Analysis: charity communications - print or digital?

A new report says supporters should be provided with the information they want in the format they want it

Most charities recognise the importance of communicating with their members and supporters regularly, but deciding which channels to use has become increasingly difficult because of the growth of digital communications and the decline of print.

A new report by CharityComms, the membership body for charity communications professionals, has attempted to throw light on the subject by surveying sector organisations about their publishing habits and weighing up the pros and cons of print and digital. Reading Between the Lines, which includes responses from 126 sector professionals, might surprise those who think the printed word is dead.

One of the report’s conclusions is that print remains an important channel for charities to communicate with supporters: 65 per cent of those that responded said they still printed magazines and newsletters.

Respondents said the main benefit of printed material was that it was something tangible that served as a recognition of the contribution of a charity’s supporters. They also said that printed publications gave supporters access to information any time they wanted and could be passed physically from one reader to another.

On the other hand, charities could see the benefits of a digital approach. Nine out of 10 respondents said the fact that readers could take immediate action through online publications was important or very important, and 87 per cent cited a reduction in production costs as a main attraction. Nearly a quarter – 24 per cent – said they produced an online magazine for supporters who campaign on the charity’s behalf.

It seems clear that charities don’t have to choose between one medium or another. The report concludes that a dual approach to digital and print will continue for the foreseeable future: 52 per cent of respondents said they expected to produce a mixture of digital and print magazines in the next five years. For some, this is about meeting the needs of their existing supporters while also extending their reach.

Vicky Browning, director of CharityComms, says: "It’s surprising that the move away from print is happening so slowly, given the pressure on charities to reduce costs. Many charities are taking a ‘3Cs’ approach to this issue: cost as the driver for change, caution as the watchword and content as the most important factor going forward. In the end, the format in which you are communicating to people matters less, as long as you’re delivering compelling content."

She says that charities should talk to their audiences about how they want to receive information and avoid replacing print publications completely with digital alternatives.

"It’s about giving people the right information at the right time in the way they want it," says Browning.

The Cumbria Wildlife Trust is one charity that has been reluctant to move completely to electronic communications. Charlotte Rowley, the charity’s senior marketing officer, says: "We are communicating with farmers, for example, and we know that they’re much more likely to read a print publication over breakfast than to go online. There are many benefits to print newsletters and we’d be reluctant to stop producing them until well into the future when we know people don’t want them any more."

Meanwhile, Diabetes UK is about to launch digital versions of three of its print magazines. But Kian-Garin de Loach, creative lead at the charity, says it might lose 80 per cent of its audience overnight if it stopped producing a print magazine and produced only a tablet version instead of both. "There is a risk in saying ‘digital magazines are the way ahead’ and then just dropping your print offering," says de Loach.

Print v digital 

Print publications

* They honour audiences’ support

* Magazines can be passed around and shared

* Portability offers access wherever and whenever required

* They inspire engagement and build relationships

* They have higher status

Digital publications

* They allow readers to take immediate action

* They communicate fast

* They allow more frequent communication

* You can add extra media such as videos

* Production costs are reduced

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