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Commentary & Analysis

Do Printing Companies Really Need to Offer Marketing Services?

Do print buyers really want printers to offer marketing services? A recent survey of Print Buyers suggests they don’t. Now what?

By Heidi Tolliver-Walker
Published: March 23, 2017

Once again, Deborah Corn of the Print Media Center has sparked debate with a bit of surprise data. She has been rolling out results from her 2017 Print Buyer Survey, and this one is a doozey. 

One of the questions on the PMC survey was one all MSPs and print shops want to know: why do buyers choose the printers they work with? Is it price? quality? range of marketing services? The answer: the overwhelming majority of respondents (84%) said printing period. Not your ancillary services. Not your marketing expertise. Just print.  So why are printers so bent on offering services that are out of their true realm of expertise?

Corn goes on to talk about an experience with an SEO company that drove this point home. The company did what it did well, but it over-promised on its ancillary services and the project went south—hard. “Now imagine if that was my experience with a printer,” Corn writes. “I would make sure everyone knew to stay away from them. And by the way, this happens all the time when buyers ask each other for resources in the secret ways we do.”

Corn’s point is one that is very uncomfortable, and it is something I, myself, have wrestled with since the MSP trend began. To keep their revenues up and command a greater share of wallet, printers have been told that they should add ancillary services. First it was the concept of the one-stop shop. Today it is being an MSP.  

The challenge is, most printers aren’t marketers. Even after several decades of being told they need to be, most are still primarily printers, and they are really good at it. What they aren’t good at is marketing. They may be able to integrate email marketing with direct mail or integrate print with a Facebook campaign, but this isn’t being a marketing specialist. To their credit, some have transformed themselves into true MSPs, and they have the marketing expertise on staff to do it, but that’s not the majority.

I, personally, run into this all the time. As a long-time industry analyst and content developer, one of my greatest challenges is finding printers who can talk expertly about the marketing side of things. When I need to write on topics like social media marketing, video production, and augmented reality, it’s tough to find printers to interview. Most often, I end up pulling my resources from outside the industry.  The same goes for databases. Printers can crank out the high-volume variable data direct mail, and many can handle the mechanics of managing the databases that drive them, but they aren’t equipped to discuss data profiling, psychographic targeting, or the development of personas that drive the strategy behind the campaign.

This begs the question, if printers aren’t really marketers, and if print buyers aren’t looking for them to be marketers, then why the pressure to become one? Why not just, as Corn says, “stick to your own lane” and be really, really great at what you already do well? If your clients need to integrate additional marketing services, why not develop the right strategic partnerships to make it happen, but not try to pretend to be expert in things you’re not?

I think the answer is fear. The fear of falling behind, the fear of not being competitive, the fear that if you don’t offer marketing services, especially after being told for decades that you must, clients won’t come knocking on your door. Sure, there is a risk of that. But as Corn points out, if you do call yourself an MSP but really aren’t, there is also a risk, especially if you over-promise and under-deliver. Plus, you’re draining away time and resources that could be more productively spent on what you actually do well.

I’m not saying that I have the answer. I don’t, but I think this is an issue that warrants some bold industry discussion.

Let’s start here.  Thoughts?

Heidi Tolliver-Walker Heidi is an industry analyst specializing in digital, one-to-one, personalized URL, and Web-to-print applications. Her Marketer’s Primer Series, availalbe through Digital Printing Reports, includes “Digital Printing: Transforming Business and Marketing Models,” 1:1 (Personalized) Printing: Boosting Profits Through Relevance,” “Personalized URLs: Beyond the Hype,” and “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing.”



By John Zarwan on Mar 23, 2017

Exactly what Margie Dana and I found as reported in "The New Print Buyers: Who They Are, What They Want, and What You Should Do"


By Jacob Aizikowitz on Mar 23, 2017

The questions posed in the article are valid.

Its clear that not every print provider should become a marketing agency. However, every print provider who wants to be alive in the next, say, 3-5 years, should become a Multichannel Service Provider (also "MSP").

Printers can master Data, digital channels, creating content, blending Print with Digital. Some can and will master the Marketing flavors above and beyond the technology. But all should aim at mastering the technology.

I would add, that a Print Buyer, by definition, buys Print. So, of course, for a Print Buyer what really count is the Print capability. The question is whether the Print provider wants to stay there just as a print services / manufacturing expert when his / her customers are expecting the dynamics, capabilities, and the benefits of the digital world around us.

So, my observation is that if you interpret MSP to stand for Multichannel Service Provider, then every Print business should aspire to transform and become an MSP rather than stay a perfect PSP.


By Tim Daisy on Mar 23, 2017

Jacob, I couldn't agree with you more. Your first paragraph, I believe, hits the nail on the head. In the 1920s if you asked what the most important thing munitions purchasers bought from DuPont, it was TnT. In 1935, DuPont's highest growth product was nylon for women's stockings. In the 70's if you asked what the most important thing academics and researchers bought from computer companies, it would be mainframe computers. Today, IBM is a services organization and DEC and WANG no longer exist. Print buyers will not dictate where PSPs grow. Print buyers are perfectly happy to continue to buy print for less and less each year and from bigger and bigger companies. I think it's incumbent on the PSP to self-determine where they should be 3 years from now, 5 years, and 10. Cross media marketing is a good option.


By Gordon Pritchard on Mar 23, 2017

Well duh.
A simple glance at the majority of printers' marketing efforts (or lack thereof) will quickly reveal why becoming an MSP is not the path for them to take.


By Hamilton Costa on Mar 24, 2017

Congrats Tim Daisy, you got the right point along with Jacob. Let printers stay as printers only and they will stay in the tough part of the market. Recently I heard from a printer: "some years ago I used to got hidden from my cientes as I had no way to deliver on time as such full I was. Today I do not know where to find them"


By Gina Danner on Mar 24, 2017

Most printers should not be come MSPs or even attempt it. Those that have dipped a toe in the water have failed and soiled the name - MSP - for the rest of us.

The challenge I have with the research is that very few organizations have true PRINT BUYERS and organizations that can justify PRINT BUYERS as a defined title are likely running their marketing in silos.

The reality is that effective multi-channel marketing can't be done in the traditional silo. An effective multi-channel effort needs page building expertise something that traditional printers understand, but are constrained by the physical space paper requires. True Multi-Channel Service Providers are able to build pages no matter the physical characteristics or delivery method.

This is where opportunity lives -- AKA margins.


By Robert Godwin on Mar 24, 2017

“most printers aren’t marketers”
“printers should not be come MSPs or even attempt it”
“…and soiled the name - MSP - for the rest of us.”
Pity. This line of thinking reeks of fear.
Printers who remain pure plays have to differentiate on at least one of three points: faster, better or more cost effective. Printers who are business oriented will add services. They will add sales people that develop the leads and relationships for marketing services. They will hire the staff to expertly service those clients.
The move amongst print franchises is to add these services, and train the owners how to market and service them. The goal is to broaden the relationship with a client that requires marketing services to grow their business. Some will fail. Some will succeed. Those that do succeed will provide a range of services based on relevancy to the program and the results that needed. And yes, that is how business works.
Yes, I prefer a specialist for major surgery, as opposed to a general practitioner. But if all that’s needed is to have a mole removed, many doctors can service that. If a small business needs marketing, likely that they cannot afford a full-service ad agency. But a printer that has effectively added marketing services appropriate to small business, can be very, very successful.


By Gordon Pritchard on Mar 24, 2017

The MSP idea is not new. For example, in the early 80s I was employed as a graphic designer in a medium sized printshop. Offering creative and marketing services generated a healthy revenue stream for the shop. However, it also meant losing business from many of the local graphic design studios and small agencies who were not inclined to send their work to a printer who was now their competitor for creative.


By Wayne Lynn on Mar 24, 2017

How were the participants in the survey identified? Did all of them actually have the title print buyer? If so, the survey results were predictable so why bother?

Find out what jobs your customers get hired to do for their customers, align what you do to serve that and follow the money.


By Gerhard Maertterer on Mar 24, 2017

MSP – it doesn’t matter whether we spell it „Marketing-Service-Provider“ or „Multi-Channel-Service Provider“. What counts is, that people specialising in online, mobile and print communications are playing their instruments together, fine-tuned like in a philharmonic orchestra.

Not every soloist has to be on the payroll of printers. But if our customers are looking for someone to conduct this orchestra, we printers should grab the chance. As Jacob Aizikowitz wrote: „Printers can master Data, digital channels, creating content, blending Print with Digital.“

Yet, many organisations are still struggling with multi-channel, cross-device marketing. Their organisational structures have developed over long periods of time and are usually associated with silo mentality, entailing a lot of effort, and even more advertising wastage.

Printers are taking on a new role in the age of Zuckerberg. We fanboys of Gutenberg know, how to lead and inspire a team of specialists. Let’s leave tunnel vision behind! Come on and bring all departments to the table! Enthusiastic printers actively facilitate the dialogue between often differing viewpoints and then work with their customers to find the best possible way for all channels to interact. Sounds pollyannaish? Just try it!


By Robert Godwin on Mar 24, 2017

I addressed this issue in a recent article on LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/do-you-run-print-shop-business-robert-godwin

Give it a read and vote thumbs up or down.


By Heidi Tolliver-Walker on Mar 27, 2017

The other issue here is that not all channels are outsourced. Many companies are doing their own email and mobile marketing. They only outsource a portion of the channels they use. This creates a real challenge for printers wanting to be multichannel service providers. Their clients may be doing email and mobile and social media, but if they are not outsourcing those services, then a printer cannot get that business no matter how well it can implement them. Thoughts on this?


By Gerhard Maertterer on Mar 27, 2017

Even pure printers have chances to be involved in Marketing Automation Processes. If they offer, so-called "Real-Time Printing“ within One-to-One Customer Communication Management.

Remember: Marketing Automation orchestrates all cross-channel communication situation by situation and specific to individual events. One day ?a personalised e-mail is sent, another a personalised postcard, on yet another day a push notification for an app, a posted selfmailer or a printed one-to-one mini-catalogue. And special occasions like birthdays, saints' days and New Year's Eve may even mean an individual printed greeting card with picture personalisation and a gift voucher.

Our Real-Time Printing Plant produces every morning and every afternoon five-digit print runs of highly personalized postcards and selfmailers. The print channel is adjusted to campaign management systems on a just-in-time basis – with a redundant, fully automated production line of digital web press that includes a cameracontrolled cutter, binder and inserting machine.


By Robert Godwin on Mar 27, 2017

If a company is doing marketing services in-house it is a straightforward sales approach to raise the efficiencies of outsourcing versus maintaining a cost center.
Aim at the numbers and address core competencies. Offer facilities management by placing staff on site.
There a lot of in-house printing operations, how does a printer compete with that? Same way, I suggest.


By Jacob Aizikowitz on Apr 08, 2017

amazing discussion...

Let me add.
To tell a printer that perfecting their print capabilities is the way to stay in business is a very risky proposition, which, to a degree, ignores the digital disruption around us.

To tell a printer that the only way to mitigate this risk is that the printer must become a marketer, is more than a bit lofty and, possibly, unrealistic objective to many.

To tell a printer that the way to mitigate the risk is to transform and become an expert provider in the print and digital technologies and their orchestration (to borrow from Gerhard) is a viable, realistic, and doable direction.

Such transformation is probably a must, and, in addition to having value by itself, its a necessary mile-stone on the path to Marketing Service Provider, in case the printer aims at that goal.


By Michael Walker on Apr 19, 2017

Part of the reason for these findings may be down to who they asked.

If you ask print buyers (i.e. people tasked with buying print for their organisations or customers) of course they're going to want suppliers who can print, by definition.

How many print buyers are actually looking for a broader capability? And how many people buying that broader capability from suitably diversified printers even think of their suppliers as printers?

In conversations I've had with companies who came from a commercial print and then expanded their services successfully, I often hear the comment "the conversation isn't even about print any more". Which isn't to say there's no print, just that it's only one part of a bigger programme.

For sure, not every printer can adapt in this way, or would necessarily want to, but if you ask people who want to buy print what they want from their printers, don't be surprised is the answer is 'print'!


By Julie Miller on Apr 21, 2017

The simple answer? Yes. Printers need to offer marketing services. Why? Because then they will have a say in the allocation of digital and print assets that will affect the conpany's bottom line. Print is only one part of the picture, there are many other parts and if printers want to be successful, they better learn to adjust and change as needed.


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