Posted on 28/04/2010

The end of print in corporate publications?

As user habits shift, companies ask themseves, what the have to print or if they could simply move on to digital distribution.

Printed books are irreplacable, they have resolution, tactility, portability, collectibility... Corporate printed media is another matter... We can easily imagine life without truckloads of catalogues, brochures simply because they do not have lasting emotional properties attached to them, the products described might have but not the publication itself (if you can prove me wrong, send me some examples). On the other hand digital content has definite advantages for readers and customers: economy, copyability, reflow, searching and indexing, interlinking, that are especially useful in corporate media and provide real value.

As Craig Mod of rightly points out in his post "Books in the Age of the iPad", printed material can be divided into formless and definite form. In terms of corporate printed material, companies have continuously tried to give definite form to formless content: printing image brochures, editorial magazines, product catalogues and the like. This is, above all, an attempt to reassure people that the company has tangible assets; I am aware of projects in which the existence of a product catalogue has in fact had the effect of reassuring employees that their effort is worthwhile. This is an important role played by printed material (and in the case of price lists, it even has legal implications), namely to provide an overview of products and services at any given time and - by design – to organize the company assets in a consumable way. Despite all the advantages of online product portfolios, catalogues and shops, so far this has been a unique function of printed material. Until now, digital content hasn’t had the definite form that the print media could offer.
This is about to change: Changing user patterns and devices that provide a richer online experience will redefine what should be printed and what is more appropriate to publish digitally.

But the concentration on media output, fueled by designers and creative consultants such as ourselves, has blurred the vision of many companies regarding their most valuable assets: their corporate data. Actual products and services are what define a company, while media is just an (arguably important) manifestation of these assets.

This brings me to my thesis:
1. The end of print as the main media channel for corporate communications is near (in some industries it is nearer than in others), and there is no need to regret the loss.
2. There are opportunities in this transition. Companies can change their attitude towards information management – something which is hard to do in a stable economic environment, but easy now.
3. Do not prepare for new media individually; concentrate on the underlying data structure.
4. Concentrate on the process, not the outcome.
5. The company as an open system with an API

In this thesis I will concentrate in those businesses that make up the majority of businesses in developed countries. As a rule these have a defined product range and a classic marketing mix. Even though brand and market strategies play an increasingly important role in these companies, they are still for the most part technically-driven, so that their marketing and communication efforts usually revolve around product life cycles. When there is a new product, there is a new brochure; when prices go up a new price list is generated (usually once a year). This is the process that is ingrained in companies’ marketing departments. And that is part of the problem: When new media evolve, this routine has to change in order to adapt. Much has been written about the design-driven approach toward improving this situation (link), and it applies here as well. But even more important is the fact that the shift does not have to be from one media to the other; instead, the the shift is actually from fragmented data silos, usually trapped in one media, to a media-independent workflow that caters to all media.

Let us look at the printed material and examine how it is used by companies today, and how this translates into new media strategies.
There are 4 aspects that make up the experience for customers and users:

a. Contents: What is it?
b. Structure: Which form does it take?
c. Context: Where is it consumed? Who is using it?
d. Cycle: What's the lifespan of information?

How can we utilize the existing systems in order to develop these factors when moving to a new medium? How can we use established and certified content (after all, all this editing must have been good for something) within the process to improve the database that will make up the new media platform?

To make it more tangible, and to establish best practices for the transition to a media-independent workflow, let us look at a prototype catalogue that can connect to all kinds of media.

1. Contents

Information gathering
As a rule, content for corporate communications has been established over a long period of time with an ever increasing product portfolio. Often the printed material and source files are the place where the information resides. The flipside of this is that content which is removed from the portfolio is consequently lost. Even if content is published on the web, there is no automated way that serves other media. So a good place to start for any cross-media project is to find a practical way of integrating these legacy systems into the workflow. This does not have to be a technological approach; often it can be easier to use a semi-automatic way to incorporate and structure data. This depends to a large extent on company resources and established methods (in small to mid-size businesses, Excel is often the most structured source that people work with). Identifying all possible methods for data migration is beyond the scope of this article (this will be covered in a future post). When looking at available resources and company processes, one method usually stands out as the most practical.

In the process of structuring data, there is often enough room for improving data quality eliminating data inconsistencies and even false information (in product documentation, for example). Company stakeholders can contribute a great deal to this, and it is cricial to get everybody on board. You might be surprised that even the most inefficient company processes persevere simply because there is no definite review to call them into question.

The information you provide to your customers can make a great difference in your brand’s perception. and it can ultimately affect sales. It takes a lot of effort to collect all available information into a system, as well as to produce new content such as product photography, videos etc. But once the content is distributed into many more channels, the price per contact goes down considerably. At this stage it is a good idea to consider media requirements that arise from new media channels.

2. Structure
User expectations vary greatly, depending on the market segment. And the processes that lead to purchase decisions are changing rapidly. New devices are emerging that have a completely different user experience.

It is obvious that companies have to provide all kinds of ways to let users connect to their database and provide structures that target these channels individually. A media-independent database such as a product information management system (PIM) best serves this need, because it can create hierarchies that match each respective channel. Refined structures providing only the information that users need can help reduce visual clutter.

3. Context
Users who connect to your company and product information via mobile devices and smart phones will have very different mindset than people sitting in their office browsing the web. Up to now this has been a strong point for printed catalogues and magazines. The printed version could be taken anywhere, without technical limitations (online access? battery life?), and used in the appropriate context. With the rise of devices for those third spaces or in-between spaces (link blog entry), this advantage will gradually fade away. Especially in terms of content updated regularly, the benefit of digital distribution channels already outweighs the costs involved.

Some context for the iPad
Much has been written about the iPad lately, and we are all wondering what its actual impact will be on media consumption habits. In my opinion, the single most important property this device has is its ability to be used in shifting context. People will soon be establishing very interesting usage patterns that will hint at what companies should prepare for in the future. For some business applications such as field sales forces, there are even more immediate advantages evident, like up–to-date catalogue and price information and product presentations. Certainly this device will be much more appropriate than wielding a grey laptop in front of customers. Especially with product portfolios in large corporations, there is a growing need to cross sell between brands and markets. In the past it was virtually impossible to have the all information that clients needed on hand (Anyone care to lug around 15kg of catalogues?); now, with the iPad and similar devices, the information can be available and accessible (You wouldn't point at customers with your iPhone).

4. Cycle
One aspect that is easily overlooked when creating content is the lifespan of content created. Circulating catalogues cannot easily be replaced or updated, especially for annual data.

5. Call for a corporate API
Of course, you might argue, most people are slow to adapt. While that us true, my point here is not to simply abandon the current marketing mix. Instead, I advocate developing content that is already available today with a vision for future applications. In my experience, this is well worth the effort. Organizations that focus their strategy on data and content rather than dedicated marketing efforts have a good chance to make their investment more reusable and manageable. In this model, the company can be considered as a system with an API (Application Programmable Interface, that provides company and product information that all designed media can connect to.
The pressure that comes from shifting user habits and new media should be embraced in order to get stakeholders moving again...

If you have your own thoughts on company data and publications, or maybe you have insights from your own company, we would love to hear about it. Please use the comment function or drop us a line at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

################### Further reading #####################

Study on the influence of unified communications in small to mid-size businesses:

On the iPad and its social implications

On Books in the digital age

On IT Investments and economic value (in German)

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3.Lars Schulz, 10.05.2010

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