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Print in the digital era

In the run up to drupa 2016, show organisers Messe Duesseldorf have commissioned a series of articles on the future of print. Here, Gareth Ward outlines some of the key trends and developments affecting

 In the run up to drupa 2016, show organisers Messe Duesseldorf have commissioned a series of articles on the future of print.

In the run up to drupa 2016, show organisers Messe Duesseldorf have commissioned a series of articles on the future of print.

commercial printers, corporate print centres and their customers.

The successful printer of the future will deliver a full-service offering that extends well beyond printing and finishing. The exact mix of digital communications, value added print, data manipulation and logistics will depend on the printer’s customer base, its market positioning and its partnerships. But it’s already clear what’s needed if print is to be a successful communications medium in the next decade: print has to be relevant.

This wasn’t a necessity when print was the prime channel for advertising, information and customer communications. However, much of this mundane printing has transferred to digital and will never come back, forcing print to evolve into something smarter, more versatile and, above all, more relevant to those who receive it.

If a printer (or corporate print centre) is not part of this development, the only option is to sell print services as cheaply as possible, and this is no way to build for the future, nor to create enduring partnerships with customers.

IT drives relevance

Tomorrow’s print service provider must become as comfortable with IT as it is with offset litho. This encompasses everything from operating a website to creating automated workflows that minimise touch points where errors can occur; and from using management systems (MIS) to view up-to-the-minute performance information to the handling of data needed to create personalised communications so that clients can engage with customers in the most relevant way. If that means using social media alongside print, the new print house has to deliver.

The problem here is that printers continue to prefer to invest in new printing presses than in IT, with few giving thought to how jobs are to be processed before reaching the press or once printed. In the fist drupa Global Insights Report published in October 2014, only 23% of the drupa expert panel said they had increased their IT spend in the previous fie years. Almost all decision-makers highlighted a lack of IT specialists.

Yet IT knowledge is key for automation at the process level. Those supplying software to the industry take it as read that JDF compliance is essential. Producing an eight-page section on standard paper is simple, but tomorrow’s customers will want more than this; they will want their printed products to stand out from the thousands of marketing messages their targets receive each day.

Highlighting this trend, drupa President and CEO of KBA Claus Bolza-Schünemann says: “Some years from now there will be fewer printing companies but they will be larger and more industrial with a broad service range. In the commercial sector, printers will turn into marketing service providers for print and online services. The connection between print, online and mobile activities will grow stronger.”

This transition is in its infancy. Last year, a well known commentator on advertising and the internet pointed out that although consumers spend vast amounts of time with their smartphones, mobile attracts only a small proportion of the overall marketing spend, with the fast shrinking newspaper sector continuing to receive a disproportionate amount of advertising. The share of one is bound to shrink as the other grows – unless newspapers become more relevant to readers. This means hyperlocal sections, printed digitally with targeted advertising.

Print in a digital world

The same trends are evident in magazines, where mass circulation titles that used to be printed gravure are losing circulation while special interest magazines prosper. There will be fluctuations across national boundaries and as fashions change, but magazines that cater to a community of readers with common interests will not be displaced by digital delivery of content because reading a magazine is about much more than the presentation of information.

A decade ago it was predicted that with the growth of the internet, videoon-demand and the ability to interact with websites, fashion magazines would disappear because websites can show clothes being worn, have links to prices and instant ordering. But fashion magazines are stronger than ever. This is because possession of Vogue makes a statement about the person carrying it – a phenomenon that has encouraged online fashion websites like ASOS and Pret-a-porter to launch their own printed magazines.

The doomsayers who predicted the same fate for catalogues have also been thwarted. People like to browse catalogues or holiday brochures; they spark our imagination in ways that digital fails to do. Retailers that dropped print catalogues in the past, or that only exist online, are returning to print to remind customers to visit their websites to complete a purchase. If online shopping is going to grow, it will need the help of print to do so.

But not the same sort of print as before. For example, why send someone who always travels to Mexico details of holidays in Canada? Instead, the holiday company should create a brochure highlighting the best hotels and resorts in Mexico. It will be a smaller publication, with a shorter production run, but production standards can be higher in terms of print, paper and personalisation.

A printer must be able to deliver this to its customers. This will require investment in technology that can cope with shorter print runs and print on uncoated papers – popular because of their tactile qualities. It means being able to enhance a printed product using varnish, foils, raised print effects, die-cutting and other processes that make it more exciting and engaging. It might even involve the inclusion of printed electronic circuitry that turns a printed page into a loudspeaker or causes a printed label to light up when a sensor detects movement.

Printed pages can also be embedded with codes that, when scanned with a smartphone, unlock digital information, such as an e-voucher to be redeemed in a store or restaurant, while providing the company making the offer with information about who scanned the code, where and when. The printed poster or advertisement acquires a measurable value because it has demonstrated its relevance to the consumer.

Marketing innovation

The high quality print and finishing effects that sell premium bottles of spirits are finding their way onto other types of packaging, especially artisan-produced goods. Overall volumes for such products might be small, but their look and feel is important and printers can have much more influence on packaging than is the case when working for global brands with large product marketing teams.

In the future, even global companies must become more flexible in order to satisfy society’s craving for innovation and novelty. In this context, printed packaging can become a major marketing tool; just consider the impact Share a Coke has had.

A printer must be able to help cut the time to market for new products, either through automated workflows or perhaps by taking on prototype creation using 3D printing technology. Using new inkjet technologies printers can print directly onto a bottle or package. In what is known as direct to-shape printing, the printing system becomes part of the bottling or packing line, so rather than printing and delivering labels, the print company’s role is to manage the technology and establish a new workflow.

Such developments necessitate a whole new approach to marketing what a printer is and what it can do. For many print service providers, this is unknown territory. Exceptions include online printers that have grown rapidly in recent years, sweeping away swathes of small print businesses. They rarely lead on price, but sell convenience and ease of access instead, raising brand awareness through constant marketing and sponsorship initiatives.

Increasing value

Printers should develop marketing skills to promote their unique benefits, such as personal service, same-day printing, a wide choice of substrates, design, fulfilment etc., and expand their horizons beyond simple production.

Printing will remain at the heart of any offering, but printers must become more like project managers, shepherding different aspects of the communication chain to achieve the result the customer wants and delivering a measurable return on investment. The focus on reducing overheads in the end-to-end supply chain has already transformed how books are printed and distributed; digital printing is starting to eat into packaging for the same reason. It is not the cost of producing an individual carton or label that is important, but the overall cost including wasted materials and time in the supply chain.

Printing companies that can do this and become engaged with their customers and work together to find solutions that embrace print at some level can look forward to the future with confidence.

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