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Preferences and Actions are Vastly Different; The ROI of Print

In recent weeks,

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: March 24, 2014

In recent weeks, I have written about factors that complicate the interpretation of what seem simple market data. Survivorship, the effects of changes in the numbers of printing plants, was one of them. A more common problem for all market research has been the differences of “preferences” and “actions.” This topic became of great interest in the early 2000s when there were research studies purporting to show consumer preference for print compared to the Internet. We know what happened since. Preference and action are two different things. The former is an opinion, the latter is an action. For that reason, I have always been suspicious of consumer sentiment or similar surveys. What people do is much more important than what people say. Show me sales data, not purchase intention data. If you’re going to give me intention data, link it with how preferences tracked with sales data in the past. Never show me intention or preference data alone. While there were positive perceptions about the effectiveness of print, the costs of other media were much lower, which encouraged experimentation with them. Preferences and behaviors are not the same. As digital media began to take more and more of communications budgets, print was still faring well in market research about media, but shipment volumes were clearly decreasing. What was happening? There were several characteristics of print jobs that were changing:
  • Sizes (dimensions) of printed pages were changing to save paper costs and comply with postal regulations
  • Page counts were changing as print was used to refer readers to richer or more detailed content online
  • Colors and other effects, such as finishing, were being altered based on budgets or to gain a different aspect of attention from readers
  • Frequency, the most important of all, was changing. We’ve seen it most in magazines, as weeklies became biweeklies or semimonthlies, monthlies became quarterlies, or other changes were made.
Remember: 100% of the market preferred print when there were no alternatives. During a time of print demand decline, surveys were still showing a preference for print. Anyone relying on the surveys alone would have missed the underlying market trends, as communicators were shifting budgets and sending more of their dollars to digital media. Based on recent work by ExactTarget, smartphone and tablet users reported that they expected information to be available to them in any format they wanted at any time they wanted it. Responsive design is all the rage now, and for good reason. Designers and content owners used to have full command over the aesthetics of how their messages would be viewed. Now they are at the mercy of pixels wherever they may be, having to adapt their images and design elements with no control over the circumstance of their viewing. Responsive design is an affirmation that design is now a function of time and place that is in control of the viewer or user. This means that preference is not something that can be easily predicted because it is driven by device choice, convenience, and circumstance. What does a printer do? First, to have credibility, use responsive design in your digital communications. Second, realize that print has a place as one of the responsive design options. Paper is just as much a device that needs to be optimized as a screen. Putting print in that context might raise some eyebrows and get some interest. Third, bring digital design professionals into your client interactions. Understanding the difference between preference and action is essential. The main strategic action should be not to stake a claim in the range of preferences, but to enhance the convenience of choice. If information users don’t get a choice through your efforts, they’ll find it somewhere else. * * * Another area of preference and action are surveys about capital investment intentions. I've always tread carefully in this area. I recently wrote a report about Capital Investment intentions among printing companies for 2014.  (It's available for purchase on my e-commerce site). The ability to make a purchase within a time frame is related to several characteristics. The smaller the establishment, the more likely their purchase intentions are wishes, rather than intentions, and their purchase executions take two or three times the amount of time they plan. The larger the establishment, the more likely they have a budget process and the ability to fund capital purchases within a specified time frame. About 70% of all capital purchases in the commercial printing industry are made by less than 8% of the establishments. The biggest establishments make the biggest and most frequent purchases. That should not be a surprise. It's always been a rocky ride for me with some of the industry's vendors when we've had to deal with these data. Most purchase intentions surveys are not broken into establishment size categories, so it is common assume all intentions or purchase preferences are the same. They are not. Also, any intentions that are reported in surveys have to be linked to whether or not the purchases are officially budgeted, and if those budgets have been approved or submitted for approval. Sorting these issues out takes some time, experience, and a wary eye. Completing a survey about a purchase intention is not like writing a check for an actual purchase. Preference, or intentions, are not actions. This is how many capital equipment sellers get into trouble, especially after a few hot years of sales. They never seem to detect that they are running out of market, and often blame slowdowns in sales rates to the economy, banks being tight on credit, or other factors. You have to really know your demographics to make the product life cycle a strategic tool and not just a concept. * * * At some of my recent presentations, I asked printers in the audience if they would take jobs on an ROI basis. That meant they would be paid if and only if the job they printed met specific client goals. This might be something like a price per lead or number of orders or number of information requests. The general feeling that that they would not. But there is usually one hand that goes up, almost always by the printer known as the maverick in the group. Then I remind the audience that they’ve always worked on an ROI basis. They just never thought of it that way. The main proof of ROI is that they work with you again. There is more and more interest in proving the return on investment in a specific manner. In the past few years, marketers have commented that CFOs and their staffs are showing up at their planning meetings, demanding proof of results. Understanding the purpose and measurement of the print jobs you get is essential if you want a continuing relationship. Some ROIs are just gut feel. If it's not being measured, find a way to do it. The CFO or controller might be breathing down the necks of the marketing folks soon if they haven't already. # # #  

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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