Modern Life

Small business standouts: How printed materials rise above the digital clutter

Unique and creative print pieces are a powerful way to break through the influx of ads, alerts, posts, and emails customers receive.

By Deborah Lynn Blumberg — February 20, 2020

When customers of Bibliophilic Excursions open their monthly subscription box, they find not only the books they’ve been promised, but also a few personal touches. To the presumed delight of their subscribers, sisters and co-founders Yvette and Erika Walker also include a thank-you letter printed in-house on their HP inkjet printer, a personalized bookmark printed with Vistaprint, and a card requesting an online review — which Yvette says has led to an uptick in positive feedback. The sisters also print promotional postcards to entice new customers.

“Print materials differentiate us,” says Yvette Walker. “We don’t have the marketing funds to saturate people with expensive digital ads. Print makes being a small business owner accessible.”

For Bibliophilic Excursions and small businesses like it, business cards, postcards, coasters, and even customized tissue paper can create memorable connections and authentic experiences that simply can’t be replicated in an email. These printed materials are critical to capturing attention and building long-term relationships at a time when consumers have so many choices and are inundated with digital messages everywhere they go online. The average person is exposed to 1,000 banner ads, emails, texts, notifications, social media posts, and other digital messages every day. 

A recent HP survey of North American small business owners and their customers found the average person receives 43 promotional emails a day — and ignores more than 80% of them. Meanwhile, 53% of people are more likely to read information from a business when it’s handed to them versus sent via email.

“Print can bring ideas and brands to life in a way that technology can’t,” says Deepak Masand, global head of print marketing at HP. “When business owners focus exclusively on digital marketing, they’re missing out on the power of print.”

“Small business owners tend to have their own unique vision, and print can help them make that vision tangible for their customers.”

—Deepak Masand, global head of print marketing at HP

A preference for print

Consumer neuroscience researchers at Temple University have found significant differences in the way our brains process digital versus physical ads. In a recent study conducted for the U.S. Post Office, Temple researchers found that subjects processed digital ads more quickly, but paper ads engaged them for longer and elicited more activity in brain areas connected with value and desire. What’s more, a week after the study, participants remembered the physical ads more and showed a greater overall emotional response to them.

Paper is particularly good for branding and communicating a business’ mission, says Roger Dooley author of business strategy books Friction and Brainfluence

“Paper has multiple dimensions — length, weight, thickness, texture, edges — that enables the customer to experience it in multiple ways,” he says, and ultimately spend more time engaged with the material. “You can shape a mailer like an elephant if you want to. It’s something you really can’t do in digital.”

courtesy of MOO

In recent years, small business owners have embraced unique business cards printed with unexpected shapes, materials, and textures.

Breaking through with business cards

Business cards have long been a mainstay for small businesses, and in recent years, owners have embraced unexpected shapes, materials like metal or wood, and techniques to add texture like embossing. For example, to engage multiple senses and tie in to the title of his book Friction, Dooley’s own business cards include a gritty strip printed on the back. “You can’t help but flip it over,” he says. “It gets a good reaction.” 

Famed hacker and security consultant Kevin Mitnick created a metal business card with a flat, removable set of lock-picking tools. Companies can even 3D print a business card, giving the card texture and a unique look.

At AHA, a brand strategy and creative agency in Vancouver, Washington, employee business cards feature puzzles like a maze and a connect-the-dots game to create a moment of engagement for recipients.

That ability to customize and get creative has kept business cards relevant even as digital alternatives continue to pop up. “The industry is still booming,” says Brendan Stephens, global creative director at online print and design company Moo, which sells over 250 million business cards a year.

Moo’s in-house product design team is constantly researching new materials, paper sizes, and styles to keep up with customer interest, Stephens says, and in recent years, more customers are choosing stand out finishes like foils, spot gloss, or extra-thick Luxe cards.

“In an increasingly digital world, people are looking to make more impactful connections and first impressions in real life to break through the noise,” he says.

Courtesy of AHA

Creative agency AHA creates an annual book for clients featuring essays, poetry, photography, paintings, and other original pieces.

Making connections that last

Since 1998, AHA has sent hundreds of copies of a 100-plus page book, called Praxis, featuring essays, poetry, photography, paintings, and other pieces created by agency staff, to clients as a holiday gift.

“It’s intended to build relationships with our clients, and allows them to see us in new and different ways,” says AHA founder and managing principal Betsy Henning, who adds that many clients keep a collection of the volumes on a bookshelf in their office. She says that finding new ways to forge a personal connection with clients is even more important these days, when travel budgets have shrunk and businesses are holding fewer in-person meetings. 

Boston real estate agent Steven Cohen produces thousands of copies of magazine-quality reports he mails twice a year to residents in Boston neighborhoods. Cohen assembled a team of consultants — a cover artist, a graphic designer, a writer and a printer — to create the 26-page publications, which include features articles on local residents, nonprofits, and businesses, as well as market metrics.

While the reports are available online, Cohen says the investment has helped his business stand out in the area’s competitive real estate market. “In marketing, sometimes the best thing you can do is zig when they zag,” says Cohen. “With the proliferation of everything digital, people have become desensitized. They appreciate receiving printed copies.”

For small businesses like Cohen’s, that appreciation can build trust and loyalty, and be a springboard for a long-term connection with potential and current customers. In HP’s survey, over 71% of people say they keep printed materials like menus and business cards.

Yuling Designs

Printed materials can create memorable connections with customers that simply can’t be replicated in an email.

Standing out with tangible treats 

At Paige’s Bakehouse in Round Rock, Texas, Paige Perry posts plenty of pictures of her pies, cookies, and brightly colored, unconventional wedding cakes on Instagram. But she also invests heavily in print materials featuring bold, geometric designs created by Yuling Designs, like custom note cards she packs with each order, a glossy tri-fold pamphlet, menus, and colorful business cards. 

“I want customers to be able to eat with their eyes first, and they definitely do that by looking at our printed pieces,” Perry says. “It looks like we went the extra mile by printing something of this quality, and our customers love it.”

HP’s Masand says printed materials are particularly effective for small business owners, because they tap into the spirit of entrepreneurship and desire to run their business their way. “Small business owners tend to have their own unique vision, and print can help them make that vision tangible for their customers,” he says.


Find creative, memorable ways to connect with your customers with printers for small businesses.