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Commentary & Analysis

The Print Industry Education Gap

There is an educational gap in the print industry, our industry events are still centered around buying and selling equipment rather than preparing printers to compete in the internet age.

By Jennifer Matt
Published: October 18, 2017

How many of us have sat through presentations where the presenter goes into detail about the following stories of corporate failure? Kodak – how did they not see the digital camera coming? Blockbuster – how did they not see Netflix? It is easy for all of us to look in the rear-view mirror and judge what seems so obvious now.

How many of us are looking in the mirror today and saying, what am I missing about what’s happening to my industry, business, market? Not enough.

The print industry; like all industries is in the midst of massive disruption. Communication is changing and since print was a dominate communication methodology for decades, it’s being disrupted by new communication methods. You’ve heard all that before.

What I want to focus on is what massive disruption does to “expertise” that was based on yesterday’s methods, technologies, and the past economic standing of the print industry. When it comes to expertise in the technology space; software developers are constantly gauging the popularity and utilization of programming languages because nobody wants to become an expert at a dead language. Software developers monitor this monthly because there is no getting around the fact that modern software programming continues to evolve, change, and adapt to the market.

Expertise used to move more gradually, you built your expertise over decades and then you spent decades getting paid for that expertise. I experience that with many medical professionals, many of whom seem to be still relying on what they learned in medical school. The internet provides us all with the ability to learn about our health; I never go to the doctor until I’ve diagnosed myself doing my own research. Often I’ve known more, not because I’m smarter but because nobody is going to care more about my health than me.

For those of us on the back side of that expertise curve; where twenty years ago we would have been expected to simply live on the expertise we gained in our early careers – that reality is no longer working. I laughed out loud (while on mute) the other day when a customer asked if a resource of mine had a college degree. This individual is doing complex support for a gigantic web-to-print deployment (80,000 active users). What would he have possibly learned in college more than twenty years ago that would be relevant today? Even college is coming into question as the best way to prepare ourselves for a career in constant change.

Expertise doesn’t work that way anymore and it’s downright upsetting to most people.

In the face of massive disruption, we all have to be comfortable being beginners again. This isn’t easy for many people. This isn’t easy for people who at some point in their career were way ahead of the market and now find themselves either in the pack or well behind. Constant change which forces constant learning isn’t everyone’s favorite activity.

There is an education gap in our industry because there is a lack of acknowledgement that most of us need to go back to “school” to learn how print operates in a technology first world. Our live events are still centered around selling and buying machinery which is not based on our current reality but on the industry reality of a decade ago when capacity, speed, and quality were our main differentiators. I walk around tradeshows and wonder if I’m personally part of this collective delusion (seriously).  We have an educational gap. We are not actively providing the education needed for printers to remain competitive.

Technology conferences are all about education (the main dish), the tradeshow is always on the side. People go to technology conferences to actively learn and network. We are still creating events where the tradeshow is the main event and education is in the back corner (barely attended).

How are we going to keep up with the technology changes if we don’t have industry wide learning events? When will our events evolve from capacity shopping to learning about how to become data-driven businesses using the latest technologies to build workflows that solve customer’s problems and generate print revenues?

In a time where many print industry events are struggling; this may sound crazy. I think the industry needs a pure educational event that isn’t about selling at all – stop the vendor sponsored events where the education is disguised under a full-frontal sales assault. Create an event where nobody sells anything but knowledge about how to tackle the challenges of operating a print business in the internet age. This event isn’t free – it’s rather costly because we reject the subsidization by vendors in return for the sales assault. Printers need to learn, printers need to network so they find peers who they can collaborate with to solve common challenges. This space is being created by small peer groups across the country, it needs to scale so that more printers are exposed to more educational activities on a regular basis.

Jennifer Matt is the managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Print Software section as well as President of Web2Print Experts, Inc. a technology-independent print software consulting firm helping printers with web-to-print and print MIS solutions. You can reach her at jen@whattheythink.com.



By chris jordan on Oct 18, 2017

Hi Jen, you touch on so many issues that exit in the print business, and many others. The most important qualification gained at school, college or university is the ability to learn, and to understand that you should never stop.


By Carisa Holmes-Peters on Oct 18, 2017

I agree with you about the education being needed. What saved us was seeing the change coming long ago and making the effort to get ahead of it. Our motto was "Run to the Fear". The best decision we made was joining a peer group in 2012. We have found that this decision kept us on our toes and being held accountable. Not to mention having a group of business owners to discuss challenges with. Everyday we feel like we are running a startup even though we are an established business of 43 years. We are still a part of the Keypoint Intelligence Peer Group and it was a solid business decision.


By Allen Filson on Oct 19, 2017

Jen, you are right on the money with this article. Very good insight. We as an industry need to be looking forward into technology and not on the next box. As this evolution unfolds those that are embracing it, educating for it, and blazing a path will become the titans of tomorrow.


By Jennifer Matt on Oct 19, 2017

The public comments are in agreement, the private comments (to my inbox) have been more blunt - "how do we solve this?"

I don't think there is a silver bullet out there in the form of one organization, one event. I think the change has to come from printers (not consultants, not vendors, not event organizers). If the printers want more education and less selling to them - they need to speak up because the whole industry is here to serve YOU!

I have an idea for printers. The next time you're in an "educational" situation and you're being sold to, raise your hand and say - "I'm hear to learn, please stop trying to sell me."

I would kill to be in that audience the first time it happens!

If you commit to teaching over selling it means that sometimes you're recommending products you don't sell. Its liberating. Its fun. It is the #1 way to build trust.


By Rossitza Sardjeva on Oct 20, 2017

I agree that the most important education gained at school, college or university is the ability to learn that you should be permenent, according to the innovations....


By Robert Godwin on Oct 20, 2017

We used to go to the Seybold seminars to hear explanation of new technologies and the impact on various industries/businesses. Those were 'real' white papers, not a press release/sell sheet masquerading as an authoritative report. Those were expensive seminars. I participated in several panels and the lightening round 'Seven minutes with a software Vendor'. You were expected to be able to go deep. Where is that happening now? The last Idealliance was more salesy of recently purchased equipment rather than where tech is taking us. I miss the deep dives. Are things moving too fast to take note? Is Agile development just a way to avoid introspection?


By Jennifer Matt on Oct 20, 2017


I agree; combination of "agile" "soundbites" consuming information in snippets thinking that leads to knowledge, learning or execution.

There are so many ideas, so much innovation, so much technology, the thing we are in massive shortage of: execution (actually taking the time and effort to first learn the technology and then implement it in our businesses). That is rare, that is what's missing, that never makes the highlight reel on a tradeshow floor. We default to gimmicks (look we have the technology to take a selfie, get it into a print stream, and create a one off printed product while we're talking to you!) Interesting I guess but my brain just sits there and thinks; where do I see this fitting in to any print business I've ever come in contact with?

I guess I'm boring. I was raised in Omaha, NE - I'm more like Omaha than Las Vegas. Brilliant execution is a beautiful thing but the work of it can be tedious, boring, and take way longer than you were expecting it to. Nobody might ever write a white paper about it, but every single day you and your team will know you're creating something special AND you will create a lot more value for you and your customers.



By Marion Williams-Bennett on Oct 20, 2017

One of the most powerful lines in this thoughtful article is "we all have to be comfortable being beginners again." To keep doing things the same way an expect a different result is insanity defined.

Education comes from trying a new approach and then learning from the experience. What was the result? How could we improve? What skills do we need to do it better? Experience is the best teacher, but you have to be willing to fail to gain that experience.


By Gerhard Maertterer on Oct 26, 2017


Look we have the technology to take a selfie, get it on the cover of a catalogue or magazine and print millions of them one-to-one with millions of individual photos. Thus your selfie would be published only one time – just for you. The cover is printed digitally, including hyperpersonalized Next Best Offers, whereas the inside pages are printed by web offset presses.

Why do we do that? Because publishers need new subscribers of their magazines. And as a welcome incentive you will get your own personalized magazine. The same goes with catalogues of fashion online shops. They promise to their facebook followers: „Create your own cover of the next catalogue with your photo of your favourite outfit. Then give us the adresses of three friends and they will also get your personalized catalogue – as soon as they agree and give us their adresses und permissions for newsletters.

How do we think outside the box? We have started a cooperation with Stuttgart Media University`s new degree course „Print Media Technologies“ https://www.hdm-stuttgart.de/pmt . There is a seminar „Strategic Problem Solving“. We help the students to learn, how to solve problems. And then we hope, they will help us, to find new solutions outside the box.


By Jennifer Matt on Oct 26, 2017


I get it, we are living in a world that is demanding (actually expecting) hyper personalization).

I guess I'm like a grade school math teacher - i want to see the work, not just the final answer. When you show an example like the one you described above, what i want to give the printers is the realistic steps it takes to put their business in a position to offer that kind of service.

I don't want that limited to the technical execution of the program but ALSO cover what it takes to describe, sell, and price the value you are delivering. This is the gap. We are all dazzled by what technology can do yet we gloss over what it actually takes to execute on it.

I was on a call this week discussing a complex integration. Within minutes we were in the weeds about how all the data would flow back and forth and which general ledger account would get credited, etc. In the very beginning of the call, the participants said casually - "all the customers would order from the cloud."

There is no reason to figure out the workflow into the GL accounting without first understanding how you would possibly get customers to order, what actual platform that would happen on, who has relationships with the customers, etc. We like to skip that part and move right to the problems we are more comfortable solving.

I get lots of calls from printers who want to spend money to build a direct to consumer site (b2c). They want to spend money on the site but they can't answer my first question: how are you going to drive internet users to the site? If you don't have a plan for that its too early to spend money on the site itself b/c you should only spend money on the site if you have a plan to drive traffic.

We need to see cool applications at tradeshows AND we need to provide the printers assistance for truly getting to that vision. The boring execution part.


By Gerhard Maertterer on Oct 27, 2017


While traveling by train from Berlin to Frankfurt, I have the time to answer to you.

The boring execution part ist he easiest part, if you can rely on a motivated and well skilled team and partners. First of all you need to know what your (existing and expected) customers will need next year and in three years. If you ask their print buyers, they answer: “I’d like to get print faster and cheaper“. If you ask makers of printing machines or software-tools, they will try to sell their latest versions, because they promise to be “faster and cheaper“ per page. This maybe will solve the manufacturers problems (for a moment). But not yours and your customer’s.

First of all: Our customers do not only communicate by the print channel. Day by day they have to decide: “Online, mobile or print“. These are not “either-or“ decisions, but “as well as“-decisions. The more we thought about this, we sensed: Print is taking on a new role in the age of Zuckerberg. But which? We discussed internally and - later on - also with customers who are able to take a long view. To sum up: We recognized that Gutenberg's medium is advancing to become a digitally ?controlled push advertising medium ?that can be triggered in a fully automated? on-demand process. That was our vision. We called it – according to real-time marketing: one-to-one ?real-time printing.

But how to evangelize this vision to our customers? We consulted providers of marketing and campaign management software. They told us: Marketing automation orchestrates all cross-channel communication situation by situation and specific to individual events. One day a personalized e-mail is sent, another a personalized postcard, on yet another day a push notification for an app, a posted self-mailer 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 greeting card with picture personalization and a gift voucher.

We got it: People specializing in online, mobile and print communications must work hand in hand. Leave tunnel vision behind! On this basis we founded our consulting team and offered to our customers: We get all of your specialist departments working together at one table. We actively mediate the conversation between oftentimes differing viewpoints and then work with you to find the best possible way for all channels to interact.

Thus we acquired our first one-to-one jobs. At that time we did not have any one-to-one software, nore digital presses. But we knew partners, who already had such machines and tools. They were happy to realize our projects. Because their capacity was not utilized to the full. Meanwhile we also own these machines and tools. But at peak-time we still work with our partners from the old days. Of course they are competitors. But also they are cooperators. Believe me: Coopetition works, if you can rely on honest partners.


By Robert Godwin on Oct 27, 2017

"They want to spend money on the site but they can't answer my first question: how are you going to drive internet users to the site?"
Woo-whoo! Finally someone else is talking about it. If you do not have a marketing plan for your B2C W2P, it will never gain traction. Never. And if you expect to emerge from the all the noise on search engines, a media plan and the budget to go with are essential. If your platform provider is not offering those marketing services then you need a marketing service, internal or external, to compete effectively.


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