As someone who has watched the printing industry evolve for more than two decades, I find myself in a surprising position. In order to understand where print is going, I’m having to learn about online marketing. I never thought of print as heading in this direction, but the reality is settling in that this may be the future of print and, especially, direct mail.

There will always be a place for high-volume mailings, whether personalized or static. It’s the rest of the mail volume, the more traditional commercial mailings, where the uncertainty lies. Printers are trying to understand how to position print and make it relevant in a largely digital world.

Those of us in the industry know that print has an incredibly important and irreplaceable role to play, both now and in the future, but not all marketers do. The strategies of digital marketers are incredibly successful. They could be more successful by integrating more with print, of course, but we can’t necessarily expect them to know that. As a result, is it incumbent upon us to understand and integrate into their world, not the other way around?

Take direct mail retargeting. I wrote about this several months ago, and since that time, there is even more happening in this space. In “traditional” retargeting, someone goes to a website, looks around but doesn’t buy anything, and then a digital ad for the product they were researching pops up in their social media feed within minutes or hours. With direct mail retargeting, they get a postcard instead of a digital ad. Just within days instead of hours.

This type of retargeting is made possible by the use of cookies, which companies either gather themselves or purchase from data companies that pair those cookies with user identities based on third-party data. Thus an anonymous website visitor gets served with a postcard with a discount on the very pair of pants he was researching three days ago.

Not that retargeters may jump immediately to print. More likely, they will start out with digital ads. For those in their target audience who don’t respond to digital ads, they may bump up to retargeting with email. If it’s a high-value product and certain people haven’t responded to retargeting emails, the marketer may graduate to direct mail.

The point is that, while direct mail plays a key role this type of escalating site visitor re-engagement program, it doesn't start there. It is a piece in the larger puzzle that starts with digital marketing. Digital is the door that opens the opportunity for print to play its “closer” role.

It’s similar with other digital services, such as data onboarding and net promoter scores. I was contacted recently by AskNicely, which offers a net promoter score service. These services track what people are saying about your brand online in social media and other channels. Once you know what people are saying about you (positive or negative), you can adjust your marketing strategies accordingly to address specific needs or capitalize on opportunities. Some of these strategies may involve print, but once again, it starts in the digital realm.

Likewise, I’m continuing to see the number of mobile-to-print photo services exploding. Take a photo, send it as a postcard. Go online to a service like Shutterfly, and as soon as you select photos to print, you get a pop-up screen asking if you want to order a photo book instead.

The number of examples is growing. It’s adding up to a larger pattern in which print plays a critical role, but the opportunity starts with digital.

I’m seeing it with my interviews, as well. As I have contacted these digital marketing companies to understand the connection between online and print, I have been surprised by the number of people I’ve come across who started out in commercial print. They are doing what I'm talking about here—taking the value of print and understanding how to plug it in to their digital worlds to amplify their results.

It’s a different way of looking at print, and I suspect that it’s one we’ll be talking about more and more.