In Defense of Hard Copies

Advertising pioneer (and Pure Michigan native) Leo Burnett once said that advertising is the ability to “sense, interpret... to put the very heart throbs of a business into type, paper and ink.”

In today’s digital world, paper and ink can seem tired, old-fashioned. I’ve participated in meetings where it’s been suggested only .pdfs, websites, and video are appropriate for today’s in-depth communications. While I can’t entirely disagree with this concept, I do believe there is still a place for deploying printed matter in 21st-century public relations.

And it’s time I stopped to make the case for the occasional hard copy.

Before I begin, it’s necessary for me to address a few personal items. Many observers may have noted some family idiosyncrasies that might diminish my credibility on this topic—a husband who refuses to give up his ancient Blackberry or vintage fountain pens, and a 17-year-old who uses a typewriter for his notes and is fluent in Morse Code—but it is not true that we are contemplating a flock of carrier pigeons.

In fact, I am almost entirely paperless in my work. I long since scanned my huge file cabinets into the cloud and even my planner is virtual. I love the portability and freedom my high-tech life provides, so believe me when I say my advocacy of paper is not undertaken lightly.

Here are the top three reasons to consider a printed piece:

1.       Leave-behinds are valuable. When meeting with a sales prospect, a policymaker, or a potential client, your team adores collateral. A print publication or flyer is useful, but a folder with forms, information and response cards is even better. Here’s why:

  • Your team members benefit—as does your entire organization—when they can use a printed piece as a consistent outline for their personal presentations. Messages are rendered more reliably and confidently.
  • Organizational identity is supported through publication look/feel and narrative means, which helps underscore the tone of staff verbal communications to build a stronger impression.
  • Being able to leave hard copies behind helps ensure your presentation will be remembered and revisited.
  • Leave-behinds also have longer “tails,” as they can be passed along and shared in ways that help build positive word of mouth—without your team having to lift a finger.

2.       Paper must be dealt with. Think of your own behavior. If I get an email (in my daily box full of 500+), I likely don’t take time to read everything. Even if I do, the odds that I’m going to stop my mailbox-cleaning momentum to watch an unexpected video or read an unfamiliar/unsolicited report on my computer screen are relatively low. I just ignore and delete it.

It’s different when I get a hard copy of something. I might not slow my momentum right that instant, but I will generally toss a publication or report aside to read later. I keep a pile of books, magazines and interesting mailers next to a cozy chair to be read when I’m relaxed and receptive.

Even if your audience consists of people who live for online content, hard copies can attract their attention in unique and often deeper ways.

3.       Paper shows you mean business. When your organization invests resources in sharing its story, its credibility is upped immensely. Branding agency Millward Brown did a recent study that showed people relate more intensely to hard copy documents because they are more “real” to the brain. When people can touch the paper and smell the ink, they use different spatial and cognitive interactions to build emotional connection and even longer-lasting memories.

Readers holding hard copies also can process complex ideas more readily than they can on the screen. They can highlight and make notes, and think more deeply than they are likely to if they’re sitting in front of a screen. That is not to say the screen does not have its place, but that digital tools have more impact when supplemented by paper resources.

Here’s a personal example that helps underscore my arguments. During my career, I have relied on a portfolio of my past work when interviewing for a new job or client. I always used to carry a fancy leather (okay, pleather) binder with sleeves, and it was always very well received. It gave me something to talk about, and I used to love it when interviewers pulled out documents and asked me questions.

When I took my office paperless, I made myself a digital portfolio as well. I scanned and transferred my work into a terrific iPad app that lets clients click and review things digitally. I am sorry to say this approach failed miserably—people don’t know what to do with the iPad (I think they feel funny holding it) and they no longer engage with the things I’m showing them. We no longer talk about what I’ve done and what I can do for them; rather, there are pained moments of awkwardness while they fiddle with the iPad and slowly hand it back.

I think that is an important controlled experiment that shows the power of the printed word. If your organization imagines doing away with its printing budget, I urge you to think again. It may cost you more than you realize.