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Dr. Joe Answers Xerox Opportunity Questions

For the past few years,

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: September 10, 2009

For the past few years, Xerox has offered an "Opportunity Panel" of industry experts, and against better judgment, including me. To help the panelists prepare, the company sends out a list of questions. For some reason, I like writing answers to the questions and not just thinking about them. I've posted the answers for the last few sessions.

It must be noted that the moderator never gets to the questions as they are proposed because the discussion is rather free-flowing and takes on a life of its own.

Current State / Challenges / Opportunities:

You all interface with printing companies daily, what do you see as the top 3 issues they are currently having today?

Some of the printers would give politically correct answers like the recession, or can't find the right skills in workers, or that the costs of materials are going up. The real problem is the difficulty adjusting to a shift in even the most mundane print work being replaced by virtually cost-free media like website downloads, e-mail, and especially social media. No one really wants to say that when the other reasons are much more straightforward and and easier to blame.

The extent of the change in communications is rather dramatic. Three years ago, there was no iPhone, and there are 30 million of them. Facebook has 250 million users, of which 65 million are using the mobile version as of last month. For the last 10 years and probably the last 15 or so, print and paper have been considered environmental dangers, and digital communications are not, no matter how muddy the facts are. Communications buyers see print as very expensive and lacking return on investment compared to the numerous alternatives they have now.

Printers have rarely been able to present a cogent discussion about media selection strategy nor participate in discussions about media allocation in terms of dollars and sense and ROI. A lot of the arguments on behalf of print unfortunately sound like the storekeeper in the Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch.

Discussions about the authority of print do not resonate with an audience who thinks that print is environmentally evil and should be avoided. The beauty of print pales in comparison to what can be done with video in many formats, such as YouTube and also on smartphones. Personalization in print can't stand up to the kind of personalization one gets by visiting sophisticated e-commerce businesses like Amazon.com, where the personalization is live and adaptive. Portability is no longer the benefit it was with the ability to get online most anywhere. The Amazon Kindle has a cellular connection. The iPhone was designed to with information access, especially rich media, in mind.

Becoming an expert in printing communications today is more than putting ink or even toner down on paper, what actions can a printer take to differentiate their value prop?

The value proposition comes from the objectives of the communications buyer. Many of them, especially small and mid-size businesses are seeking a particular sales result. They are not buying printing. They are buying a means to reach an objective. That varies by every client, and within clients, that varies by job or task.

The differentiation comes from increasing the ability of print buyers and communications directors and gaining the confidence of them by being proactive in their decisions. Sure, many print buyers know exactly what they want and why, and don't want some meddling printer interfering in their decisions. That can't always be changed. Even then, discussions about what that printer has done for other clients to increase their effectiveness, and lower their total costs of communications, may change that relationship.

Would you say that most commercial printers in the market today are now digital print believers? Why? Why not?

I'm not so certain what that means, and it's probably not important. The argument about whether digital is good enough has been put to rest the first time someone produced a profitable job, and started to repeat that event often.

Printers are businesspeople, and their goal is to satisfy a particular set of client needs. They have invested in various kinds of equipment for those needs. Some are web offset printers because they wanted to reach a particular part of the market, like magazines, cataloger, inserts, or anyone who was involved in long run work. Whether they are digital printing believers or not didn't matter because their business was not adaptable to digital printing.

Those markets have changed, and it has been e-commerce and digital media that have changed them, not digital printing. So even if they believe in digital printing, the markets with which they are most familiar are no longer the way they were.

In the end, that is the real point. None of the print consuming markets are the way they were, and won't be going back. All print businesspeople, of which only a small percentage are true entrepreneurs, look at the markets and craft interesting capabilities around the needs of the marketplace as it will be.

Even digital printing adopters are not exempt from the competition and creativity of digital media. So believing in digital printing is not an exemption from hard realities. You have to believe in creative approaches to client problems, regardless of technology.

What do you think is on the mind of the “new-to-digital” printer-for-pay company as they walk the Print09 floor?

They know their business is different and the market might be getting away from them. Their questions are not so different that those of printers decades past. Is there a market for what this device does? How do I sell it? How long will it take to become profitable? Which of my employees would be able to operate it? If the market changes, will I be locked into an investment that is flexible enough to adapt to those changes? How will it affect my current business? What kind of new business can I attract?

How would you advise a new-to-digital printer to ensure their business plan success?

Be flexible. Run it as a separate business with a totally new operating structure and philosophy, if they are part of an existing business. If not, get active with the creative professionals, and work to tie digital print with other digital media. Speak in terms of ROI as defined by the client; find out what parameters will determine whether or not an initiative will be considered to be successful. Work toward that. Making your client and your business contact there successful are essential. Business development is essential. Selling day-to-day won't change anything.

What would you tell a commercial printer who has digital print capabilities yet is struggling to grow his business?

Be flexible. Run it as a separate business with a totally new operating structure and philosophy. (Sound familiar?) The other ideas for the above question apply.

Green and Sustainability:

Have you seen initiatives like sustainability take a back seat with the economic downturn?

Not at all. Sustainability is being expressed by the steep decline in print and the prioritization of digital media and especially social media. Communicators feel that they are getting several benefits at once: cost reduction, speed to market in a way their audience wants, and an environmental benefit.

Can a printer who invests in sustainable measures now benefit revenue-wise from doing so in 2010?

Part of the measures has to be helping clients and prospects cut through the muddle and the assault against print. In the end, however, it's the cost of print in relation to the objectives of the client, so the discussion has to be very adept and knowledgeable about the entire process, and has to focus on ROI. Digital media have significant downsides, just like print does, so it's essential to have diversity in outbound communications, and is more so than ever before.

Social Media:

How are social networking sites like Face Book, Twitter, and LinkedIn being used, if at all, by the companies you are working with?

I haven't seen many print businesses using social media, though I do follow some on Twitter. I know that there are many salespeople are using LinkedIn. The business applications in B2B markets is still very new, and there's lots of room for creative use of them. If any printer specializes in small businesses, especially sole practitioners and home businesses, those are great opportunities to use them because there's no IT department that is really scared of security issues.


Let’s talk about operations, beyond the process - how important would it be for a printing company small or large to move towards an automated workflow environment across the entire print site?

It's critical. But this is one reason for setting up digital printing businesses separately. Sometimes getting legacy print business administration up to snuff for changeover to modern company-wide information systems can take lots of time.

There is a cultural issue here. No printer sells more because they have a good management information structure. Customers will detect the benefits over a period of time because they will see the efficiencies, especially when they have questions about orders or invoices. Printers will always give priority to technologies they feel will increase their sales or earn them new customers. That's a shame because lowering total operating costs has to be a constant effort. Modernizing the pressroom can lower costs, but sloppy sales and administration costs can nullify every cost reduction gained in that pressroom.

I am constantly surprised by how few printers actually know about Vistaprint, and even with it being a public company. Vistaprint is a company that produces products that most every printer considers to be too small to matter, and more of a bother than a benefit, and hires systems analysts instead of sales people. They spend 30% of their sales on marketing, they have an average order size of only $35, and their US sales were about $315 million in this last fiscal year, with a bottom line over 10%. I commented to someone that it was a good thing that the founders were not printers because they would have known that such a company could never exist.

Looking Ahead:

What are some of the key technology innovations a printing company should look into in 2010?

Quick Response codes are really simple to add to all kinds of print jobs, and a lot of print clients don't know what they are. It's the kind of thing that is easy to explain and demonstrate, and shows that as a printer, you can really add value to the print jobs that are being done. In conjunction with pURLs, it gives the recipient more choice in how they want to respond.

Data base management will become a very important task as client companies downsize and won't be hiring staff very quickly if and when the economy rebounds. Develop the capability of managing the logistics of multichannel or integrated media campaigns, and the data bases that drive them. There are still untapped opportunities for print to make e-commerce more effective.

The paradox, of course, is that interesting binding and finishing capabilities can help print jobs stand out and provide greater functionality and justification for print jobs as part of a comprehensive communications strategy. The more curious the printed piece, the better.

Going into 2010, any advice on what a printer can do whether they are a Commercial Printer, Quick or Franchise Printer, or even an Internet/Web printer?

Ignore the economic news. The forces of new communications technologies are far stronger than economic factors in terms of the use of print. Get to know them and use them, and figure out ways to adapt them for clients.

The economy will be sluggish for quite some time. Work hard to become an outsource resource for many of clients' logistical tasks.

Stop this stuff about marketing services. Don't forget that there are other departments in companies that need to communicate with target audiences, internal and external.

Read my book. :)

On second thought, read these two books before mine:

New Rules of Marketing and PR by David Meerman Scott
The Chaos Scenario by Bob Garfield

There, now I look objective and even-handed.

Your initiatives – aka shameless self-promotion ;-)

What are you currently working on that our audience may be interested in?

The WhatTheyThink Economics & Research Center on the our site will be expanding, and we will be having numerous new initiatives through 2010. One of them will be a book about trends in the economy, technology, print, and media.

Most of all, sign up for my Wednesday, September 23 economic webinar. We'll be reviewing the state of the economy, our latest survey of print businesses, and forecasting the economy, the print business, and content creation markets for 2010 and 2011. Somehow, we'll do it all in 40 minutes, with 20 minutes for questions and answers.

And don't forget to pick up a copy of "Renewing the Printing Industry" at the Xerox booth.

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



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