The future’s bright; the future’s online print – because every print business will become an online print provider – somehow.

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There are reasons to be optimistic: plenty of marketing departments and agencies are slowly beginning to rediscover print as an effective marketing medium – many “purely online” players use print to make a lasting impression on customers. Even an online retailer’s package, irrespective of provenance, contains leaflets, vouchers and discount cards. And that’s exactly what happens after any trend or fad has been hyped.

It’s the mix of channels that makes marketing effective, because however flexible the Internet might be, it is also just as fleeting or transient. Power’s down – Internet’s down – print’s still there. And those people that want to own knowledge simply go out and buy a book or even a specialist magazine. And that’s despite the Internet, despite e-books.

Well now, even if quite a few industry insiders are romancing on about a “printing renaissance”, one thing is certainly changing – the ability of customers to trigger print orders. And this situation possesses an undreamt-of sense of drama. Whilst conventional print providers, i.e. providers without online platforms or access, are still struggling with falling margins, most online print providers are doing great. Even those print companies that don’t operate any online stores themselves, but do online procurement or B2B portals instead, are rubbing their hands because sales are so buoyant. Ultimately this indicates nothing other than that customers (even if they appreciate a personal service) have grasped that they can order their print products conveniently and as “master of the process” online.

Nevertheless it would be wrong at this juncture simply to generalize. Not every customer that orders online goes breathlessly in search of the lowest price. Delivery reliability, service, quality, product choice as well as the reputation of the provider and even the online advisory service provided are all factors that print customers value, no matter how different they are. Because if price was the only criterion, why are those providers that don’t offer the lowest prices so successful? There’s more to it than just price. Customers actually want a service that they can scale themselves, at times when they really require this service. Yes and of course 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“If you’re smart and operate an up-to-date business model in the online print market, you will be amazed at how rewarding it is selling new “niche-capable” products.” – Bernd Zipper

As a service provider you can only meet this challenge online, or by investing massively in human resources.

But the world is not a bed of roses, not even for successful online print providers. The effort required to keep on appealing to customers is increasing. Granted, some take the easy route, because low prices always work – somehow. Online print providers that want to achieve fair prices for their products have got their work cut out and have seriously to consider new strategies and services. Furthermore the market leader, Cimpress, is upping the pressure – even more products, even shorter production lead times and even more customization. The bar is being set really high. By taking a consistently mass customization approach, it is working on making online print fit for everyday use by really normal online users, i.e. mainstream. But Cimpress is not alone; other players in this market have cottoned on to this trend and are acting accordingly.

And so the megatrend known as mass customization is not only spurring on the major market makers, but also confronting smaller providers that want to compete with major challenges. Because any business that wants to go down the “mega-personalization” route using a mass customization approach definitely needs to have a handle on issues like high-end print production, automation, lean production, product development, trend scouting, online marketing and state-of-the-art online sales architectures. The same applies to the issues of Industry 4.0 and robotics – anybody napping in this respect is in for a rude awakening.
Oh well, willing (n)onliners in the print business will now ask themselves whether they are able play any kind of role in this game? How much needs to be invested to establish a successful online offering?
But it’s not all doom and gloom. OK, nobody is going to be able to conjure up a company à la Flyeralarm out of nothing in a short space of time with just honest toil and massive investment any more. But there are enough online niches in which print providers can get established.

The same applies to B2B portals for regular customers, written off by some and acclaimed by others, which ultimately do no more than properly map customer relationships online. So there are enough opportunities in the market and the challenge is to leverage the gigantic sales potential that’s out there. Because ultimately what is important is making absolutely every print process available to customers via direct or indirect online interfaces.

My take: However one thing will put all “onliners” in the same boat, no matter whether they are small or large businesses. The challenges involved in selling online print will be tougher, given the extremely attractive competition and greater given the requirement for well-structured, fully automated production. However what is interesting to note here is that the opportunities to earn money from print are increasing again in tandem with the increasing popularity of print as a media channel. If quality and performance all add up, there’s nothing to prevent a “printing renaissance”. In this spirit – Keep cool and print on!

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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