By Barbara Pellow November 28, 2005 -- I think everyone is aware that marketing communications is an essential part of doing business. There are times, however, when digital print service providers underestimate the tremendous impact the ability to communicate can have on their success. Time and again, effective marketing communications have proven to be a key factor in the acquisition of new business; determining whether a client is retained; or in how much business is sent to a specific supplier. A good public relations strategy can be one of the most cost effective approaches to building awareness and a positive market perception for your firm. This multi-part series of articles is designed to explore the array of available marketing communications alternatives and how digital printers have leveraged these alternatives to gain a competitive advantage in the market. The areas of public relations, mass media advertising, Internet marketing, direct mail, tradeshows, partnerships and associations will be explored. You will see how companies are using different media mixes to build awareness and extend their reach. Public Relations Developing a good public relations strategy can be one of the most cost effective approaches to building awareness and a positive market perception for your firm. Simply defined, Public Relations (PR) is the practice of conveying messages to the public through the media with the intention of changing the public’s action’s by influencing opinion. There are a number of techniques that digital printers are utilizing, ranging from feature articles in national, industry or regional publications; press releases; speeches and presentations; special events; and facility grand openings. Articles published in industry, local, regional or national publications have historically had a very strong impact. If people read something in the “news,” they tend to believe it. Publications like Printing Impressions feature a variety of different firms every month. Direct Mail Holdings, for example, was featured in the May edition in an article that discussed its effective use of technology in addressing customer needs. Typically, print industry publications will contact equipment manufacturers to ask about advanced users of specific technologies for feature articles. Make sure your suppliers know that you are interested in having them produce a case history on your organization. While the Printing Impressions article may not reach the digital service provider’s target market, article reprints are available that can be included in proposals and direct mail pieces. Make sure your suppliers know that you are interested in having them produce a case history on your organization. Digital service providers rarely think of themselves as newsworthy, yet investing in innovative technology and developing new product offerings to grow a local business has appeal to the press. The Outlook Group in Menasha, Wisconsin, found itself on the front page in the business section of the Post Crescent educating the market about the digital color and workflow automation tools the firm was implementing to expand business. By using the local, regional, and national news media to stay in touch with the external market, digital print service providers can build significant market awareness for themselves. Whether it is local TV or radio stations, the newspaper, or a trade journal, journalists are always looking for a good story. Contact the local media and take the time to share yours. Public speaking does not come naturally to everyone, but speaking opportunities represent a strong marketing, public relations and business development tool. Attendees get to learn about your firm’s expertise first hand and can interact directly with your management team immediately before or after the presentation. An attendee asking for a business card can be the first step in obtaining a new customer. If the press is in attendance, there is also an opportunity for added exposure. Obtaining speaker slots offers the opportunity for increased visibility in vertical/industry sectors or broad-based areas that the firm has determined need greater exposure. Finally, the company gains free advertising by having the executive’s name published on the agenda of thousands of brochures and promotional announcements that are mailed or e-mailed by event organizers. The challenge for digital print service providers is gaining a speaking invitation to specific forums where the participants are prospective customers and clients. Digital print service providers need to identify the critical products and services requiring enhanced visibility and develop a solid message that builds the perception that your firm is the “go to” company for the specific product or service. Event organizers need to be contacted and provided with a message and session descriptor that will have tremendous appeal to the conference audience. Topics like “Success in 1:1 Communications,” “Making Multi-Media Work” or “True Marketing ROI” would have strong appeal to the American Marketing Association or DMA. “How to” presentations typically have a strong impact on the audience. These are the individuals you want to reach to drive demand and expand your business. Most importantly, digital print service providers trying to reposition their companies in the market need to have a proactive speaker placement program. An individual in your organization should be identified that aggressively identifies opportunities, develops relationships with event organizers and leads the charge in building the frequency of speaking engagements. An effective public relations strategy is a critical component to a marketing plan. It is typically the forgotten marketing tool. Some firms are implementing PR techniques to “build their own buzz” in the market. Like other printers, the challenge for Nevada City, California, based LectraMedia was building awareness and getting marketing departments to develop applications that leverage digital color print technology. LectraMedia’s business development manager, Teri Paulus, decided to take a three-pronged approach to driving digital color business volumes. First, under her guidance, LectraMedia conducted seminars for agencies in the surrounding markets to explain the value proposition as well as implementation and design considerations for variable data campaigns. Secondly, she leveraged her relationships with local associations like the Sacramento American Marketing Association. Finally, LectraMedia, decided to run a variable data design contest with a substantial cash prize for the most creative entry with the highest business value. According to owner Tom Conley, “Designers that wouldn’t talk with us before are all of a sudden excited about the opportunity…They see it as a new way of doing things.” This year’s second annual contest awards ceremony created a PR “buzz” within LectraMedia’s target markets. The firm also invited industry trade press and local business press that delivered local and national coverage for their Variable Data Printing Conference and Awards Program. In July 2004, Ira Jackson, owner of Perfect Image in Marietta, Georgia, called me to ask if I would present at an open house for his customers. He had just completed renovating his facility, and he wanted to introduce clients to his new digital color capabilities and create a “new market image” for Perfect Image. While the company had a reputation for high quality traditional print, Ira’s objective was to use an open house to demonstrate to customers, the press and industry associations that Perfect Image was a high tech, leading edge, innovative company that had transformed itself into a digital business communications firm capable of delivering effective 1:1 communications programs. As Ira looked at growing the digital color opportunity for his business, he realized that market education was critical. He built a strong marketing program that was initiated with the open house event designed to make customers aware of his new capabilities. To illustrate its new technology, Perfect Image embarked on a full-fledged 1:1 campaign, creating personalized mailers for customers, suppliers, friends and family, inviting them to attend a VIP reception and open house. When I arrived on August 19, the paint was still drying in the new facility; caterers were setting up hors d’oeuvres tables and a quartet was setting up. At 4:00 PM, several hundred people joined Ira to share both the success and a bright future for Perfect Image. There was no question that his event-based PR changed market perception of Perfect Image. As demonstrated by the examples in this article, public relations involves a variety of programs designed to maintain or enhance a company's image and the products and services it offers. Successful implementation of an effective public relations strategy is a critical component to a marketing plan. It is typically the forgotten marketing tool. A good public relations (PR) strategy plays a key role in an organization's promotional strategy. A planned approach to leveraging public relations opportunities can be just as important as advertising and sales promotions. Public relations is one of the most effective methods to communicate and relate to the market. It is powerful and, once things are in motion, PR is the most cost effective of all promotional activities. In some cases, it is even free.