Printed Versus Online Publications

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Q: Is there any research showing what happens to readership of publications when they migrate from print to strictly online?

Gwen Noel

A: Dear Gwen:

I haven’t seen overall research results on this, just the results of specific projects I’ve done for clients, or what clients have told me about problems they’re experiencing that led them to call me. Since this is a really long response, here are the headlines I’ll cover:

  • What happens to readership and why.
  • Techniques to try to offset the drop in readership.
  • What happens to overall understanding of key messages.
  • What employees and executives say about going online.
  • My (opinionated) personal conclusions.

Effect on readership

When I conduct communication surveys, online publications have lower readership than print publications.

Here are some very disturbing survey results from one client who switched from print to only online for their employee magazine. The entire workforce uses computers all day long. The length, frequency and content of the magazine did not change, but readership certainly did:

  • Only 49% of those who have seen it say it provides useful information they either want or need for their jobs. In 2007 when this publication was still available in print, 64% said it was useful.
  • Only 42% now read or skim at least half of each issue of the magazine, compared to 68% who used to when it was printed.
  • Only 15% now share their issues of the magazine with others in their household, compared to nearly one-fourth who did in 2007.

Readership goes down for a number of reasons, as I’ve learned from focus groups. Some reasons are mechanical and some, human:

  • Many people don’t have computers available.
  • Many people with computers don’t have reliable online access, especially outside North America.
  • Some people with computers and online access aren’t given the TIME by their managers to check out the intranet. This is true when you rely on kiosks in a manufacturing environment, and it’s even more of a problem for employees working in call center environments where productivity measures are very highly watched. The unfortunate outcome is that employees aren’t given the time to learn answers to questions that would actually improve their productivity when talking to customers.
  • Many people don’t have the time or don’t remember to check the publication unless it arrives right in front of their noses.
  • Managers and others who are supposed to print out and post or otherwise share online information with “online have-nots” simply don’t do it very often.

Techniques to improve readership

Overall, fewer people read at least part of the publication when it’s available only online. The actual numbers will vary depending on HOW the online publication is used and marketed. Techniques to improve online readership that I’ve seen working very well:

  • Have the first sign-on screen employees use be, in essence, a home page for employee communications, with headlines of the day, etc., right in front of people first thing every morning.
  • Send an email to everyone the day the online publication becomes available, listing the headlines of the publication and possibly one- or two-sentence summaries. This works even better if your email system supports including links from the email directly to the intranet site for the publication.
  • Publish a printed publication just like the email described above. This has the advantage of also reaching people who don’t have intranet access with at least the headlines and main point of each big news item. The disadvantage is the lack of an immediate link to the full publication.
  • Scrolling messages at the bottom of users’ screens with big headlines of new news available online.

Impact on understanding

One company boldly went only online about three years ago for a lot of good management reasons. It’s the way of the future, it saves money and trees, it’s more timely, etc., etc., etc. Unfortunately, they did this knowing that by the nature of their work force, about half did not have access to online information. Over a three-year period, they noticed a slow drop in the overall level of employees’ perceived understanding about company goals and programs.

Once the communication department broke the data down by job group, they found that the job families without online access had dropped in their understanding levels dramatically about 20% to 40%. The full impact had been obscured by increased levels in some other groups. The company had not changed how MUCH information they were providing to employees on this topic, only the delivery vehicles. Other channels, like face-to-face, had not successfully filled the vacuum created by the loss of the print channel.

Employee/executive comments

In two companies where virtually every employee uses a computer and (theoretically, at least) has online access, we heard really consistent comments. The executives were far more likely to say print should be abolished and replaced with only an online publication. (Although when asked about their own online practices, very few executives checked the intranet even as often as weekly. About a third had NEVER visited the site.)

The most interesting thing was employee reactions to having a publication available only online. About two-thirds said if they had to choose, they’d choose to have only print. In both companies, the main reasons were:

  • I’m staring at a screen all day. It’s a relief to hold something in my hands.
  • It’s easier to scan and skim in print without missing something that I really do want to read.
  • I typically read this type of information when I’m traveling, commuting, waiting in a client’s office, etc.

At a third company we talked with sales people who don’t typically come into a company office. They used company laptops all day long on the road visiting their clients. Many had very favorable things to say about the sales publication (in print) but hadn’t seen it for a while. When we explained that it was only available online now, many weren’t even aware of the change, which had taken place about six months earlier. They also said:

  • I’m having to access email and online forms, etc. from my home by modem. We only have one phone line and my wife/kids hate for me to tie up the line too long.
  • I can’t access this information during the day when I’m visiting a client. At the end of a long day, I just want to download the information I must back to the company. The last thing I want to do is spend another half-hour online checking out the intranet or the online sales publication.


My personal conclusion is that print has a definite place in the mix of our communication channels. The position it should hold does depend on access issues for your own employee population. But even with universal access, it’s too easy to kid ourselves that we’re communicating just because we’re posting things online. Very few might be seeing it.

I just heard of a consulting firm talking about how readership of their external newsletter has increased since it went online. They mentioned the overall number of people visiting the newsletter site and how long they spend reading it. As a former avid reader of the print piece when it came into my inbox, I find that very hard to believe. I’ve never sought their publication out, even though I always found useful and interesting information in it. I just don’t remember to go there. I suspect the hits they’re getting are from current clients who are already at their site doing other things, not the prospects they were trying to entice into becoming customers. Also, the “time spent online” they reported can easily be misinterpreted. The software tracking programs can’t tell you if a reader is really reading for 25 minutes or talking on the phone or with a colleague while the publication is onscreen unread.

I hope this provides some food for thought. I’d love to see other people’s survey results or comments!

Angela D. Sinickas

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