IN A RECENT post to her new blog (jennifermatt.com), independent Web-to-print expert Jennifer Matt poses the question: Can and should printers become marketing service providers? She suggests that while that might be the ultimate goal, printers are perhaps better served by attacking the challenge from a position of strength—developing a compelling online presence that features the company's core strength—print—and then working from there.
While I have been among the voices clamoring for rapid and dramatic change to address the emerging new market realities, Matt makes a terrific case for taking a slower, more thoughtful, approach to the challenge most firms are facing—declining print revenues. Does this mean you should not be investing in an online presence that goes beyond a company brochure and equipment list?
Of course not! It is still critical that your Web presence be modern and compelling, and that you provide an easy way for your customers to do business with you 24/7 from anywhere with an Internet connection—which is just about everywhere these days.
New Sales Paradigm
But, at the same time, you should also be working to transform the way you sell to customers. The old "what print do you have for me today," or "Gee, aren't we excited about our new press" approach just doesn't work like it used to.
The way to reach the minds and hearts of marketers (who are, in the end, the primary driver for print procurement) is to present them with proactive solutions to the problems they face every day.
Sorry, most marketers really don't care about your press, even if it is a brand spanking new, high-end digital mega-press with all the bells and whistles. And they really are not buying print.
They are working hard to support their organization's business goals and objectives, which generally and increasingly involves extending the level of support they offer to their sales organization in order to deliver qualified leads and be able to measure results they can deliver in terms of return on marketing investment.
As Matt points out, that requires understanding what that printed piece will be used for, what business objectives are behind the need to produce it, why they want it in the first place and, dare I say it, questioning whether they really need 25,000 or 50,000 copies, or whether it needs to be printed at all to best achieve those objectives.
Now, this does require a dramatic change in sales culture for most companies! What? Walk away from a 50,000 run of brochures or suggest not printing them at all? While it may seem that this doesn't make any sense at all, if you are taking a long-term partnership approach toward delivering the best possible customer experience, it can make all the sense in the world if it is the right choice for the customer.
It increases your credibility. It begins to position you as a business partner, not a commodity vendor. And, over the longer haul, it will help you move further up the marketing supply chain where decisions are being made about how and when content—not just print—should be produced and communicated.
Avoid Commodity Game
Otherwise, we just continue with "business as usual," competing for individual jobs at commodity prices. That is not a viable long-term strategy, and it has not been for quite some time. Well, unless you are a Vistaprint, which has built an infrastructure so highly automated that it brutally carves every bit of fat out of the process, down to the bone, to deliver commodity items like business cards and postcards at bargain prices, yet still benefits from great margins. And, let's face it—Vistaprint does print; but at its heart, it is a marketing company.
There are many lessons to be learned from online-only printing companies like Vistaprint or Mimeo.com, but the key lesson is to have a compelling online presence and to sell your customers on using it to their benefit.
Truthfully, a good Web-to-print front end can take a huge administrative burden off of the marketing department, even while placing more of the administrative responsibility on the buyer. It also takes time and cost out of your business process by automating order entry, making catalogs of pre-defined materials available and, ultimately, delivery a recurring stream of business that translates into higher revenues and higher profits.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Charlie Corr, chief strategy officer for Mimeo.com, on the subject of improving employee efficiency. Although much of that discussion was around Mimeo's manufacturing efficiencies, which are increasingly moving to a cell manufacturing model rather than line manufacturing (more on that later), he points out that Mimeo processes more than a million orders per year, adding, "You have to be efficient at taking these orders in and working them through production, billing and shipping. You have to be vigilant throughout your organization, and it is relentless."
Mimeo constantly works to make its Web presence easier to use and more functional but, at the same time, keeps a sharp eye on customer support resources. If the solution is so easy to use that clients don't need to call with questions as often, the customer service metrics need to be balanced accordingly. This is another consideration that needs to be factored in to implementation of a Web-to-print front end.
As Corr points out, though, improving order efficiency is not enough. That can simply move bottlenecks somewhere else, which is why Mimeo.com and other successful firms in today's dynamic market are investing significant resources in ensure that the process works smoothly, and with as much automation as possible, from end to end.
To that end, Mimeo's cell manufacturing approach is an interesting twist on producing the actual product. To produce a photo book in the company's Newark, NJ, facility, for example, everything that comes after the press is done in one production flow by a dedicated "work cell." Books are taken in, bound, checked for quality and prepared for shipping with minimum movement of people and/or materials.
Corr says, "A cell might consist of three color digital presses and one binder, but we closely examine the workflow, including movement of people and movement of materials and product. We also do time-and-motion studies to figure out where equipment should be placed for more efficiency, and we relentlessly track dwell time—how long it takes the product to go through the process and get shipped."
By all means, get to work on figuring out that front-end, Web-to-print process, or improving the one you already have. But don't forget about what happens before and after that to turn a customer contact into payment of an invoice. Meanwhile, keep that longer term "marketing services" goal in your sights. Ultimately, you are likely to have to go there. But it can be done in phases, building on the significant expertise you already have in delivering effective communications tools to your customers. PI
About the Author
Cary Sherburne is a well-known author, journalist and marketing consultant whose practice is focused on marketing communications strategies for the printing and publishing industries. She was recognized as a 2009 Woman of Distinction and was awarded the 2009 Thomas McMillan Award for excellence in journalism. Sherburne has written six books, including "Digital Paths to Profit," published by NAPL; and most recently, "No-Nonsense Innovation: Practical Strategies for Success," written with Bill Lowe, the Father of the IBM PC and available on Amazon. She can be reached at Cary@SherburneAssociates.com.