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I Was Wrong – Don't Stay Ahead of Your Clients – Stay Ahead of Their Bosses


By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: May 15, 2014

It's more than 10 years since the first trade show presentation that led to the book “Renewing the Printing Industry.” The technologies and the marketplace that brought about that presentation and book have changed. We're in the process of re-evaluating that book's prescriptions, and we've come to a conclusion about the admonition to “ignore your competitors, stay ahead of your customers.” I was wrong. It was good advice then; it's not now. It has to go one step upstairs. Stay ahead of your client's boss. The original advice was intended to stop the vicious cycle of buying the same equipment competitors had. Mimicking competitors served the industry well for many years because printers bought equipment that was tested in the marketplace and had proven track records. Those were times, however, when communications choice amounted to two alternatives with many flavors: print or broadcast. The “renewing” advice recognized the disruptive effects of digital media, and those two alternatives had become two among many. Copying competitors would only lead to irrelevance. Instead, we suggested staying ahead of the clients to ensure that print businesses offer new services appropriate to a changing marketplace. The marketplace changed, and now the decisions about which media to use is getting tied up in turf wars and intrusive meddling. It's not that there wasn't meddling in these corporate decisions before. (C'mon, we watch Mad Men). Media and communications: it's easier to think it's easy. Especially if you're in the finance department. Ignore your competitors. Stay ahead of your client's... boss. The rise of social media in 2007 and the ubiquitous nature of broadband and its ever-increasing speeds of broadband, and, of course, all those tablets and smartphones, have changed the habits and preferences of information access. The expectations of upper management have changed, too. Sure, some of the older executive staff may still think that Facebook is something you look at in a police station or that Twitter is the happy sound of springtime birds, but they know one thing for certain: marketing spends way too much money on things with little payback. This has always been the challenge of the marketer and communicator, and the problem has only gotten worse with the wider range of communication channels and formats. While tactical accountability is a given, upper management is also demanding more of marketers and communicators in terms of strategic advice. This is especially the case for B2B marketing. Digital media have changed the way B2B marketing is executed. No longer the sole domain of industrial sales representatives, distributors, and dealers, B2B marketers can communicate directly with the marketplace when it was not practical to do so before. There has been one area of expertise that has risen above all others in recent years: analytics. Statistics were always part of the tools of consumer marketers, even back in the old computer mainframe days. The 1960s and 1970s were a special era in consumer marketing, as B2C marketers realized the importance of marketplace information and also research data collection. In the B2C environment, the value of information and analytics was easier to prove. The trend has broadened in recent years, and B2B marketing has become far more sophisticated. Digital media have made statistics tracking an obsession for nearly all marketers. Now it's demanded, if not specifically, it's demanded implicitly. How do you prove to upper management that you are deserving of your next budget? Analytics. Many of those statistics from website visits, downloaded white papers, video sessions, e-newsletter registrations, page views, page visits, and other measures, have become the way marketing is judged in nearly real-time context. The new emphasis on analytics fits financial managers, especially in big companies. Finance is a quantitative game, and applying hard statistics to soft decisions is has great allure. Understanding all of these data is a job is beyond most cash-constrained marketing departments as they try to balance their budgets with the urgency of their tasks. Unless they confront the analytics issue, they are powerless against media decisions made by the CFO's staff. More marketers report that the CFO or a high member of their staff is getting deeply involved in their decisions, asking for justification of their specific acts, not just their broad strategies or concepts. This is one of the reasons for the interest in marketing automation. As businesspeople have the expectation that they will be able to find the information they need online through search engines (or by asking Siri, the person who lives in my iPhone), marketers have realized that they can track those activities and use their frequency and intensity to determine appropriate responses. Those responses can be programmed to occur at a time of the prospect's choosing. That CFO, the client's boss, is insisting that marketing communications dollars be used wisely. This means that almost every form of created content must be instantly available or deployed on a predetermined schedule as reports, white papers, videos, blog posts, slide presentations, webinars, seminars, infographics, or other website content. Oh, and also as print. There is greater interest in regional or niche-specific events rather than national trade shows. They may not be the same. The smaller events may be done online or as video programs. The idea is to build relationships that are more intimate with the prospect and client specific needs. Trade shows won't disappear, but the intensity and nature of their use can. Because trade events can create opportunities for niche relevance as well as their general appeal, they can be very cost effective and satisfying to attendees and exhibitors alike. The problems for the CFOs is that they have trouble connecting trade show activities to specific transactions. There still seems to be an expectation that a trade show is a standalone event, disconnected from other efforts. Instead, it is a connected step that enriches an overall sales or support process. Just like raw content can be deployed in multiple formats, the trade show experience has to be deployed in multiple formats as well. Video is a prime tool in this regard. Staying ahead of your client's boss means delivering increased productivity (selecting the right resources to deliver higher value than their costs) and documenting it in a meaningful way. Sometimes clients just want to buy printing. That's fine. Becoming educated about their business takes time, and becoming educated about how their decisions are judged requires work and patience. This is why traditional print sales (thanks for the equipment list you left with the switchboard operator) is being replaced by business development by many firms. (For a discussion, see two prior columns here and here). In some cases, there are companies that have virtually eliminated sales representation in favor of other means. Not all business development programs are focused to understanding a specific client or prospect, but a deeper understanding of groups of clients or prospects, such as the guiding concepts of target marketing. What analytics does is add a layer of accountability to business development efforts, not on the print business side, but the accountability that the client needs to make better future decisions. To get a sense of how analytics is changing media decisions, this article in Forbes is a good start and it has links to other resources. The best way to get experience worth talking about with your clients is to use analytics in your own business. Meet with your website developer to be sure that you are taking advantage of the numerous tools available. Decide to use the data. Have general conversations with clients and prospects about the communications activities: join their mailing lists, visit their websites, go to trade events that they do, and watch how they operate. Then ask about the kinds of results they get, what works well and what falls short. Many times what falls short is a great idea that is neglected or done poorly because of lack of time. That's an opportunity. If you can, get paid for results. When you think about it, you've been being paid that way all along, but you've never asked what kind of results are expected. That means that you've been paid for results that you had no participation in the setting of criteria that affect your work your future opportunities. Don't be passive.

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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