Commentary & Analysis
Specialty Printing and Events: Made for Each Other
Commercial printing is evolving into specialty printing, and opportunities abound—if you know where and how to look for them.
By Richard Romano
Published: May 30, 2017
Last week, I wrote about the opportunities to be had producing specialty items, aka ad specialties, doodads, tschotchkes, and seemingly a million other terms. Specifically, these are pens, keychains, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, golf balls, and seemingly a million other items. A lot of wide-format printing applications fall into the broad category of “specialty printing,” as well, but what’s important to note, as I said last week, is that specialty printing is in many ways what general commercial printing is evolving into: a collection of niches.
The equipment needed to produce these items, at least on a short-run basis, can be inexpensively acquired and relatively easily operated. Benchtop UV printers from the likes of Mimaki, Mutoh, and Roland—among others—produce an extensive combination of these items, while other equipment you may already own—flatbed printers, transfer-based dye-sub machines, etc.—also allow you to expand the range of the items you can offer. Other products such as short-run T-shirts and other digitally printed apparel are also a good opportunity, thanks to the many technologies now available to print direct-to-garment (DTG), such as dye-sub printers or DTG inkjet machines from Anajet (Ricoh) and Epson.
While these items can be a good opportunity in and of themselves, there is an ancillary opportunity associated with them: events. And, indeed, demand for many of these items is very often event-driven.
No matter what industry or market a print customer is in, they probably attend or even host various events. These can range from small, customer meet-and-greets or open houses, all the way up to big trade shows and expos. You have no doubt been to (or even hosted) quite a few yourself, whether it be Graph Expo/Print, drupa, the SGIA Expo, the ISA Sign Expo, the NPOA (National Print Owners Association) Conference, and others. Some vendor-specific shows like EFI Connect, Dscoop, Hunkeler innovationDays have become important annual events that rival the major expos, and it has become fairly common for companies such as HP, Canon Solutions America, Xerox, Ricoh, and others to use their own events to make major product announcements. (If you have never been to any industry event, well, you need to get out more!) Print service providers also occasionally host their own “lunch and learns,” inviting prospective clients, designers, and other creatives over to the plant to learn about new equipment and capabilities they may not be otherwise aware of, such as the new digital embellishments à la MGI or Scodix or, indeed, specialty printing applications.
We tend to confine ourselves to printing-related events, but, naturally, companies and organizations outside our own industry—industries and markets your customers may be in—have their own slate of events. Associations, non-profits, and other organizations have fundraisers, and virtually every industry has a trade association which, in turn, has some kind of national conference, or, at the very least, small, local conferences, seminars, workshops, and the like. (A comprehensive but probably not complete list of trade associations, grouped by general industry, can be found here.)
The point is, despite seemingly restricted travel budgets (and, let’s be honest, how awful traveling is), like them or not, physical events have become more important than ever, and are essential ways of communicating and interacting with the marketplace. No amount of Facebook or LinkedIn can replace in-person interactions with customers and colleagues. (Actually, Facebook and LinkedIn have become essential tools for publicizing meatspace-based events.)
(A)venues of Opportunity
These events offer many opportunities for printers. All those specialty items mentioned this week and last? Well, if you’ve been to an industry event you likely know that there is no shortage of those kinds of collateral items. And someone has to produce them. Sure, big, international expos that draw tens or hundreds of thousands of people may be a bit ambitious if you only have a small, low-volume printer, but not all your clients—or you yourself—attend big, massive expos. But even if you do, signage and other display graphics (print and electronic) are often needed by exhibiting companies who don’t need these materials in very high volume.
A key thing to keep in mind when working with customers to come up with specialty items to offer at some event or other is to make sure they are appropriate. Remember last week, when I wrote about how in the traditional ad specialties supply chain, the distributor of promotional items functioned more as a collaborative consultant, helping decide which items were best for which customers and events? That’s the same role you should be providing when coming up with specialty-printed items. The best ad specialties are items that are useful and practical. We’ve all been to enough shows to know what items we pick up get tossed in a drawer or closet (or just tossed out) and which end up being used regularly. Pens are always good, smartphone cases are popular. Water bottles are a popular item. Thumbdrives—well, we’re awash in a sea of them these days and, thanks to Dropbox, who really uses them that much anymore? T-shirts are always good. (Many years ago, at a press event, Enfocus Software gave out small, branded optical USB mice, I still use mine while traveling to this day. Thanks, Enfocus!) Still, you don’t want the item to be expensive and extravagant; you can conceivably print on laptop computer covers, but neither you or your client wants to be giving out hundreds of laptops for free at a trade show. (Or maybe you do. Who am I to judge?)
So, work with the client to determine what would be the most useful and appropriate items to offer, while at the same time, not break the bank to procure the “blank” item that will be printed.
One Step Beyond
There are more opportunities vis-à-vis events than just the little tschotchkes that companies give out. There is no reason why a print service provider can’t handle not just specialty items and other print (and electronic) collateral and signage for various events, but also the actual program implementation itself.
There have been cases where printers supplied registration and other support staff for local events. (A printer located near the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco has also managed to build a lucrative badge-printing business.) This takes us a bit beyond specialty printing, but an ulterior motive for a lot of these event-based initiatives is to make sure that all registrants get entered in a database and can then be plugged into a marketing automation datastream—events are lead-generation opportunities, after all.
But perhaps we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
In Any Event...
As the printing industry comes to embrace specialty printing in all its myriad forms, it is going to be more and more necessary to think about the context in which those specially printed items will be used. This is not something the industry ever really had to worry about before. A brochure was a brochure, right? Direct mail just got printed and mailed, right? Well, yes and no. Somebody worried about the messaging of traditional commercial printing, to whom it was being sent, and where it was being distributed. It just wasn’t (usually) the printer who concerned themselves with these issues. Today and tomorrow as print service providers need to be working more consultatively with clients, those issues are the printer’s issues. And understanding the relationship between specialty printing and events is among them.