What if there was a customer communication technology that guaranteed consistent formatting and presentation of your documents, regardless of the devices owned by your customers? Screen size wouldn’t affect how devices display your data, and nobody would need to rotate a device or zoom out to see the whole page. Your documents would appear exactly as you intended — every time.

Now, what if using this amazingly adaptive technology required no fancy programming, responsive design techniques, or layout compromises just so the content would appear consistently each time? Wouldn’t that be great?

Of course, such a technology already exists. It’s print.

The disadvantages of digital communications aren’t always discussed as clients consider the best way to communicate with customers, members, donors, or constituents. In a rush to use channels with which they are most familiar, clients may not consider the negative effects electronic communication can have on their campaigns or understand how print can overcome those limitations.

Digital Delivery Downsides

Every channel has positive aspects. For digital communications we often talk about speed, cost, and trackability. Those are good reasons to deliver customer messages in digital form, but it’s not perfect. To me, the biggest digital document drawback is the sender’s lack of control. Once a message leaves the production environment, digital documents are at the mercy of variables that can change how the documents appear. Some of those variables affect branding. Others influence important communication aspects like delivery and useability.

  • Colors—Corporate colors will appear differently depending on the device that displays them. Some screens seem more vivid, while the colors on other screens are more subdued. The specifications of the display, the material from which the screen is made, and user adjustments can change your colors into shades inconsistent with your brand standards.
  • Fonts — Just because a font exists on the computer that created the document doesn’t mean the same font will be present on the device that eventually displays it. Yes, you can use universal fonts that are almost guaranteed to work everywhere, but if your client has built their brand around a custom font or one that is less common, then the output viewed by the customer may not match. Some developers get around the font problem by turning their text into graphics. This presents another challenge — image handling.
  • Images — I receive messages every day containing images that are partially or fully suppressed. Some messages are on my mobile phone, others on my PC. To speed up message display, my phone does not download images in an email unless I specifically tap a button to do so. Sometimes I display the images, but often I do not. On my computer, incoming messages from a source not in my whitelist go to the junk folder where the email software always disables the images. To see the images in a message from my junk folder, I must move it to my in-box. Most times, I don’t bother. I may not see the call to action or other important components of image-dependent messages.
  • Deliverability — Directing a specific message to a specific customer can be tricky in the digital world. Emails may be marked as spam by the ISP or email client and automatically deleted, or they be relegated to the junk mail folder, never to be read.

We have many tools to help us improve the deliverability of postal mail, including address correction and move updates. These tools do not exist for the digital marketer, making it almost certain they will send messages that no one will ever see.

Sending messages to closed or abandoned email accounts means the recipient never sees them. Too many unopened emails affect your sender reputation and can cause an email service provider to limit your activity. It also depresses the ROI of your campaign. Accidentally mailing to honey pots could cause an internet service provider to block your future emails from being delivered to their customers.

Text messages are also beginning to suffer from a glut of unsolicited or suspicious messages, causing people to pay less attention to them. I get text messages almost every day from strangers wanting to buy my house or urging me to take political action.

  • Presentation — The way HTML email messages are displayed depends on how the email was designed and on the email system that reads the message. An email that displays beautifully in Gmail might be a jumbled mess for a customer still using Outlook 2010 (they are still out there).

Print Is Loaded with Usability Features

Printed messages can hold tens of thousands of bits of information, including text and graphics, rendered in colors sure look the same as the day you printed them when customers view the documents. The delivery method makes your messages incredibly portable. Your customers can read them equally well at home, at the office, on a plane, or out in the wilderness. Even if they can’t get cellular service or Wi-Fi, customers can still consume printed material.

Storage and retrieval are a snap. Customers don’t have to log in or remember passwords to access their printed messages, yet they stay secure from online identity thieves or internet hackers. Printed documents also have a much longer life than their digital counterparts, often lingering for weeks in the homes and businesses of direct mail recipients.

No one should abandon electronic channels to connect with their customers. But the flash and glamor of the latest technology can mask the difficulties and drawbacks. Resolving the convoluted variables associated with achieving successful, satisfactory, and consistent communication of digital messages makes it hard to achieve the same effectiveness print provides at no extra expense.

The next time someone tries to tell you electronic communication is easier and cheaper than print, try pointing out some weaknesses in a digital-only plan. Show them how, once they consider the negative aspects of digital communication, the actual performance isn’t as encouraging as they might think.

Of course, print can’t do everything. There won’t be any embedded video or clickable social sharing buttons on a printed document. But when insuring a consistent corporate image and connecting more frequently with a well-defined audience is important, the mature technology of print may outshine other available media.

Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants creates content for the document industry and helps document operations build and implement strategies for future growth and competitiveness. Learn more about his services at www.printmailconsultants.com and www.pmccontentservices.com. Follow @PMCmike on Twitter or send him a connection request on LinkedIn.