I was recently speaking with an executive who controls the entire global marketing spend for a large consumer goods company.

He said something that taught me alot about how marketing has to change, “when you spend money on the product, you calculate your spend against gross margin, but when you’re in marketing you simply spend until the budget is gone.”

I love it when people say something that stops me in my tracks. Think about that statement. Why has marketing been given such a long leash for so long or, in most cases, the only leash is the budget? Spend as you wish, hope it has a positive impact, and stop when the budget is gone. Marketers are good at pointing out their impact but when pressed, they typically can’t identify which part of their spend had the desired impact. You know the quote, “we know about half of our marketing is effective; we’re just not sure which half.”

Printers have benefited from this lack of accountability. Print and get paid for millions, distribute sixty percent and throw the rest away – nobody tracked it, nobody cared as long as it was under budget. The vacation from accountability is over for marketers, so what does that mean to printers and why should you care?

Marketers are now accountable to what is called ROMI (return on marketing investment); because marketers like everyone else need to be accountable for results not just activity and budgets. Where is this pressure coming from? Remember, the digital economy serves up marketing methodologies that start with tracking, monitoring, and analyzing return from the ground up, think pay per click. Print has to compete by helping marketers justify their spend and then track the effectiveness.

This is a challenge we need to apply our industry’s collective brain power to; for print to remain relevant, it has to bring solutions to marketers that enable them to track effectiveness. Print has some challenges on this front. How can an analog product compete with the data available in the digital world in order to measure marketing effectiveness? It’s difficult but not impossible, and obviously the most compelling marketing strategy utilizes multiple marketing methodologies in the same integrated campaign.

I think this is a great challenge for the industry to rally around to work together rather than compete. Collectively we can generate more innovation and ideas than we can separately. How can we make print measureable? It’s time to start a collaborative conversation.

I believe the first step in this evolution is to do what Seth Godin told us we should do, “stop thinking of the paper as the product.” The product is the result of the communication. Hence we all need to understand what our customers are trying to accomplish with their printed piece. Why are our customers printing? Can you answer that question very specifically for your top customers today? Don’t just settle for the generic answer of “marketing”, ask the probing questions.

Who are you printing for?

What do you know about them?

How will you know the message hit the mark?

Technology can help; we can continue down the evolutionary path of connecting print to the digital world, QR Codes are just the beginning. We need to figure out ways to engage in the physical world and inspire the reader to connect with us in the digital world. It has to get brilliantly easy and become second nature; we’ll have to bribe the people after the early adopters, providing relevant and timely value in exchange for their willingness to connection.

Collectively we can also reframe our communication methodology, stop being defensive and start taking the offense against common misconceptions around print vs. alternative communication methodologies. I absolutely love what Keen Print is doing. Take a look at Print Is Big. Beautiful information graphics are the modern messaging format on the web – tell a complicated story visually and it spreads. Keen not only created the graphic but gives you (printers) the ability to download and print it for your own marketing efforts.

This is a good reason why we need to keep encouraging more younger and technical people into our industry. I hired Vitaly Golomb, founder of Keen when he was fifteen to work in the computer services department at Kinko’s in Cupertino, CA. Nothing makes me happier than to see him bringing his technical and Silicon Valley entrepreneurial approach to our industry.

Marketers need help justifying their spend and proving its effectiveness – ROMI is their new reality. It is imperative that the print industry be part of the solution. Working together makes a whole lot more sense than struggling in isolation.