Where should you put your message: online or in print?

Both, says Ruralite Services CEO Michael Shepard. He joined the utility communications cooperative in 2016 after a career in newspapers and magazine publishing.

“One of the things we struggle with as communicators is the transition to digital and online messaging while still understanding what works in print,” says Michael. “Do not look at digital as a complete transition from print. It is more complicated than that.”

Consider each message your utility wants to share. Some work best in print, while other messages should also be shared on social media or a website.

Science of Print

“Print remains extremely valuable as a place to tell stories,” says Michael. “Print is great for a message people aren’t necessarily looking for—a message you’re bringing to them. Make it as compelling as possible; tell a fascinating story readers were not expecting to learn.”

Science backs up the power of print. A 2015 study by the Canadian neuromarketing firm TrueImpact used eye-tracking, brain wave measurement, and questionnaires to compare the impact of print messages with email and online messaging.

The report found direct mail—materials you hold in your hands—are easier to understand than digital messages.

“Direct mail requires 21% less cognitive effort to process than digital media, suggesting it is both easier to understand and more memorable,” the report states. “When asked to cite the brand (company name) of an advertisement they had just seen, recall was 70% higher among participants who were exposed to a direct mail piece than a digital ad.”

Questions Drive Digital Content

Websites and social media are ideal for question-driven messages. Outage updates, high-bill questions, immediate safety concerns—these are questions consumers seek answers to online.

“Folks are turning increasingly to digital sources (and away from radio and TV) for instant information,” says Michael.

Digital platforms (website, social media, videos) help utilities provide succinct information to consumers quickly.

More than half of the average website’s traffic comes from mobile devices. Utilities need to make sure their websites use responsive design for easy mobile-device viewing. Content should be geared toward answering the common questions driving consumers to the website.

Social Steps

Print helps readers discover stories. Websites answer questions. How does social media fit into a communicator’s toolbox?

“You can use social media to get out a serious message about something but in a more lighthearted way,” says Michael.

Social media can be used to help followers discover stories about their community, much as you see in print. It can also be a key communication channel during an outage. Share pictures of damage, restoration efforts, and expected time to restore power.

Remember Reach

Keep digital messages simple. A 2015 study by Chartbeat, a media analytics partner,  found 55% of website visitors spend less than 15 seconds actively reading a web page.

Think social media results are better? Think again. A 2012 PNM Resources survey of utility social media accounts found the best of the best—utility accounts with high engagement—attract only about 12% of a utility’s customer base.

Compare digital reach to Ruralite magazine’s last reader profile study. 58% of readers surveyed in 2013 read the magazine for 30 minutes or more. And when asked how many of the last 4 issues these people had read, 76.4% reported they had read all 4 issues. Since an average of 1.9 people read each issue, that means 477,286 out of 624,720 potential household readers open and read every issue of Ruralite magazine.

“The reality is that—at least for our industry—digital has an extremely modest impact. There is very little website, app, and social media traffic, especially when you compare it to how many utility consumers read the print version of their statewide publication or utility newsletter,” says Ruralite Managing Editor Curtis Condon. “Digital and print are not equal in terms of their effectiveness or value.”

Michael agrees, encouraging utility communicators to use many—not just one or two—communication avenues to get the word out.

“Do not look at it as, ‘This goes here now,’” says Michael. “You may need to include 5 or 6 elements across different platforms to have a full communications plan.”

Print vs Digital: Which is Right for Your Message? from Ruralite Services on Vimeo.

This is a story from the Winter 2017 issue of OnLine, our quarterly newsletter. Get more great ideas.