Print vs. Online: Apples & Apples

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I’m a big fan of print and a believer that old channels like print can adapt nicely when new channels come along. It follows that I’m usually pleased to see studies that reinforce the value of print. The new study from the Poynter Institute, however, doesn’t do much for me.

EyetrackingTouted over at the newly content-intensive Ragan.com site, the study is the latest in Poynter’s ”Eyetrack” research series. (The study isn’t new—results were reported back in March.) The study—which used eye-tracking lenses to see where the eye went on various kinds of print and online pages—found that people learned better when reading the print version of an article than the online version. These results were the same—print winning—regardless of the print format. Reading print also was more likely to drive readers to action.

My problem is with the online approach to the content, which appears to be a simple republishing of the article as written for print onto a web page. The study would have had more validity if the story had been repurposed to accommodate the Web’s strengths, such as interactivity and multimedia. In other words, Poynter compared apples to apples, when oranges would have been a more apt point of comparison. If anything, the study shows that articles need to be treated differently online than they are on paper.

Given that 75% of people read methodically when reading print (according to the study) but fully half scan online text, producing an article that took advantage of the ability to scan items you can click and activate short videos would have most likely produced a different result. I mean, anybody would have deduced that it’s easier to read a print article in print than it is online.

Also absent from the study was the social element of the online world, the ability to interact with others who have read the same article (through comments, rankings, and the like).

The Ragan write-up failed to note that more of the text was read online than in print—77% online, 62% in broadsheet format, and 57% in tabloid format. What’s more, nearly two-thirds of online readers read the entire story after they had selected a particular story to read.

Even more interesting is that study participants answered more questions correctly about the test article—regardless of whether it was read in print or online—when the article was presented in an “alternative manner”—that is, with no traditional narrative. It seems to me that online presentation offers more flexibility for this kind of presentation than print does.

I’ll keep promoting the benefits of print and I agree with Bill Sweeetland, the author of the Ragan piece, that companies are too quick to ditch their print communication vehicles, particularly as part of their internal communication efforts. But honestly, this study doesn’t help me make that case.

Here’s the Eyetrack 2007 video:

Print vs. Online: Apples & Apples
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