Washington, DC — I’m kind of a fan of Gary Shteyngart. His satirical, epic novels tend to be both absurd and very real explorations of the way we live now. And, of course, he always seems to uncover one of my fears and take it to even more irrational ends than I can myself. In Super Sad True LoveStory that fear was the death of books.

In Shteyngart’s near-future world, people text-scan for data and regard books as distasteful, papery-smelling anachronisms. That’s right. In this future, book readers are found out and shamed by the very odor their decaying novels leave on them.

The fast growth of eReaders and iPads did lead me to pare down my own book shelves, but it also left me holding onto my favorites almost as desperately as Super Sad‘s conflicted hero:

“You’re my sacred ones,” I told the books. “No one but me still cares about you. But I’m going to keep you with me forever. And one day I’ll make you important again.” 

Today books have a new hero: American University’s Naomi S. Baron. She found that printed materials are better for your mind. And, that digital natives still prefer them.

The book is called Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World. Its premise is one we’ve talked about here before: holding information in your hands, holds it in your memory.

The challenge of digital reading starts with distraction:

Almost all (92%) of the people Baron surveyed said they concentrate best when reading a hard copy. The explanation is hardly rocket science: most of our little devices have internet connections, which means they’re full of temptations and distractions that are just a single touch away. The ding of a text message, the impulse to just order something from Amazon, a quick check of Facebook … it all pulls us away from the content in hand.

(Shamefully, just a few minutes ago I clicked on a pair of Tory Burch polka dot flats in a banner ad when I was supposed to be reading one of Baron’s own articles).

We also tend to skim and scan on screens whereas print materials encourage deeper comprehension.

“The internet,” she writes, “entices us to skew the balance away from continuous reading, much less close reading, and toward reading on the prowl.”


The preference print does have interesting generational divides. It skews younger. Pew studies show the highest print readership rates are among those ages 18 to 29, and the same age group is still using public libraries in large numbers.

Why am I telling you all this on a blog post you’re surely reading on one small screen or another? Because there are three meaningful lessons for healthcare marketing here.

  1. The biggest one is this: Made-for-print materials can’t simply be posted on the web. Those screens require different kinds of experiences and communication techniques to earn people’s time and attention. NPR recently created a really powerful example of how long-form content can be recreated for the screen in this story on the end of Chicago’s public housing.
  2. Print materials have a big role in healthcare communications – especially if they’re personal and keepable. Artifacts earn more continuous reading and deeper comprehension. Plus, they may still be physically present when that email or digital ad is lost deep in a sea of browser tabs.
  3. Age doesn’t dictate preference. It’s all about how people are going to use the content, not what devices they might be carrying.

About the Author:

As Managing Director of Innovation and Insights for Syneos Health Communications, Leigh is responsible for building and scaling a global team of healthcare experts who together help life science leaders better understand the complex lives, influences and expectations of their customers. Specifically, they uncover actionable insights that fuel empathy and creativity; lead co-creation events that let marketers learn from peers, trends, and new possibilities; and help clients identify the most valuable and useful new customer experiences to create.

Leigh has worked with Fortune 1000 companies to craft their digital, mobile, social and CRM strategies for nearly 20 years.She’s worked for category-leading agencies in retail, public affairs, B2B technology, and higher education. Prior to moving to Syneos Health Communications, she held several leadership roles at our largest agency, GSW.  There, she founded an innovation practice fueled by the zeitgeist and spearheaded digital and innovation thinking across the business.

Leigh has taken a special interest in complex healthcare products that can change lives in meaningful ways. She was recently a strategic lead on the 3rd largest launch in pharmaceutical history: Tecfidera. Before that she had keys roles with Eli Lilly Oncology, Abbott Nutrition, Amgen Cardiovascular, and Eli Lilly Diabetes.

A critical part of Leigh’s work is trends and new ideas. Every year, she convenes a group of trend watchers from across our global network to identify the shifts most critical to healthcare marketers. This year, she led over 250 experts to experts to focus on the most important changes in the commercial, consumer, marketing, digital and healthcare landscapes. (See reports at trends.health)

Leigh is a sought-after writer and speaker. Recognized as one of the most inspiring people in the pharmaceutical industry by PharmaVoice and Top 10 Innovation Catalysts of 2017 by MM&M, Leigh also was recognized  as a Rising Star by the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association (HBA) for her overt passion, industry thought leadership and significant contributions in new business, strategy and mentoring.