist of it is that any organization or company would be crazy not to convert their paper-based magazine, journal, or newsletter into an interactive online format.

Reading Habits. When it comes to professional, job-related information, most people read on the job, during little breaks, when they're tired of some task, or during the morning when they're checking their e-mail and the news, or during lunch as they're eating, or on the bus or train if they ride one. Some even read a bit in the evenings, but not as much, and rarely do they consume professional, job-related blogs on the weekends. With these reading habits, short online content that is easily accessible from a computer where most people are working better meets the reader's needs.

Digestibility. With articles for online magazines, you can push articles out little by little, several times a week, rather than dumping 20+ articles on readers all at once and overwhelming them, as periodic print magazines do. Because you can push out articles in a more digestible rate, reader consumption of the content increases. Of course if you push out 20 articles at once through an RSS feed, the effect is the same as pushing them out all at once in print.

Portability. With online content accessible from portable mobile devices, you can read the content anywhere without forethought or preparation. For example, you can read it while you're waiting in line, waiting for your computer to reboot, when you're in a boring meeting, or alone in the cafeteria, or at church, or in the bathroom, or in the car while your spouse is picking up groceries. Of course you can read a print magazine in similar situations -- if you're always carrying a print magazine in your back pocket. The trouble is, opportunities for reading often sneak up on you at various times of the day. Having the content accessible at your fingertips through a BlackBerry, iPhone, or other device can mean the difference between reading and not reading.

Interactivity. With print content, you can rarely talk to the author. But with online articles, you can usually click the author's name and find an e-mail address or contact form, or you can leave a comment below the article, or link to the author's site (which often sends a pingback to the author's email), and you can receive feedback from the author the next hour or day. The ability to interact with the author to share your thoughts and reactions makes reading more of a conversational, personal experience that is more engaging.

Selection. Because online forms can draw upon a global audience and stream content from hundreds of sources into a running list with thousands of titles to choose from, you're more likely to find articles that meet your specific, niche interests. In contrast, print magazines usually have only about 10-20 articles and must keep the content at a general interest level. Because the online experience provides such a broad selection, you have greater chances of finding content that is relevant, focused, and applicable to your own interests than with print formats. I wrote about this principle previously in Damping Versus Selection.

Speed. Print magazines often require several months notice between the time you request an article, the time the author submits it, the time necessary to edit the article, lay the magazine out, proofread it, publish it, and distribute it. In contrast, online articles can omit most of these steps and publish content quickly and conveniently, even overnight. Because of this speed, online formats can tap into real-time news, stay current with the latest topics, and not worry about whether an article released months from now will still be relevant. Readers also like to know that they're getting the absolute latest news, down to the week or even day.

Cost. Online content is usually laid out in a few standard templates with advertising in the sidebar or embedded within the article. The layout is inexpensive, and the distribution is even less expensive. Online content has almost no printing costs, and no need to outsource the content to a contract agency that creates the layout, draws dozens of accompanying illustrations, and mails the content to readers across the world. These reduced production costs generally compensate for the loss of revenue from print advertising. The result is that you can give more content away to readers for free. In this model, both the readers and publishers benefit.

Advertising Opportunities. Most advertisers don't harness the full potential of advertising opportunities available to them in the web format. Rather than just use static images in banners and sidebars, advertisers can incorporate multimedia, including short videos, flash, audio, polls, and interactivity. Users are just a click away from entering the advertiser's site and learning more about a product (whereas with print, users have to turn on a computer and manually type in a website). Advertisers also have an opportunity for guest posting, because space is not a limitation. If more advertisers took advantage of multimedia in the interactive web space, they would discover that online advertising can be more powerful than static print advertising.

Content Manipulation. Because online formats give you the ability to rate articles, and then sort by the most popular, or highest rated, and to automate the ratings based on page views, trackbacks, and emails, you can create compelling groupings of the most popular articles online. These lists can create more interest in the content, as they draw upon the curiosity of readers. Top 10 lists, most e-mailed articles, most clicked-on posts of the week, or lowest rated articles groupings simply aren't possible with print.

Metrics. With print formats, you can't rely on automated metrics tools apart from human surveys to calculate the degree to which each article is read. In contrast, online formats give you a suite of tools to track readership. Google Analytics, Woopra, Omniture, Performancing -- you can use any of these tools to find detailed information about reader demographics, time per post, time on the site, most read articles, click paths, and more. Your metrics aren't a guess.

Search Engine Optimization. With online formats, your content is findable by the whole world. People in remote countries can search and discover you. Open access and indexing of your content on Google gives you visibility, which increases your readership because it makes you discoverable. The more you search engine optimize your content, the more findable you are, which means you can actively grow your audience each day. Print formats, in contrast, aren't easily discoverable by users unless they buy your magazine. If it's a niche magazine, chances are it isn't in the supermarket checkout line, so how do people find out about it? And without access to the content, how do they trust you enough to pay for a subscription?

Feed Manipulation. Most online formats have RSS feeds, which you can manipulate in interesting ways. You can create mashups of feeds that integrate multiple sources, filtering, truncating, and outputting the feed titles according to what you want to see. You can display one RSS feed on multiple sites (for example, a "What We're Reading" type of feed from Writer River). Most importantly, readers can pull in hundreds of feeds into a single feedreader and actually stay updated with all the content (at least the content that interests them). You can't do any feed manipulation with print formats. Nor can readers keep up with hundreds of sources. At most, you may subscribe to five or six magazines and a journal or two.

Community. Perhaps the coolest thing about online formats is the community that develops in the comments. It's not just a one-on-one type of experience between you and the author, but rather a community of readers interacting with each other. It's a truism that many times the comments below an article are more interesting than the article itself. Articles with a lot of comments also increase your site's search engine visibility, drawing more readers who can find you through keyword searches. Comments are user-generated content that increases your site's findability and value. Again, print formats lack this advantage.

Concision. Although the quality of well-researched, thought-out, and carefully structured book material is on a level above what you usually find online, I frequently find that books carry on and on about ideas they could wrap up in 20 pages. Typically, a book author must write at least 200 pages to publish a book, whether the content merits the entire length of a book or not. In contrast, online authors give you the information in short, powerful bursts. The online author gets quickly to the point, without wasting your time or padding the content with fluff to fill the pages of a book. You don't have to slog through 35 pages before the author gets to the core of the message. For more on this, see "How the Web and Weblog Have Changing Writing."

Niche content. In a world that is trending more and more toward specialization, we need niche content. Even in a field such as technical communication, which some might feel is already niche, really isn't. The field has at least a dozen subfields, including information architecture, usability, content management, single sourcing, design, video, technical writing, DITA, and more. We want to learn about what we want to learn about. Online magazines and blogs provide niche content in ways that print magazines can't. Print magazines must rely on general industry interest. According to the Long Tail, the global audience available online allows niche products to survive and even dominate mainstream products in revenue.

Completion. I recently listened to an interview with Heather Armstrong (Dooce) about her experience writing a book versus writing blog posts. She compared writing a book to pulling her brain out through the top of her skull. A book is almost never finished. It drags on for years. Books require you to structure an arc throughout hundreds of pages. In contrast, a blog post is something you can finish in an evening. You can feel completion. And you receive feedback immediately after publishing it. You get the whole writing experience in a much quicker, painless way. You don't have to wait for years to experience it all (if what you're working on for years even gets published). The same might be said of readers: they can completely consume your content in one sitting, rather than chipping away at it for weeks.

Shareability. Content online is immediately shareable. When you read a post you like, you can retweet it, and chances are someone else will share it, and so on until you've suddenly reached dozens of potential new subscribers. When content is online, readers have a quick mechanism for sharing through Twitter, blogs, email messages, Facebook, social bookmarks, or other online technologies. Because the content is more immediately shareable, you can grow your audience more quickly and increase your influence. In contrast, with print, about the only thing readers can do is cut out the article and mail it through the postal service.

Multimedia. If you look at the New York Times or the New Yorker, they incorporate a lot of multimedia into their content. The online experience isn't just about inserting a few Youtube videos here and there. Many times you see podcasts or videos that you can subscribe to, such as discussions with the author or conversations about the latest articles. These multimedia formats provide a whole new dimension to the content. In contrast, print is one-dimensional.

Wrapping It Up

Overall, I prefer to be online is for the whole web experience. It's not just about interactivity, immediacy, or multimedia but rather all of these components working together to provide an experience that makes that the print magazine sitting in my mailbox, or the 300 page book on my shelf, or even the newsletter PDF waiting in my inbox so much less inviting than opening up Google Reader.

If you're interested in getting involved in a collaborating reading project, I invite you to become a link journalist on Writer River. Writer River is a social news site for sharing information about the latest news in technical communication. I'm currently revamping the site with more tools and ways to share and discover content -- tools not possible in the print world. If you aren't already registered as an author, sign up now and stay tuned for new announcements later this week.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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