For printers who want to make the transition to become a marketing services provider, there has been a lot written on the steps you need to take. Barb Pellow and Cary Sherburne in particular have posted terrific articles (and hosted webinars) on

About Thinking Creatively

Thinking Creatively is about taking a step back…when you want or need to think strategically and creatively about your business…or about your customer’s business…or about a solution to a challenging business problem. The goal is to be one part inspiration and one part motivation. We hope to provide – over time -- thought-provoking advice, tools, ideas and company profiles that help get you to your next breakthrough.  Your feedback and interaction is invited, welcomed and encouraged.

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So for those who are thinking about going this direction…or are in the midst of the transition, there is one tough issue you will at some point confront.

How do you gain credibility in the eyes of your customers, that you aren’t just the print services vendor they know…but that you can be a communications problem solver for them?

Having spent the bulk of my career developing marketing solutions and delivering creative thinking, I’m going to offer some thoughts, ideas and suggestions on tangible things you can do to close the “credibility gap”. Hopefully, this will help get you on the road to “knocking the socks off” your clients with creative ideas and solutions.

What is the credibility gap?

Let me put this in a different industry context to drive home the point. You are going to be putting an addition on your house. You know you want to add a master bedroom suite and you can build out over your garage. To figure out the best plan, you can call a builder you’ve used before that does excellent construction work – he can get the job done for you. Or you can first call an architect, who will talk with you about your needs, your ideas, give you suggestions, show you examples of other master bedroom plans done for others in the neighborhood…and do some sketches for you to make sure you get what you really want.

The builder can show you photos of finished projects…and promise to give you something nice. The architect can show you ideas, designs, choices…and then help oversee the construction too. If the architect could do the whole job – provide design, oversee construction – and stay within or close to your budget – who would you choose?

So now consider your situation with current or prospective customers. They use agencies…and internal communications or graphic groups…or designers and freelancers. Maybe your client is the architect or designer…they don’t have the time to explain the job to anyone or they’re used to doing the “idea work” themselves. How do you move perceptions so they see you as someone who can come up with great ideas…additive ideas…or new ways to do things they hadn’t thought of themselves?

Five things you can do to impress, to surprise and delight your customers

There are five areas I suggest you consider…and try out on some new customers as well as long-standing customers. I’ll touch on each briefly. In subsequent articles, I’ll go into more detail on some of these value-added areas.

1. Do homework they’ll sincerely appreciate. Do some basic homework to spur your team’s ideas AND impress clients. Three ideas that work:

  • Easy research -- research your customers’ marketing and their competitors, online; find studies and interesting articles that profile trends and opportunities in their market. Print it out on high quality stock and share it with them when you present your ideas. Or, don’t forget the value of video…with “man-on-the-street interviews”. If you have someone good with video, you won’t find more persuasive communications.
  • “Eavesdrop” for them -- find out what people are saying about your client and/or competitors online, in blogs, on forums and Twitter. Then package it for them in a “Book of Conversations” they can show others in the company.
  • Chronicle the buying or shopping or sales experience -- buy their product, and/or their competitors…or respond to their offer -- and chronicle the experience and create a report on it. Point out things that were good…and suggestions on things they could do to augment the current state.

2. Make design your first “killer app.” A great design, be it a logo…a great use of stock photos…cool color combinations or an attractive page or screen layout, has the potential to wow a client…with lasting effect.

  • Give, and then eventually sell, design ideas. Start with designing some “not asked for” campaign elements, like an internal poster…a campaign web page/micro site…a reminder post card for hand out or mailing. Properly focused, a great design idea can become the lynchpin of a successful marketing effort. Importantly, design is something that you, as a graphics arts company, would be credible for and have assumed expertise.
  • Remember, design is like wine. Sometimes you find a cheap bottle that tastes awful. Or you can spend a ton of money and not taste the difference. Or, you can get that great tasting wine for a reasonable amount that impresses everyone. And, most importantly, not everyone can make their own wine…it takes talent and craftsmanship…so it confers value in your dealings with customers. So design something pleasing and enticing.
  • You can source good design from countless providers. There are dozens of freelance designers in your local community willing to work with you. You can pair up with a design professor at a local college, give them assignments for students and select the best work product. You can find a small agency, or design boutique looking to expand. Or, you can use some of crowdsourcing sites on the internet to “buy designs” from talented people all over the world (check these links out to see this innovative approach at work;

3. Form a division, an alliance, a “trial partnership” to add instant credibility. When you’re known for one thing, the easiest way to be seen in a different light is to show a new face. By saying, “this work is from our Design Division (or better yet, give it a creative name)…or “we’ve partnered with Knock-Out Design Inc. to bring you some new thinking”…or “we have a strategic relationship with Euro-Design Inc.”. You’ve immediately changed perceptions about how the work will be viewed and potentially valued.

This was one lesson passed on by Mark Parent at Sugarbush Media Solutions who has successfully made the transition from printing to marketing services. He said: “If I had it to do over again, I’d start the marketing services as a separate business, preferably in a separate building, with a different name. That allows the core business to fund development of the new business.”

  • You can do this with freelance design.
  • You can find a marketing consultant who knows the industry your customer operates in who can provide value-added thinking.
  • You can partner with a research company that does regular industry reports, polling or blogs and connect yourself to them.

4. Create some unrequested, unsolicited “program extender” ideas. Look to offer things that add on to jobs they’ve given you, like creating a promotional micro site, or a fan page on Facebook…or an HTML email to employees or stakeholders that promotes the job you might be printing/mailing.

  • If you suggest something extra, that they were not planning to do…it is hard to lose, even if the client says “no thank you”.
  • You can show off new capabilities, like personalized URLs…things the client may not know you offer.
  • See how far you can take the ideas you have…as much as possible, mock up the idea as close to what it will look like as possible. This makes it easier for a customer to envision the final product.
  • Consider keeping the price low, or even free to start off, so your client doesn’t have to think too hard about saying “yes”. Once you’re established as a creative resource for them, they will understand that you have to charge for the extra work you’re doing.

5. Package your ideas in jaw-dropping, beautifully designed and printed presentations. What better way to showcase great thinking…and remind them of your current skills and strengths, than to bring your ideas in a 17x11, gloss-coated, graphics-filled presentation booklet (and if possible, companion micro site)?

  • Hire a young, hip designer to work with you on your presentation template…it will be money well invested. Many years ago, I was competing to create a Unifying Business Idea for a consumer company. A very creative firm – known for their photography skills more than their strategy work – presented their strategy recommendation in a 17x11 booklet, with translucent cover pages and outrageously creative illustrations and photos. The client showed me their pitch after the fact and I was blown away at how persuasive and credible they came off.
  • Use unusual substrates…unexpected colors…even offbeat images…to make the client see just how far you can push the envelope. They don’t have to buy your work unedited. Clients always feel they can pull you back to something more conservative if you’ve broken out of the box creatively…but the words you never want to hear are, “can you dial up the creativity on this a bit?”
  • Always leave some room for the client to collaborate within your presentation framework. Once you put the essence of your ideas on the table…have a “tissue session” with the customer. Bring the designer with you so they can sketch out some of the clients’ ideas or revisions on the spot. Nothing is more empowering than seeing someone who can draw, actually bring your ideas to life in front of your very eyes!

So now you have some ideas to help tackle the “credibility gap.” It might take some trial and error…or finding different partners and resources to collaborate with…or choosing the types of services that you and your team are most comfortable with. I can assure you -- once you have your first few successes…and clients get “hooked” on the new value you can create for them…you’ll be well on your way to the transformation everyone is talking about.