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What should offset printers be doing to remain competitive
The other day I had a conversation with a colleague. He’s in printing. He mentioned he’d been to a conference where a speaker advised printers to branch out into non-printing services; such as social media, web design, etc. We both sort of chuckled and wondered where the staff, overhead, and resources would come from - not to mention the business. Sure the speaker simply stated your current sales staff could transition existing clients into customers for these “new services.” I think I laughed a bit of coffee out of my nose.
Since I wasn’t at the conference, listening to this speaker, I’ll simply acknowledge there are substantial obstacles and shortcomings in his proposal and skipped over my urge to ridicule. But the discussion did get me wondering… what marketing advice would I give to an offset printer client - both short term and long term. If I had been the speaker, what would I advise?
A Designer’s take on the “recent” history of printing
First, let’s look at where the printing industry stands today. Traditional offset printing isn’t going to completely disappear but it is in decline. And rightly so. During the 1980’s through the 90s there seemed to be an explosion of printers. I believe it occurred for a number of reasons.
1. Technology transformed printing. As it streamlined the prep of files and transitioned to an all digital workflow, printing became “easier” and quicker. Staffing needs dropped drastically, as did the level of expertise required. Not that printing reached the masses, but you no longer needed a room full of “strippers” and six men on a press. Today, you’ll find one or two people working in an air-conditioned prep department and maybe one or two people working a press. It’s simply become more streamlined.
2. Competition exploded. As the technology revolution progressed, and distinct disciplines faded, former color separators noticed larger printers were bringing “prep” in house, so they did likewise and started to buy presses. This in itself significantly added to the numbers of offset printers - but moreover cheap financing tipped the balance.
??From the 80s through the 90s financing multi-million dollar presses got much easier. Combined with the reduction in staff overhead necessary to run a printing shop, and the rise of Asian printing press manufacturers - you had the perfect storm. As I mentioned former color separation houses added presses. So existing printers upgraded their presses. And lots of “workers” decided they could start their own printing business - since financing was nearly free. Why work for someone else? And so suddenly there were more and more printers.
3. Excess capacity led to cheaper prices - which led to more printing. Feeding their new printing press behemoths meant hungry new printers bid as low as possible. This started a price war that continues today. When I started my design career, four color printing was expensive, we often did lots of two color jobs to control costs. But then, almost overnight, technology took hold, four color presses multiplied, and the reverse became true. Suddenly it was cheap to print four color and spot color jobs became more expensive. Printers kept their presses setup to run four color process. And as the desktop publishing revolution exploded - every business started to produce lots of full-color, printed material. After all, it was gorgeous and it was relatively cheap.
??I’m sure it was a magical time for printers - new and old. Lots of printing was happening at the same time costs decreased (as in staff). Yes, there was a continual reinvestment in technology, scanners, film output, computers, then platesetters, etc. But each increased productivity and potentially reduced staff overhead. If you walked into a printer in the early 80s they bustled with people. By the late 90s they hummed with computers and most of the former employees were selling real estate. ??
But by driving costs down, and giving away “prep” as a loss leader, printers had sealed their own fate. Margins that were slim got even slimmer. A single mistake could turn any job into a loss. And then, the technology they’d embraced evolved again. But this time it wasn’t pretty.
4. Technology bit back. In the mid 90s digital printing appeared as did this pesky thing call the world wide web. Both were mostly laughed at. Digital printing wasn’t anywhere near traditional offset quality and the internet was still a curiosity. But as the 90s ended and the 00s began - digital printing took off and so did the internet. And the results haven’t been pretty.
Sure, lots of other factors played a part, but as digital printing was accepted by the end-user and the internet connected everyone - less and less printing was necessary. And the printing that was done, was done in lower and lower quantities. Jobs moved from the big expensive offset press to digital output. The result, the printing industry is “right-sizing” as over capacity is being excised. Harsh? Yes. Inevitable? Also yes.
No offset printing isn’t going to disappear but…
As more and more communication shifts online less and less printing will be done. Add to this the evolution of smart phones and tablets and even books, magazines, and brochures could become endangered. Even Amazon recognized this early and created their own e-reader.
But what’s even worse, technology has removed distance barriers. It was unusual to use an out-of-state printer regularly back in the 80s and even the 90s. You worked with your local printer. But as printing has become a commodity bought on price; and technology has made it easy to work with anyone any where; it’s often cheaper and simpler to send your file electronically to a printer and wait for UPS to deliver it a few days later.
I’ll admit, I’ve used VistaPrint.com, Moo.com, and other services to produce quick, simple jobs. Or what’s even worse for local printers, my clients have used them, asking us to send them PDFs or JPEGs so they can use these online printers.
What offset printers should do to remain relevant in a wired world.
1. Accept the new normal. If you’re one of the lucky survivors recognize you’re tantamount to an endangered species. Like all businesses, what you are today will be unlike anything you are in ten years. Understand that change happens so fast today, that standing still won’t have you passed by - it’ll have you run over.
2. Offer digital. If you’re not already, and that would be astonishing, get into digital printing now. That may mean investing in several digital printing technologies - but it’s a must have in today’s world. It will also help with online marketing efforts - which I’ll get to in a moment
3. Add specialty printing and finishing. As more and more information is consumed on our smartphones, tablets, and what ever digital device is next - traditional offset printing will become the new disruptor. It will become the marketing oddity. Something unique that’s done when you want to standout. Think about it. Ten years ago no one had a smart phone. Now nearly everyone does. What will we all be staring at ten years from now? Or will it be like Google glasses - where we’re recording and absorbing everything we do electronically? In that world, receiving an interesting printed piece will be something special.
But during the transition, offering unique finishing options (affordably) will help to position your offset printing company as upscale. Not necessarily on price (since that’s more commodity driven now) but in regards to a better finished product. Even today, in a digital print heavy world, when I see a smartly die-cut or foil stamped piece, I take notice. Simple four-color printers will simply not be able to exist along side digital technologies.
4. Add mailing expertise. This is another no-brainer that successful printers are already doing. Especially those heavily involved in direct mail printing. But normal clients often want to do simple mailings but aren’t well versed in doing so. Nor do they keep up with mailing regulations. If you can handle the sorting, addressing, and mailing for them it’s one more feather in your cap. Or simply manage the process with a mailing house partner. Though the the later scenario would incur an investment in time with scant compensation.
5. Do fulfillment. There are two options in this scenario. You can gear up and process data feeds from clients and fulfill orders for customers - sending things like new member welcome packages, etc. Or you can simply make it easier for customers to reorder standing materials. Automate reminders or “tickles” in CSR speak to reorder materials at set intervals or when any inventory gets low.
6. Up-sell digital publishing. This may be a simple process. And while it won’t appeal to everyone - by taking advantage of Quark and Adobe tools you can offer to create e-pub documents of books, brochures, etc. It can be a nice add-on service. Especially as the world goes more and more digital.
7. Promote yourselves better locally and online. A quick visit to a few local printers leaves me shaking my head. Optimize your websites!!! Most of the sites I visited were lack-luster in design, poorly optimized, and no where near mobile-ready. It’s not enough to simply have a website anymore. And with distance no longer being a barrier - I’d invest heavily in upgrading your website to offer easy file submission (not just an ftp page), online proofing, reordering, and even quick purchasing of commodity items.
8. Yes, be connected and sell your printing online. Create an interface that allows easy purchase of… “gulp” commodity priced items. Offer 8.5 x 11 tri-panel brochure printing for various quantities at set prices - that are highly competitive. Hearsay you say? No, it’s simply an acknowledgment that a certain portion of businesses want instant gratification and pricing. It’s the world you work in now.
9. Yes, participate in social media. It should be an extension of your customer service. At the very least, monitor the online discussion about your printing company so you can see when there’s a problem. Yes, many today will rant about you online via Facebook and Twitter rather than calling to complain. And when the rant happens online 1000s see and read it.
??If you can generate interesting content or have smart printing advice then by all means add a blog to your site and share your insights with the social media world. Offer to answer questions or solve problems. But realize, once your start you can’t stop socializing and it must be done regularly. So make sure you’re committed.??
And no, I wouldn’t offer to sell it as a service. Nor any digital capability as a service unless you’re willing to invest heavily in new staff and expertise. Some may be able and ready to do this, but most won’t, and you’ll end up simply grabbing low-hanging fruit that’s more of drain. Stick with your expertise… or if you really must, prepare and add new people if you’re venturing into the already crowded market of social media.
And if you’re going to add “new” services - don’t make them loss leaders. Learn the lesson. Have them operate as independent profit centers. If they’re not adding to your bottom line they’re subtracting from it. More importantly, don’t expect existing print sales people to sell these new services. Nor anticipate wide adoption from existing clients. Your sales people are knowledgable and good at selling printing - they’ll either be disinterested in or unable able to sell new digital media services effectively. It’s not like selling hamburgers and hotdogs - it takes a while to understand new digital technologies well enough to be able to sell them. Further, breaking down and changing your customer’s perception of you (as a printer) will also be difficult.
10. Don’t openly compete with your customers. Admittedly, a little peeve of mine, I won’t use a printer that sells “design” as a service on their website. So why would I use a printer that offers web design, social media services, or something that I’m trying to “sell”? I think printers might finally be realizing this since lots of the sites I visit today don’t brag about their design services anymore. But really, this is simply another problem you’re creating by alienating your “industry clients” and by diluting your overall marketing message. Are you a printer? a designer? a social media expert?
11. Invest in your sales team. One to one selling will likely become more and more unique. Relationships are what binds customers to companies and your sales people are the face of your company. I know that I’ve followed sales people from one firm to another since they’re who I have the relationship with. You may believe your printing company is unique and special - but you’re not. Sorry, you’re just one of many firms out there that puts ink on paper. So when my “contact” your “salesperson” switches companies - I go with them since they are who I interact with and trust. So treat your sales team well and keep them happy - as long as they’re performing.
12. Considering hiring a marketing agency. In an increasing commodity type industry, standing out and being recognized is going to help nudge you towards the goal line when selling. A marketing firm can help you improve your website, help you navigate social media, and help you keep up with the changing landscape. They’ll streamline your messaging and they’ll create great “promotional” pieces that are examples of your digital and offset printing abilities.
Yes, many of my insights are common knowledge and currently applied by offset printers. And they’re probably the successful ones that will survive. But again, this blog post was inspired by the conversation I had with a colleague after he listened to a speaker bloviate about how printers should be selling web design and social media services to their clients. It’s simply not practical without a huge investment in staff and expertise and technology. Nor is it advisable for most.
Why listen to me? No I’m not a printing expert, but I do work with and interact with printers regularly. I’m a designer and marketing professional that’s been around a while so I do have some knowledge of the industry. And I can confidently state, I don’t believe the solution to the problems facing the printing industry is to do less printing or to sell stuff that’s not printing related.
Feb 03, 2013
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