Creating value: how can online print react to changed customer buying behavior?


Two fundamental choices determine success or failure in the online business. eCommerce success indicates either a strong brand or a link to a well-frequented platform – and it’s no different in online print. That could well be Martin Groß-Albenhausen’s credo as expressed in his presentation – so reason enough to check again.

Following on from our compilation of the most trenchant Twitter feeds and my detailed insider‘s report on the Online Print Symposium 2017, which summarized the trends and developments discussed at this year’s leading industry event, I am once again taking a detailed look at my presentation favorites. So this is another opportunity for all those folk who couldn’t make the OPS 2017 to get an impression of what they missed out on. One presentation that particularly appealed to me at this year’s OPS was the one given by Martin Groß-Albenhausen, the Deputy CEO of the German eCommerce association, bevh (Bundesverband e-commerce und Versandhandel). And given that eBusiness print tends to reflect the same tendencies as general eCommerce, the question that needs to be asked is how online print providers should position themselves in strategic terms to accommodate the changed buying behavior of B2B and B2C customers.

Bernd Zipper: Let’s consider those aspects that you summarized – “data skills”, i.e. the use of existing customer behavior data to enhance customer approaches, and the idea of platform integration and vertical interlinkage, summarized by the acronym “O.P.E.N”. Do you think that online print trends and developments will take a different form to what’s happening in other eCommerce businesses?

Martin Groß-Albenhausen: Every online provider needs to know what the typical “customer journey” involves. In other words I need to understand which platforms users prefer to utilize, on which platforms they prefer to devote time to my topics and where they are reachable. These journeys and touchpoints differ considerably and are easy to describe within the different “personas”. In my presentation I explained that success and added value are generated when the provider has a presence tailored to the user’s needs on the user’s preferred platform and sends a personalized message to the user at the time of their need. The platform can then, for example, be used to drive traffic (in this case the user) to the provider’s store – that is a relatively simple process, not necessarily more than just a link. The platforms also frequently provide standard interfaces or APIs, for example, to translate timelines from Facebook into a product or to provide applications right there on the platform. Conversely the sharing of products from  the provider‘s own store is just as important for adding value by means of  networking as described above.

Online print has a considerable advantage here. On most platforms the user enters into a creative process or is at least emotionally very involved. On Stylight for example they produce mood boards (“styles”), on Instagram they share photos and elsewhere designs… The online print provider can not only join the discussion, but also ensure dissemination of their message within the platform through the use of appropriate applications. These applications don’t have to drive traffic directly to the store, but in isolation serve a specific purpose – usage enables them to collect more data and make new first-time contacts and as a result approach customers more effectively.

The online print provider can become a part of the value chain at various different points, depending on the target audience. My architects’ example demonstrates that, for example, HoloLens helps architects design new buildings virtually, creatively and accurately in 3D. The architects are part of the BIM (Building Information Modelling) process. An online print provider can provide tools here to translate these virtual designs as seen from any perspective into 2D diagrams. Or plot out the outlines directly. Or select 3D environments from diagram libraries that can then simply be plotted out as HD data as required.

Consider, if you will, companies like adnymics, which have simply revolutionized the printing process and print enhanced promotional media at the customer’s place of packing, based on the customer’s online data. Just imagine if you could extend this process to Facebook – Facebook is a platform where the clients of print customers are active. “Touches” on Facebook have a customer-specific “value” and suggest what should happen next. Here translation into print suggestions or inspiration (even in the form of postcards) could add value. That would be the adnymics principle applied to third-party platforms.

PastBook: a positive customer approach example from the presentation, which originates from an online print environment; source:

Bernd Zipper: What can or must online print providers do differently in this case – in particular if a distinction is made between to some extent smaller niche providers and the print factories that have a high degree of automation?

Martin Groß-Albenhausen: Online print providers have the opportunity to do more with data, because they don’t have to sell finished products. A niche provider can develop a highly specific process for a small but internationally scalable target audience. Here is a brief example from another industry – do-it-yourselfers and creatives come into contact on platforms like etsy or dawanda; perhaps there is a process that allows people to develop a relatively standardized knitting pattern from a customer-specific pullover. In combination with a provider of yarns that would create a wonderful niche product that adds value in every country where people knit and is easy to distribute via the Internet. The consignor of the wool would ship the wool for the pullover together with the knitting instructions on demand. With this in mind, a small market would no longer exist…

“While you could question whether the ecosystems as operated by the really major players will be the business models of the future, the fact is that the power of the market, which can and to some extent is already impacting on the print industry, is massive.” – Bernd Zipper


Bernd Zipper: Does it then make more sense for smaller print providers to invest in developing their own systems or to rely on docking on to one or more platforms, despite the resultant degree of dependency? (After all proprietary services can be effectively distributed via digital channels, n’est-ce pas?)

Martin Groß-Albenhausen: That’s a tough one to answer… platforms are obligatory because they are frequently not just gateways but also places of fulfillment. Customers share transaction-relevant data with platforms – think of the lock-in effects at Amazon. If a print provider enables their proprietary process to be offered on the platform, the print provider gains a much bigger audience, because people have greater faith in platforms than in individual providers. They also have to invest a lot of money to generate a comparably large number of inclined-to-buy customers via the search engines. However quantity is not necessarily the most important issue. If you have a great content strategy and are able to target the audience you want to appeal to effectively on Facebook or YouTube by employing the appropriate formats, then high conversion rates in your own store, i.e. in your own platform-independent system, are feasible.

Generally speaking, not all complex print products can be adequately showcased on platforms. What are interesting are models like the Mercateo platform, which in a B2B context allow for data to be exported from the platform to individual stores where the print providers operate their proprietary processes. The configured product along with relevant transaction data are then reimported back on to the platform, where order processing takes place. Such collaborative solutions are however only in their infancy.

My Take: Enhancing services and the effective use of existing data are essential for achieving customer centricity. And if data usage and service represent the means of choice for reaching out to customers, and the basic principles of achieving eCommerce success, such as simple ways of ordering plus satisfactory product quality and delivery lead times, are heeded, then Martin Groß-Albenhausen’s message can definitely be applied to existing business models in the European online print industry. But unfortunately only a few online print providers are masters of reliably meeting customer needs at the proper level. But all print providers basically have the opportunity of adding value more extensively. As I said before, specific (integrated) services are basically superior to a solitary price advantage – so most online print providers know in which direction they need to head! As far as docking on to the really major platforms is concerned – what should not be forgotten is that for all the benefits that they offer, they also involve a degree of dependency. Willi Brandl stressed this point more than once in his presentation and contrasted the wide range of sales opportunities via Amazon et al with the immense expenditure of time involved, which if you don’t do it right, for example by answering queries at any time of day, can lead to your business being excluded. Docking on to the big boys needs to be carefully considered, as it can also be a double-edged sword …

Founder and CEO of zipcon consulting GmbH, one of the leading consulting companies for the print and media industry in Central Europe. The technology and strategy consultant and his team actively support practical implementation in a wide variety of customer projects. His work involves developing visions, concepts and strategies for the players active in the print production process across a wide range of industries. His areas of expertise include online print, mass customization, strategy and technological assessment for print, and the development of new strategies in the print and media environment. Bernd Zipper is the creator and chairman of Initiative Online Print e.V. and, in addition to his consulting activities, is an author, lecturer and sought-after speaker, orator and moderator. His visionary lectures are regarded worldwide as trend-setting management recommendations for the print and media industry. (Profiles also in Xing, LinkedIn).

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