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Commentary & Analysis

What is the Future of Print?

What could arguably be deemed the strongest of the printing industry trade associations is now surveying its members, asking them to describe whether the future of "print" is grim or bright. They will get a wide range of responses, and setting aside the value of reporting to their members what those members already think, the question itself is much too broad.

By Wayne Peterson
Published: August 11, 2014


What could arguably be deemed the strongest of the printing industry trade associations is now surveying its members, asking them to describe whether the future of "print" is grim or bright.

They will get a wide range of responses, and setting aside the value of reporting to their members what those members already think, the question itself is much too broad. Instead, I'd like to propose a series of different questions that cut to the core. Here they are:

  • What is the future of print as a process?
  • What is the future of print as a medium?
  • What is the future of print as a business model?
  • What is the future of print as an industry?
  • What is the future of print as a trade association?

The Future of Print as a Process

Print as a process has a bright future because our industrialized society continues to "mark on substrates." For most of us, that means applying text and images (often together) to paper and other substrates for a wide variety of purposes. The versatility and diversity of applications guarantee that "print" will thrive. Certainly digital technology will displace some uses of print. However, many of those printed products whose demise has long been a foregone conclusion refuse to vanish. From the telephone directory to the lowly business card, there are applications for which print remains competitive with any digital alternative. While offset lithography is diminishing, inkjet and other digital imaging technologies are delivering the same sorts of printed products which are fulfilling the same applications. Will overall demand continue to trend downward? Certainly. Will pricing pressure continue as demand falls? Absolutely. But will print as a process vanish? I wouldn't bet on it.

The Future of Print as a Communication Medium

Print as a communication medium is certainly diminishing. Newspapers are the sharp point of that spear. Magazines and other periodicals have declined more slowly, because even younger readers often prefer the tactile experience and all the other characteristics of print. The print v. digital discussion often misses attributes of print that help it resist erosion. Print is self-archiving. Print requires no external power source. Print requires no separate device with which to interface. Print is easily and inexpensively replaceable if damaged or lost. Print requires no learning of a user interface beyond a third grade education, which is where most of us really began learning to read with comprehension. Print's chief disadvantage is distribution. And its future as a communication medium is largely tied to the fortunes of the USPS. When distribution is simply far too expensive to sustain, print declines. And every USPS rate case which has raised periodical and standard mail rates has been mirrored by a decline in print volume. Will print as a medium vanish? That's also very unlikely. For certain purposes, print's effectiveness will be worth its expense, even with the distribution challenge it faces. Direct Mail marketing is proving that every day.

The Future of Print as a Business Model

The future of print as a business model is a more interesting and pertinent question. For nearly a century, nearly all printing firms have had parallel business models. Commercial print as a stand-alone business emerged as newspapers ceased being the community provider of print other than their own publications. And commercial printers have nearly identical "job shop" business models. I'd argue that the business model itself is creating the most pain. In fact, it is the job shop business model that creates too little customer value to remain viable and relevant even while print as a process and print as a medium retain a good deal of viability. The "job shop" business model has four simple components: sell it, make it, ship it, and bill for it. Inevitably, that's led to businesses with very simple business structures: sales, manufacturing, distribution, accounting. While many printing industry firms have grown enough to add other functional departments, those four remain the core elements of their business models. And that business model is turning into a sea anchor for far too many. The job shop business model relies on winning the opportunity to do what someone else has already determined needs doing. That means selling is all about capturing existing demand. If demand is diminishing, the job shop business model has nothing to say and no means to respond. Because nothing about it is focused on creating new demand where none existed before. So the viability of the commercial printing business model is under the most direct threat of irrelevance and obsolescence. The great good news is that those legacy printing companies who have recognized this threat and altered their business models (which is much more than offering new products and services) are creating strong and sustainable futures for themselves. They just don't define themselves as "printing companies" any longer.

The Future of Print as an Industry

What's the future of print as an industry? If "an industry" is defined as a large number of companies structured almost identically and offering the same products and services, then the "printing industry" is seriously threatened. Every successful business strategy is based on differentiation. Success depends on being and acting different than one's competitors. When it is more and more difficult to compare a company with others, a sustainable competitive advantage for that company is usually growing. But if we pair that kind of change with the declining viability of the job shop business model and displacement of some print by digital alternatives, an industry of "printing companies" will continue to shrink and ultimately vanish. That doesn't mean that the companies themselves or the great people in them will disappear. Rather, it means that those firms simply won't be "printing companies" any longer. They will be something else, most likely many different “something elses.” And that’s a great thing.

The Future of Print as a Trade Association

So, what's the future of print as a trade association? That's perhaps the most immediately pertinent question. An "industry" of "printing companies" is being deconstructed as many of those companies reinvent themselves (many defining themselves as part of their customer's industry segments). As that happens, the future for trade associations becomes murky indeed. When the member business models aren't almost identical, and their needs are no longer at least parallel (if not uniform) then any association is hard pressed to create meaningful value for a broad enough swath of member companies to sustain itself. Let's face it: association members remain members when sufficient value is being created for member companies, their owners, and their employees. But when the needs of the members are sufficiently diverse, an association cannot create services and programs with an appeal broad enough to attract member participation and loyalty. And that's what's facing the the legacy printing associations now. Legacy printing associations are having a harder and harder time retaining members.

Attendance at meetings and conferences is declining. Participation in educational programs of all kinds is more and more difficult to sustain or build. It's easy to blame those trends on the decline in the number of "printing establishments" or declining demand for print and the financial condition of printing companies. However, association programs intended to help member companies do more of what they’ve always done (selling, manufacturing, distributing, and accounting) are as much the problem. Take selling and marketing as one good example. Most conference presentations on sales and marketing are still focused on capturing existing demand. Very few of them even mention creating demand. Fewer still deal with methods to discover what customers want and need, and then develop services to fulfill those wants and needs. So, if demand for print is declining and demand capture isn't working well, then learning how to do better what's already not really working isn't helpful. And association members know it. Owners of member companies tend to be bright folk. When association offerings aren't speaking to what association members are having to face and to do, it's easy to understand why those owners look elsewhere for actionable information and help.

Creating a Future for Print?

Two of the fastest ways to see a viable strategy are to look at the business model, and to look at how a company behaves with its customers. So don’t claim “transformation” if your business model is still based on “selling-making-distributing-billing” that which someone else has already decided to do. Don’t claim transformation if you’re fielding a sales force only equipped to capture existing demand. Real marketers do neither. And those are the firms that are growing.

Wayne Peterson is the Principal of the Black Canyon Consulting Group Inc.  Wayne’s practice focuses on three areas: strategy and marketing, rapid sales growth, and customer retention. Reach for Wayne directly at 540 751-0852 or wmp@blkcyn.com.



By Eddy Hagen on Aug 11, 2014

Excellent article! A must read for everybody in 'the industry'. Food for thought for everybody in 'the industry'.


By William Ray on Aug 11, 2014

Printing is in its' final throws in terms of the large scale associations that we are historically used to. Like the vendor base, associations will downsize, merge, disappear and finally there will be none of significance. Nothing has changed in the last thirty years or so that would correct this and I believe that the industry is both too conservative and much too lacking in technological foresight to turn this around.

I recall talking to a Scitex executive some years back. I asked him (as a geek contractor building technology for Scitex) what the strategic plan was. His answer was that the company was planning to be the last man standing.

Generally speaking the technical base of printing needs to change and this is a problem that may not be solved. The industry needs to attract a level of technologist that it does not understand and cannot really take advantage of.

Printing, as opposed to the printing industry, is doing quite well in the laboratory and in high tech manufacturing. If you have an LCD display you have purchased a (partially) printed product. Printing has a larger future than even the wildest dreams of our industry. However, pretty pictures on paper does not have much of a large scale future.


By Barry Walsh on Aug 11, 2014


I enjoyed reading your thoughtful article. While I could go off on the Association Tangent I will focus on the printer side of your equation.

Print is under extreme pressure from electronic competition that will certainly not cease, it will increase. Your thoughts on the broken model of job shop printing makes a lot of sense. Conversely, many printers are thriving inside of this model and actually accelerating that cycle by implementing low touch web to print workflow models. Many of the rest have incorrectly concluded that that ship sailed with Vistaprint. If you want to pull your head out of the sand and take a look at a web to print solution, Keenprint and Presswise are 2 up and comers among several that should be reviewed after you see the industry standard, EFI's Digital Storefront.

Now common sense would tell you that the key to success here is limiting the possible products to a simple few. I had the pleasure of visiting a leading web to print outfit last week with over 50,000 SKU's.

Other printers are fighting this broken model by segmenting their marketing. One portion job shop, another built on a foundational product like variable data calendars, business cards, or the like. These products often being sold via web to print, either B2B or B2C. Another market segmentation tool to contribute to overhead that has been used forever is taking on a percentage of your business from the GPO, filling profit sucking production holes with break even work.

The dangerous model (or trap) I think most important to consider is the Iron Triangle of Service, Price and Quality. The printers in the job shop model that are still fighting the Iron Triangle with no unique capability or other solutions to break it are inevitably circling the drain.

I have the pleasure of working with a growing number of forward thinking printers that are using Scodix Digital Enhancement to bring a new, exciting and compelling value to their customers. Adding 3D to a traditional substrate cashes in on the buzz around 3D print, and opens up new accounts that add work to every piece of equipment, creating a rising tide of business that is floating all the boats in their shop, breaking the Iron Triangle of Service, Price and Quality.

Barry Walsh
Business Development Manager
Scodix, Inc.


By Barry Walsh on Aug 11, 2014

Correction, printers should pull their heads from the sand, not you Wayne...



By Gary Lundberg on Aug 11, 2014

Great, clear, and on-target perspective of the changes we are living through.

In the areas of "Medium" and "Business Model" I would also add the cost of substrate, paper - especially as it is a necessity of distribution. Paper and distribution together can easily equal 70% of print medium's cost.

It is interesting that with the rise of smartphones and tablets, plus internet data access, much of digital content distribution and viewing cost is shifted to the end consumer. Consumers maintain much of the cost in distribution and viewing infrastructure. In most print these costs are still borne by the publisher and marketer. How many big digital and hardware brands foresaw and played this shift? I think there are many unthought of and intriguing business models in how consumers might choose print.

Process and distribution time to the consumer is also a big factor. Watching the growth of print which migrates to real-time, trigger- and data-driven, self-configured and on demand; generated from the semantic web and other more focused systems; this will also offer nice future clues.

I agree with the more hidden factor of print-emedded-in-manufacturing that Mr Ray brings up: "Printing, as opposed to the printing industry, is doing quite well in the laboratory and in high tech manufacturing. If you have an LCD display you have purchased a (partially) printed product. Printing has a larger future than even the wildest dreams of our industry. However, pretty pictures on paper does not have much of a large scale future."


By Charles Gehman on Aug 12, 2014

There is a lot that is correct here.

But generally speaking it is entrepreneurs, innovative companies and technologists (perhaps unfortunately agree very much agree with what Bill Ray posted) who will give us a future.

I think very few except market researchers, aforementioned industry Associations, and consultants benefit from the incredible amount of macro-level analysis that we read. It's not practical, it doesn't give us information we can act on. Trends aren't strategies and tactics.

Forward-looking people in the industry are focused on building things they can bring to market, to help their customers achieve success, and in turn profit their own endeavors.

The rest of the participants will be following so many who have already gone out of business.


By James Daly on Aug 12, 2014

Wayne, thanks for your voice is telling it like it is. More specifically, job shop mentality is a precarious future; there is no value created other than the value of the end product.

This fact has been masked immeasurably by the laser focus on manufacturing efficiency and consolidation, thereby optimizing current reality at the expense of future opportunity. It has been further masked by a lack of maturity and discipline regarding developing new products / services / markets: If the new idea didn't meet the "silver bullet test" it was discarded.

Put more directly, the focus on cost reductions and manufacturing efficiencies are killing you. There is no upside when demand is decreasing. The focus has to be "creating value customers see and are willing to pay for" (actually a book title).

Yes, the payments on the press don't stop. But the market for print as a standalone product isn't going to fill it either.


By Patrick Henry on Aug 12, 2014

“Print requires no learning of a user interface beyond a third grade education, which is where most of us really began learning to read with comprehension.”

I’m not sure that this represents an edge for print media. Today, by the time most kids complete third grade, they've developed user interface skills that give them plenty of opportunity to improve their reading comprehension online as well as in print. There once was a time when print’s survival was assured because all education was print based. But, I think that those days are pretty much behind us now. People will continue to use print, but more from nostalgia than from necessity in many applications.


By Rossitza Sardjeva on Aug 20, 2014

Great! Excellent aarticle, must read for everyone in our industry.


By Pascal Smits on Nov 12, 2014

Very insightful article and a great read.
Print has been suffering greatly from the rise of digital media over the past decade, but i believe the playing field is leveling out and we are soon to reach a point of "balance" between the 2 media's. Print has become a niche product that i believe will always have a place in society.

From a business perspective i agree with Charles: Things have shifted, mass-media has shifted to digital and printing companies cannot dwell on things that worked in the past. Entrepeneurs who innovate or specialize will thrive. We just published a post on some amazing new print techniques http://www.printingdeals.org/specials/interactive-print-ads.html and while most of them may not be plausible at this moment, i believe this is the direction printed media is heading into: A niche product that offers more value then digital alone. Think NFC technology, conductive inks, the craft of Letterpress, or combinations of paper with digital.
Everyone and anyone can print from their home or office nowadays: Print shops will have to focus on innovating and offering value that is not accessible to the mainstream.

Quote: "Some time in the future, we will discover that paper is a miraculous product that enables communication and recycles back to paper."


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