Future of print: services for the WIFI age

In their newly released book, The Third Wave, industry veterans Dr. Joe Webb and Richard Romano argue that we are facing a new wave of communications technology, one that is premised on WIFI and on the idea that we can pick up any device and get whatever information we want, whenever we want. They call this the third wave. The first wave was the personal computer; the second wave was the proliferation of broadband and introduction of the smart phone.

In this excerpt, the authors look ahead at what services printers ought to consider offering in order to embrace and thrive during this Third Wave.

One of the major themes of this book is that the mix of products and services that a print business offers needs to change regularly as demand in the marketplace changes. In this chapter, we round up a handful of new product and service areas that we think it’s worth a print business today investigating. Some are print-based, some go beyond print, and some involve a combination of media and technologies.

Showing the Way: Signage

Technically, signage could fall under the category of specialty printing but there are several nuances involved with signage that put print services providers in a unique position to help customers with signage needs.

Printing different forms of signage is obviously the most basic sign-related service you can offer to clients, but an additional, related service can involve helping customers navigate the byzantine maze of sign codes, or the regulations that control where signs can be installed, how big they can be, and how long they can remain up. Interior signage poses few problems, naturally, but once you move outside, it can be remarkably easy to fall afoul of ever-changing rules surrounding sign size and placement, which can be mandated by government authorities.

Ultimately, sign codes exist – usually – for the purpose of attempting to eliminate clutter. These codes usually apply to temporary wayfinding signage, such as those Coroplast signs that turn up promoting an upcoming 5K, blood drive, art show, or some other local event. These are obviously legal (in most cases), but need to be removed within a very short time after the event they are promoting.

Even exterior signage on public facing buildings can be subject to regulation. If a retail location erects signage, particularly temporary exterior signage (“Mattress Sale!!!”) it can inadvertently violate a local ordinance. And many exterior signs require permits. Which ones? Well, it varies.

At the end of the day, the company printing or otherwise making a sign for a client isn’t legally required to be an expert in sign regulations; compliance is the responsibility of the sign owner – your customer. However, being an authority on local sign regulations can be a highly valuable ancillary service that a signmaker can provide. A valuable part of that is recognizing that even if signage doesn’t require a permit, it may be subject to regulation. Knowing what signs need permits and which may be subject to what kind of regulations can help a new or small business owner who likely has a million other logistical hurdles to jump through in getting a business or new location off the ground.

Bright Lights, Small City 

While a lot of commercial print businesses are just starting to wrap their heads around printed signage, signmakers themselves are wrestling with dynamic digital signage (DDS), which is becoming more and more prevalent, and is increasingly being installed to complement and supplement printed signage. If a business is serious about getting involved in signage, the ability to design, develop, and deploy dynamic digital signage is an important skillset.

DDS may seem a million miles removed from what print service providers normally offer, but it isn’t really. It’s just another form of graphic communication, but instead of ink on a substrate, it’s pixels on a display. While the mechanics of deploying the content may differ from printing, ultimately what graphics professionals specialize in – effective visual communication – still applies. Print service providers are also in the unique, strategic position of being able to use the same assets for all the various types of output, from small format printing, to wide format print, to electronic media like digital signage and even web pages.

And while digital signage is a good value-added service in and of itself, a value-added-added service, perhaps, is, like with physical signage, helping customers understand the regulations and sign codes that govern digital signage – which can be even more restrictive than those pertaining to printed signs.

Going Places: Events

Convention centres are prime locations for electronic message displays (outside) and DDS displays (inside), but they can also offer other kinds of opportunities for printers. In another chapter we wrote about the opportunities to be had producing specialty items, like ad specialties, doodads, tchotchkes, and seemingly a million other terms. Specialty printing is in many ways what general commercial printing is evolving into: a collection of niches.

But, there is an ancillary opportunity associated with them: events. No matter what industry or market a print customer is in, they probably attend or even host various events. These can range from small, customer meet-and-greets or open houses, all the way up to big trade shows and expos. Associations, non-profits, and other organizations have fundraisers, and virtually every industry has a trade association, which, in turn, has some kind of national conference. The point is, no amount of Facebook or LinkedIn can replace in-person interactions with customers and colleagues.

(A)venues of Opportunity

These events offer many opportunities for printers. All those specialty items mentioned earlier? Someone has to produce them. Sure, big, international expos that draw tens or hundreds of thousands of people may be a bit ambitious if you only have a small, low-volume printer, but not all your clients – or you yourself – attend big, massive expos.

A key thing to keep in mind when working with customers to come up with specialty items to offer at some event or other is to make sure they are appropriate. The best ad specialties are items that are useful and practical. Pens are always good, smartphone cases are popular. Water bottles are a popular item. T-shirts are always good. Work with the client to determine what would be the most useful and appropriate items to offer.

Beyond Tchotchkes

There is no reason why a print service provider can’t handle not just specialty items and other print (and electronic) collateral and signage, but also the actual program implementation itself. Say what?

There have been cases where printers supplied registration and other support staff for local events. A printer located near the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco has also managed to build a lucrative badge-printing business.

This takes us beyond specialty printing, but an ulterior motive for a lot of these event-based initiatives is to make sure that all registrants get entered in a database and can then be plugged into a marketing automation datastream – events are lead-generation opportunities, after all.

“Event management” for clients can encompass a wide variety of print and non-print products and services, and can be an essential set of offerings for clients who host or attend events on a regular basis.

Code Water: Adding Analytics to Print

Quick Response (QR) codes are not a particularly new technology; in their current form, they date from the early 1990s but it wasn’t until the mid 2000s that they started appearing on printed materials, and even then they were not widely recognized or understood. Since then, it has become fairly common to see posters and display graphics like this one that feature a QR code that, in the case of real estate signage, launches a virtual tour of the property.

A great example of QR codes added to display graphics was (and may still be) a corridor in Chicago’s Midway Airport that connects the terminal to the CTA station. The Adler Planetarium had installed a series of astronomy posters that featured a QR code (in this case Microsoft Tag) that, when scanned, launched rich media or other complementary and supplementary information about a particular planet, star cluster, galaxy, and so on. It was almost enough to make one want to dwell in Midway Airport – a remarkable technology indeed.

QR codes are poised for a renaissance.

Apple’s iOS 11, which became available in fall 2017, support QR code scanning natively, meaning you don’t need a dedicated QR reader app. If the iPhone’s camera detects a QR code, it will prompt the user to scan it. Look for renewed interest in QR.

QR codes – and, by extension Augmented Reality (AR), with which QR is often grouped, have become ways of “making print interactive,” but there is a far more important reason to use QR/AR on printed materials: they make print measurable.

Today’s CMOs (chief marketing officers) demand data more than anything – largely under pressure from their bosses, the CFOs (chief financial officers), who today are playing a larger and larger role in marketing decisions (or, more importantly, marketing budgets). With all the various marketing channels available, CMOs need to know what channels are working, and which aren’t. Each channel has to justify itself economically. As a result, CMOs and CFOs are looking for better and better metrics to rationalize spending money on these efforts. Ultimately, what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get a budget.

One big reason that CMOs love electronic media more than print is that electronic media are more trackable. The response to something like a printed brochure hasn’t traditionally been something that was easy to measure. The same goes for signage.

Enter QR and AR, codes that can push recipients into online “track and trace” marketing environments. The marketing automation systems that track customer journeys can now include print in the metrics and analytics that CMOs and CFOs increasingly require. A printed brochure can include a QR code so that if the recipient does go to a website to get more information, or initiates a purchase, the CMO knows that the brochure was the source. The same goes for signage. That QR code on a sign not only offers a benefit for the consumer – a link to get more info, a rich media experience, etc. – but also provides essential analytics for the marketer. And by making print as measurable as electronic media, it helps reduce marketers’ resistance to using print.

As a basic process, adding QR and AR is not especially difficult (particularly the former). Generating the codes doesn’t have to be difficult, although AR can be a far more involved process. But even if you are just slapping a QR code on something, an essential element is deciding what the QR (or AR) code will trigger or launch.

The mechanics of working with QR and AR is beyond the scope of this book, but the two masters you are aiming to serve by using them are a) proving a rich, interactive experience for the consumer of the printed material and b) the measurement and analytics component for the marketer distributing the printed material, and getting them into the marketing automation system.

Carrying Customers’ Water: Content Marketing

Chances are, at some time you have registered for a webinar or downloaded a white paper. To download the white paper, you were probably asked for some basic information. This is because that white paper or that webinar is essentially a lead-generation tool. Registering to receive relevant content is the way for the sponsor to qualify leads, since it’s acknowledged that the customer is already interested in the topic, which sure beats cold calling.

Pulling back a little, content marketing can be defined as “a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience – and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

Content marketing is basically a kind of publishing. According to the Content Marketing Institute (CMI), eighty-nine percent of business-to-business marketers use content marketing in some way – and of the eleven percent of non-users, half say they plan to start. Social media content and blogs are the top two. What are not used very frequently are print publications – although as a print business, launching a content marketing initiative may let you change that. The CMI’s 2017 report on the state of content marketing says that most business-to-business marketers are still in the early stages of implementing a program, and are still not entirely certain what a successful content marketing program looks like, or what the best practices are. This is good news for printing industry newbies, since there isn’t an awful lot of catch-up that is needed.

A content marketing campaign or program, to be successful, is operated very much like a publishing operation. It has an editorial calendar, a social media schedule, a “brand style” be it visual or editorial, it involves analytics, and is integrated with marketing automation.

How does it work work for a third-party to “broker” content marketing initiatives?

Going for Broker

Publishers do it all the time. A publisher’s business development representative will contact a company – say, Ace Widget Corp. Ace has a new Widgetmaster 3000 about to hit the market, and, instead of a boring old ad, wouldn’t they like to promote it using some kind of content marketing? They can offer, say, a white paper, which will be created as a PDF and offered for download on the publisher’s site, via banner ad and other drivers such as social media links. Ace says, “Sure,” the two decide on a fee and the publisher hooks Ace up with a writer. The writer goes off and comes up with a draft, Ace vets it, and when the content is signed off, the publisher has a designer run it into a template, and it goes up on the site.

Once live, the white paper is promoted in varying ways (social media, banner ads on the publisher’s and Ace’s sites, etc.), and users who click the links to the white paper hit a landing page and register to download the content. These prospects are captured and if the number of downloads hits or exceeds an agreed-upon amount, the campaign is deemed a success.

This is the basic process for content marketing, although whitepapers are only one kind of content that can be marketed. There is social media-based content, blogs, and, at the ambitious end of the spectrum things like video.

There is nothing keeping a print business from offering clients some kind of content marketing services. It involves forging relationships with writers and content creators conversant in the customer’s industry, but once that issue is solved, it really becomes a question of distribution and dissemination – things you or your client may already be doing, such as maintaining a blog or social media feed. And running content into an InDesign template for a white paper is not especially difficult for a graphic communications business.

Responsive Design Conversions

At the moment, the future is in phones. Just as desktop and laptop computers are exponentially smaller, and yet exponentially more powerful, than the room-sized mainframe computers of the 1960s and 70s, so, too, are today’s handheld devices that much smaller and that much more powerful than the Mac or PC you had on your desk as little as a decade ago.

As a result, there’s a strong demand for what is called “responsive design.” Essentially, responsive design, or responsive web design RWD), refers to the creation of a website that can automatically detect what kind of device is accessing it, and dynamically reformat the content so that it is optimized for that device. So if a site detects that a user is accessing the site content on a laptop, it can use one particular template, while if it detects instead that a user is accessing it via a smartphone, it reformats the content in a much simpler way that is easier to view and navigate on a tiny screen.

Content Is Like Water

A metaphor that has been applied to responsive design is to make content like water: it takes the shape of the container into which it is poured.

You have no doubt experienced the problem that responsive web design has been developed to solve:  when you visit a website on a smartphone and it is very hard to read and navigate.

This issue is only going to get more acute. Of the estimated 273.3 million Internet users, more than three-fourths of them (seventy-eight percent) are dual-device users. And while mobile-only users currently account for only fifteen percent of Internet users, that number is growing rapidly, as desktop/ laptop-only users continue to decline. As a result, more and more sites will need to be made mobile-friendly. Desktops and laptops aren’t going anywhere (well, laptops aren’t – for now), but there will be more and more dual-device users comprising the overall number of Internet users.

It’s a safe bet that “mobile” computing technologies are going to keep evolving, so there will always be a need to adapt web and other electronic content such that it can “respond” to whatever device is accessing it. So “responsive design” will likely always be necessary and required, even as the devices it is responding to change. Also, it’s a form of graphic communication and can also be a good service to offer to clients – especially if they are clueless as to how to accomplish it.

This is also the kind of service that lends itself to an alliance approach, rather than hiring staff. Ally yourself with a web developer who is adept at responsive design –  you can outsource work to them; they can use you as a print services provider.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry’s best-known consultants, forecasters and commentators. He has written numerous books analyzing the industry and speaks often at industry conferences

Richard Romano, is a veteran writer and analyst in the graphics industry. He contributes to many industry publications and websites, has written several books, and speaks at various seminars and shows

To order The Third Wave please go to amazon.com/Third-Wave-Joseph-Webb-Ph-D