Over the last couple of decades, almost every aspect of life has entered the realm of digital: music, movies, books, photos, video, brochures, documents, tickets, and mail. While it’s tempting to reflexively deem digital a superior choice—it’s typically a lot cheaper and faster, after all—a deeper examination reveals that the question about physical versus digital is more complicated than many acknowledge.
In reality, each has pros and cons—and in some cases one or the other might be better for a particular person or situation. For example, one of my passions is world travel, and while I’m perfectly content to peruse websites of alluring destinations, I prefer to pick up an old-fashioned paper brochure or catalog to learn about Greenland or the Galapagos. Yet, at the same time, I desire digital tickets and boarding passes.
Is this contradictory? I would argue no. After all, even the best websites or digital brochures lack the emotional impact of pretty pictures on high-quality paper that are arranged in an appealing way. However, a digital boarding pass is nothing more than a utilitarian object to get me from Point A to Point B. It has no emotional appeal, and it certainly isn’t going to persuade me to open my wallet.
It’s Not a Binary Equation
Any discussion about digital versus analog marketing starts with a basic recognition: upwards of 90 percent of all transactions continue to take place in the analog world. The reason is quite simple: In many cases, people like to touch and see things before purchasing them.
So, when it comes to selling—whether we’re talking about driveway pavers, a Mediterranean cruise, or Internet routers—the key is to thoroughly understand what value a marketing campaign delivers in a digital or physical format, and then decide on the optimal approach.
In some situations, digital is clearly superior. But in other situations, it is not. What’s more, a situation might be somewhat fluid, depending on where a prospect or customer is in the buying cycle, their age, and how they consume information. As noted above, for example, I may start searching for a vacation online by browsing through a website, but then want to hold an actual brochure before booking a trip. In some cases, a paper brochure might be easier to use than a website or a digital brochure.
In a world where the signal-to-noise ratio is often deafening, marketers and sales professionals must step back and assess what works best in a particular situation. This necessitates an understanding of both analog and digital signals along with behavioral data to guide the process. Lacking data and analytics, marketers often end up flying blind—which boosts the odds of crash and burn.
Break Through All the Noise
Ultimately, it’s not what a marketing campaign costs, it’s what value it generates. Just as Apple packages its devices in gorgeous boxes that cost oodles money, your objective should be to package your message in the most attractive way possible. The goal is to create a bond with consumers through the same type of emotional connection.
When brands do this right, it’s possible to transform direct mail and physical artifacts into a competitive advantage. What’s more, organizations can measure, personalize, and automate both digital and physical messaging to maximize the impact of each—and both together. The key to success? Have systems in place to detect the appropriate signals and transform them into actionable data.
With all this information on hand, it’s possible to pinpoint where customers are in a product or service lifecycle—and ensure that they receive the right personalized and customized message at the appropriate time. It’s also possible to brand these messages effectively and create the right combination of physical and digital touchpoints.
At that juncture, brand affinity becomes more than a talking point; exceptional results often follow. In a best-case scenario, a multisensory experience takes shape, and an organization elevates marketing and sales to a new and previously unattainable level. No longer does the discussion revolve around digital versus analog—it becomes far more nuanced and finely tuned.
Suddenly, an organization can view marketing and sales within the context of what tools, techniques, and strategies work best and how to harness them to connect with consumers and gain emotional buy-in. When organizations finally step off the digital-automation hamster wheel, they’re equipped to harness the synergy of both approaches and enhance the value of their brand.
Samuel Greengard is a veteran journalist who writes about nexus of business and technology. His latest book is the “Internet of Things” (MIT Press, 2021).