This week announced that digital downloads had overtaken paperback sales in the UK. Ebook sales surpassed hardback and paperback sales in the US since last year. The rise of mobile digital technology, Ebook readers, tablets and smart phones means that reading online is now the norm. So what are the implications for corporate publishing? Should electronics and engineering firms abandon the paper-based corporate magazine, manual and product catalogue? Is print still a viable option for technology publishing?

Catalogues, product brochures and manuals

Printed product catalogues were the first casualties of the rise of digital publishing as companies showcased their wares on websites. The benefits are obvious. Websites can respond much more quickly to changes in stock, special offers and featured products, with ecommerce allowing for online purchases. Print catalogues still had their place due to their portability and accessibility. Not every engineer had access to a desktop computer and a catalogue could be kept close at hand in a workshop. The arrival of smartphones has changed this. As smartphones proliferate, phone and tablet friendly websites will take the place of printed product brochures.

Have you noticed how small the boxes are that contain consumer electronics these days? A few years ago the manuals and instructions that accompanied new technology weighed more than the kit. Unbox hardware now and all you find is a postcard with the web address of the digital manual, demonstration videos and a forum for support and FAQs. This provides new challenges to technology business communications, as electronics firms need experts to moderate these forums and regularly provide online advice, while preserving brand identity. The roles of corporate communications officer and customer service executive are merging. A printed manual could never provide as rich an experience for the customer but it may be easier to manage logistically and politically as the impact on the business processes and company structure is sigificant. For some products a simple printed instruction leaflet is all that is required. A list of included parts and a diagram will suffice. Technology firms need to consider the context and their customers’ expectations.

Company magazines

For larger technology and electronics companies internal communications take place via corporate intranets with staff contributing content to secure social and/or business networks as part of that intranet. A printed, quarterly internal company magazine may still find its way into the internal mail but this printed publication’s function is no longer required to engage and inform staff. Its role now is to reaffirm the company’s brand identity, ethos and mission to its employees. More and more businesses are publishing the company magazine digitally. Most engineering firms simply export a pdf version of a magazine that has been designed for print and distribute as an email attachment. This misses the opportunity to exploit the full potential of mobile devices. A truly digital edition should be formatted in a manner that is easy to read on as many devices as possible; android, Apple and Blackberry devices using different software like newsreaders, aggregators and websites. It should include live, dynamic content and newsfeeds.  To make it easy for readers to consume on screen, there needs to be a shift from text to graphics, from paragraphs of long sentences to brief, pithy statements. The potential for audio and video, staff contributions and feedback should be exploited. Forward thinking corporate communications departments release their company magazines as an app, accessible via employees’ own devices. Digital publishing software is not expensive but there is a recruitment and staff development challenge to technology firms trying to keep up with these developments. Designing and writing for digital publications on mobile devices requires very different skills to those traditionally required. This episode from Adobe TV presents some digital corporate communications casestudies, looking at publishing for tablets and mobile devices.

A few years ago, staff members might have pinned the company magazine up on the notice board, scribbled in the margin or took a photocopy home . Customers would probably turn down page corners of product catalogues to mark potential purchases. Digital editions are open to much more customization and repurposing, sparking online discussions and providing content for employees’ own personal, social networks and allowing customers to discuss and display products to their friends and peers and create scrapbooks and wishlists, publicly allying themselves to brands and attacking others. The success of and are evidence of  the public’s desire to share and showcase their commercial decision making.

As with good PR, a multichannel approach is required for corporate communications. Corporate communicators will need to invest in systems and processes that allow for the representation and repurposing of content across a range of media for a variety of audiences and contexts. Content management will be as important as content creation.  Monitoring and managing the life and evolution of that content in the hands of the audience after publication will be the biggest challenge of all.