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FREE Special: Can Printers Really Be In the Communications Business?

Media Mix Changing -

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: April 11, 2003

Media Mix Changing -- Can Printers Really Be In the Communications Business?

For the past year or so, we’ve been hearing about value added services, a theme continued at this week’s On Demand show. As we’ve said many times, it’s not that print is changing, it’s that print’s role in the media mix is changing, and this is stressing traditional industry relationships and calling into question the vision and business assumptions that have been the supposed foundations of print business management since Gutenberg (or it seems that way!).

The Promotion Marketing Association and PROMO magazine stated that promotional spending outweighed advertising spending in 2002, with $233.7 billion of consumer promotion compared to $211.7 billion for consumer advertising.

I have observed for many years that the promotional spending part of the media mix is increasing, as is public relations spending. Of course, we have to consider the source of the data, but it is illustrative of an important point. This trend has been a longer-term trend than the Internet, and is a reminder that media mix decisions are very dynamic.

It’s always important to define what exact categories are included in promotion. Interestingly, many of them involve some kind of print support:

  • Premium incentives
  • Promotional products
  • P-O-P displays
  • Sponsorships
  • Coupons
  • Licensing
  • Specialty printing
  • Fulfillment
  • Games, contests, sweeps
  • Interactive/Internet
  • Research
  • Sampling
  • In-store services
  • Event marketing (just added)

Why the switch to promotions? Markets are more fragmented than ever, a sign that good segmentation strategies and flexibility are necessary to achieve communications goals. It also means that more is known about consumers within individual segments, and promotions can be better targeted -- and more effective -- than advertising. The nebulous concept of data base marketing, better characterized as precision-selected mailing and contact lists, is critical to making promotions work.

Implicit in this shift is accountability. There is a sense among media buyers and their clients that the effectiveness of advertising is uncertain, but that promotions are more measurable, and are therefore better tools in reaching communications goals.

What? Goals? Yes. But most people who sell printing don’t have a clue about what communications or goals are. By the time that they see a job, all they have are job specs, with no sense of the broader purpose of what they were being asked to print.

And this leads me to a favorite topic of mine, whether or not printers are really part of the communications business. For most printers, the answer is not only “no,” but also that they cannot be.

I believe that it can be misguided to suggest that printers can be part of that communications business, for some pretty basic reasons. This is not as simple as it might seem. This goes to the heart of how a business perceives itself, and should not be taken lightly.

To communicate, you need

  • a sender
  • a message
  • a conduit
  • a receiver
  • a means of feedback

Conventional printers are not in the communications business because:

  • they have no control of the message -- the client (the sender) does
  • they have no control of the recipient -- the client does
  • they have no control of the conduit -- the post office, UPS, the phone companies, and others do.
  • printers don’t measure effectiveness because they can’t affect effectiveness

We do know that printers have a relationship with business communications, but what is it? What role can printers play in communications? They can facilitate the communications process, and lift the burden of logistics from the client. I think that is something quite different that the usual “define yourself as being in the communications business.” Printers can have a stranglehold on communications logistics like few other companies. I believe that providing the physical logistics of communications is where the real value is.

How do printers get into the communications business if they really want to? The concept is simple; the implementation is difficult. The concept is that to be in the communications process you must own a piece of the communications process.

  • Become a sender: Some printers have redefined their businesses to become publishers of printed and electronic communications.
  • Develop messages: Other printers have added design and promotion creation services. This is not in the sense of having a designer on board to do simple tasks, but rather, a creative professional who helps clients articulate their message in words and images. This is the job of ad agencies and leading graphic designers.
  • Offer a conduit: Yet other printers have created “publications,” such as newspaper inserts, like those offered by Quad and Valassis.
  • Own the receivers: Still other printers have created and maintained proprietary data bases which they own and sell to interested parties. It might be maintaining lists of households in a geographic area, or business owners by geography or industry.
  • Become a means of feedback: There are printers who have actively pursued fulfillment operations, and who measure, track and report on campaign results, or fill orders from sales and marketing campaigns.

But for most printers, taking ownership of content is outside of their skills, so being a communications facilitator is a better strategy for them; that is, offering mailing, e-marketing, shipping logistics and other services that clients prefer to outsource.

So next time you hear the trite phrase “printers are in the communications business,” think long and hard about what it really means, and don’t treat the subject lightly.

On the Web:
See the Promotion Marketing Association Press Release

Also view the Powerpoint presentation

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The Overrated Power of First Impressions

A funny thing happened to me in 1985. An executive recruiter (yeah, in private we still say "headhunter") told me I had no future in the industry, and was quite sincere about it. I've always remembered that, and I always chuckle when it comes to mind. I've known lots of underestimated people in my life, and they've all been very successful. So many purported high-rollers have the attention spans of gnats and lack a depth of commitment to be successful for any extended period of time.

The potential for commitment to a cause doesn't always show. Over many years I've come to realize that the often popularized idea of the first five minutes being the most important part of a business relationship is very overrated. Like a marketing message, business positioning of one's own self is developed over time. The refining of a consistent and clear message is essential, and must be combined with constant repetition. First five minutes? You can't develop a reservoir of goodwill in five minutes. You can't develop a reputation in five minutes. While some people can turn you off in seconds, discovering what makes people tick and what skills they really have takes time. I’m sure you've heard the phrase "your reputation precedes you." That's what the real goal is: to never worry about the first five minutes because you've worked for years before that first meeting to establish a solid reputation.

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More Cool PC Tools from Dr. Joe

PowerPoint Templates: There is nothing worse than hitting the road and doing speaking gigs or panels, and finding out all of the speakers have the same PowerPoint templates. It’s like showing up at a party where everyone is dressed the same. I've bought some sets of templates over the years and have been quite pleased with them, but most of the providers will let you try some out for free. Try these sites:


For some really cool but expensive PowerPoint tools, try Crystal Graphics, who publishes all kinds of MS Office tools under the name PowerPlugs. They even have a terrific database of quotations that can be used to easily locate and insert relevant quotes from both famous and obscure people into Word or PowerPoint files. Sometimes they even have free PowerPoint templates. Presentation Pro at is also a good source.

If you don’t mind the idea of not using PowerPoint and and are comfortable working without the safety net of using someone else’s computer for backup, don’t forget Corel Presentations (part of the WordPerfect Office Suite, version 11 just released) and the pioneering but now mundane Lotus Freelance (part of Lotus SmartSuite from IBM, and some real concerns about the product continuing in the future). Corel and Microsoft often make alternative templates available on their web sites for free.

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Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink.com's Economics and Research Center.

What do you think? Please send feedback to Dr. Joe by emailing him at drjoe@whattheythink.com.

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