WhatTheyThink's Cary Sherburne contributed to this article.

Returning from what is our industry’s largest tradeshow event, I couldn’t help but think that even though drupa has historically been the showcase for “big-iron,” one of the most important aspects of the printing industry going forward is what happens around the big-iron, most importantly upstream and downstream in the workflow. In fact, it was interesting to hear big iron companies such as Heidelberg, KBA and Komori state that print companies needed to go “beyond the box” in their business strategies.

Printing companies from around the globe flock to drupa every four-years to see the latest innovations in all types of printing solutions. This drupa was even more spectacular than previous shows with both incremental improvements and disruptive innovation in traditional and digital printing equipment as well as significant innovations in workflow management solutions. The highlights of these introductions have already been well-covered by our respected colleagues in great detail. However, the drupa summaries to date do not provide printing company executives with insight into the one key question that every service provider is asking, “How do we feed the beast?” That is, if I make the leap to digital printing, or wish to expand my presence, how do I ensure a profitable stream of work that will result in a return on my investment?

Conventional versus Digital: The Battle Continues

Most printing companies these days have some blend of conventional and digital printing. Determining which press and which workflow is most effective for each job can be a bit of a balancing act. As a growing number of digital technologies have been added to the latest generation of analog presses, their efficiency has improved significantly. Offset print has become more automated and streamlined with make-ready times such that the economic cross-over point between digital and conventional continues to come down, making even more of the “static” shorter-run print jobs candidates for traditional printing.

For traditional printers who wish to incorporate some personalization on static jobs for inline production, but may not wish to actually invest in a fleet of digital presses, hybrid printing can provide a viable bridge. I (Bondy) gave a speech at drupa on hybrid printing, and it was packed with individuals looking to maximize their investments in traditional printing presses by incorporating inkjet heads inline in the system.

Also a highlight at drupa were a number of “combo” presses that combined multiple technologies into one press, including inkjet, toner, offset, even flexo, and a multitude of inline finishing/embellishment capabilities. Depending on the application mix, this “combo” approach might make the digital decision easier by extending the flexibility of the investment. As the market continues to evolve, expect to see more developments in this area. It is especially interesting to consider these solutions in markets such as label converting where the entire process is controlled by the digital front end and the result is very high quality embellished labels ready for application in a streamlined process like we have never seen before.

Digital print on its own continues to grow and span an even wider array of print applications; from sheet-fed/web EP (electrophotography), to sheet-fed/web inkjet, there are digital printing systems to handle most any type of print project. And, in fact, production inkjet has reached a point of maturity where it is now taking volume both from EP and offset, even for static work.

This trend, and the continued improvements in offset efficiency, are having a bit of a pushme/pullyou effect, emphasizing even more that establishing an effective, automated and profitable workflow goes way beyond the box (or press) itself, and must take into consideration a myriad of factors in addition to the simple economic cross-over point.

So while it is extremely important to think beyond the press, it is also important to think strategically about the types of products you wish to produce and the most effective platform(s) for that production. And keep in mind that the offerings are evolving quickly. That’s why it is important to plan drupa attendance very four years, as well as use other means to stay current with the industry’s transformation.

Yet even that is not enough. Being successful in the digital age requires significant cultural and operational changes to be able to optimize the value of hardware and software investments.

Feeding the Beast

Since the primary value proposition for digital print is personalization (other differentiators include short-run (POD) and collated sets), it stands to reason that all printing companies that include digital print in their offerings, or plan to do so, need to ensure they have the fundamental know-how and technologies necessary to drive digital print devices, AKA – Feed the Beast!

“Feeding the Beast” requires two key elements:

  1. Selling: Establishing a business development competency that enables the selling of complex and reoccurring cross-media programs, and
  2. Delivering: Designing a platform (process and technology) that enables a streamlined flow of jobs to the digital printing equipment while simultaneously delivering to the Web, mobile, and social media.

Without these two elements in place, printing companies  will not be well-equipped to engage the market in a manner that will generate the volumes of work required to drive and sustain a profitable fleet of digital printing systems. Success also requires a rethinking of product offerings beyond print to meeting the needs of an increasingly digital and mobile consumer.

In a PRIMIR/InfoTrends on “industry transformation” a few years ago, we found that “transformers” (companies that grow 2X industry growth and deliver 2X industry profit) offer integrated cross-media services that incorporate a single integrated workflow for all media deployment channels. These leading companies incorporate a foundation in print production (traditional and digital) with Web, mobile, and social media to deliver a multiplier effect for their clients that makes print even more powerful than it would be on its own. Let’s talk about each individually.

The Importance of Business Development

Feeding the Beast from a sales perspective includes a two-pronged market engagement strategy. All successful company realize that there are two types of work: “jobs” and “projects/programs.” The most successful firms design a streamlined product flow for the more standardized “jobs,” and an upstream project management competency for managing the “projects/programs.” Once all the design, data, content, and planning is completed for project-type work, these are reduced to a job or series of jobs that recur over time. Providing high-touch value-add project management is a high-margin differentiator that enables the service provider to engage at a different level in the customer organization, selling programs that deliver measurable results rather than selling only a print job, which all too often is reduced to a commodity sale (even if it does include personalization!).

The question often arises, though: How do we win this type of “project/program” work? The answer is by adopting a Business Development versus Sales mentality. Business Development efforts require a unique market engagement approach that includes vertical market knowledge, a discovery process to uncover a customer pain-point and a unique solution to that issue, data acquisition, design, content proficiency, project management skills, and the ability to conduct closed-loop measurement and analysis of results. Business development folks use lifecycle marketing to develop programs that are focused at very specific targeted demographics with measurable triggers using a variety of media channels, including print.

Project/program selling is a consultative-sale that opens the door to the opportunity to leverage the primary virtue of digital printing, which is personalized communications. Incorporating a business development mentality into your market engagement strategy allows you to intercept print opportunities that are embedded in rich, high-margin projects/programs that are capable of bankrolling the most efficient digital print equipment available.

In many cases, this may require a reset in the sales force. While conventional print sales people will still have a role for the foreseeable future, in the new world of cross-media, many companies are finding that hiring sales people from outside the industry is the way to go. As one printing executive explained recently, “I can teach people about print; it’s much harder to teach them solutions selling.”

Delivering on the Promise

Once you have the deal, the next challenge is delivering on the promise you have made to the customer. This is not trivial, and should be nailed down before you get that first deal, if possible. In some cases, long-time customers are willing to work through implementation with you, sharing the risk. Either way, a solid strategy needs to be in place before the first sales call with an implementation plan that will enable you to move fairly quickly if further investments need to be made. The good news is that the variety of solutions and price points continues to increase, and there is more cross-vendor collaboration that makes implementation of these integrated solutions faster and easier.

Most companies with digital print capability today can produce a personalized or variable-data print (VDP) job. But in the world of business development, the objective is to not produce the VDP job in a manner that reduces personalization to a commodity. The ultimate goal for cross-media communications is to deliver a closed-loop communications stream that begins and ends with data.  Data is needed in the conceptualization and testing of projects/programs as well as in the tracking and measurement of actions and results.

Expanded competency in tools, workflow, and management of data, design, content, and project management are table stakes in the new world of digital printing. Companies that have invested in the right talent and technology have the ability to conceptualize, produce, and deliver the most complicated cross-media projects/programs with the highest profit margins. If you do not have a data department, start one today! Hire a geek that understands data or comes from a direct-mail background. If you cannot find a data person to hire, assign an existing resource to this function and invest in training. Leading companies have experts in-house in data processing/data analytics and have invested in the associated software tools necessary to mine, cleanse, append, and optimize data. They also have on staff (or consulting relationships with) individuals skilled in software/Web development for online storefronts, digital asset management and more.

Incorporating a variety of design, data, and content services into your service offerings will expand the breadth and depth of the projects that you can tackle as well increase production efficiency (reduced cycle-time, increased precision, better results and lower cost).

It’s important to stay current and knowledgeable about the leading VDP software solutions in order to ensure a solution that will deliver desired results, and to keep that solution current, even if it means changing horses as new developments occur. It is imperative that these solutions leverage the Adobe Creative Suite/Cloud and provide cross-media composition and deployment is imperative. The combination of a strong data department, digital asset management capability and a cross-media VDP composition system are core elements of the new digital print “front-end” platform that is required to Feed the Beast and stay both profitable and competitive.

It is also a good idea to evaluate your current MIS system to ensure it is capable of handling projects/programs with the appropriate workflow, including project estimating, remote job submission, and job tracking at the record level. Finally, select the best-in-class web development platform for storefront creation – storefront development is an essential component of delivering cross-media communications since targeted clients need landing pages and the marketing department needs a dashboard to monitor the results of the various projects/programs.

drupa 2016 provided an extremely robust showcase of traditional and digital printing systems with capability that often puts supply (ability to produce) ahead of demand (need to create). If digital print is going to revolutionize the printing business, companies will need to invest heavily in ensuring they can “feed the beast.” If the level of sales that took place at drupa is any indication, that process is well underway for many businesses. And the more effective companies are at aggregating demand, the more demand there will be for placement of digital printing systems.

For more details on print industry transformation, read the book Unsquaring The Wheel, https://www.rit.edu/press/unsquaring-wheel-comprehensive-scalable-transformation).