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How Adding Cross-Media Services to Variable Data Printing Increases Profitability

For all the noise about digital, direct mail is still the biggest single direct marketing channel, worth around $45bn a year in the US alone. But it’s increasingly clear that printed marketing communications work best when used in conjunction with digital channels, with response and conversion rates improving by three or four percentage points respectively when printed direct mail is combined with email, personalised web pages (PURLs) and mobile elements.

Many printers will understandably look at this and say ‘fine, but we don’t do that digital stuff here, we just do the printing’. But there is an opportunity for those printers who think beyond the print job to what their customers are trying to achieve. Figures from Canon’s 2014 Insight Report ‘Building your future with print’ suggest that more than two thirds of print buyers are using cross-media, but only one fifth of commercial printers are offering it. The study also found that half the print buyers would contact their printers for advice on combining print with other media.

That still leaves quite a few print buyers who aren’t using cross-media or are not asking their printers about it, and the apparent lack of customer demand is one of the reasons given by printers for not investigating further. Some of that apparent disinterest may just be ignorance about what’s possible, or the assumption that a printer wouldn’t be able to provide the whole service.

But printers, especially those who have been doing variable data printing (VDP) work, are especially well-placed to diversify in this way. While the software for setting up and running digital marketing campaigns used to be expensive and required specialist skills, the trend has been towards ever simpler-to-use and cheaper – even free – tools, effectively de-skilling much of the production process. The professional print part, however, hasn’t really got simpler and neither the equipment nor the expertise to use it well are available for free.

Printers with VDP experience will have overcome one of the biggest hurdles on the route to full cross-media, which is the ability to understand and work with data and databases. The same principles are used for producing multi-channel communications, so although there will be new software to buy and to learn, the underlying concepts will already be familiar.

The next step is to join the different channel actions together into an integrated campaign. This calls for an understanding of marketing techniques and being able to speak the client’s language – ‘cross-media’ can mean different things to different people and many marketers will be more familiar with terms such as multi- or omni-channel marketing. Learning the marketing mindset may well require formal training or at least a willingness to carry out some independent research, but the reward for a print service provider is to move from being a print supplier to being a project partner, a longer-term relationship that offers significantly better margins.

Marketers are very keen to join up their efforts in different channels. According to the Chartered Institute of Marketing in 2011, this was a priority for 85 per cent, while well over a third wanted personalised multi-channel communications and more than 70 per cent were looking for measurability of results. This is where the ‘cross’ part of cross-media comes in; variable print can connect readers to the digital world in a number of ways via smartphones and other mobile devices as well as from desktop or laptop computers; all digital interactions can be captured and the results collated and analysed to further develop and refine subsequent campaigns, leading to a virtuous circle of cross-media improvement.

Links between print and online content can be provided via the inclusion of QR (quick response) codes that can be scanned on mobile devices to open a link to a website. These are typically used to provide further information or access to a special deal or promotion, and as they are scanned with mobile devices, should lead to a mobile-friendly website. Ideally the QR code will lead the recipient to a personalised landing page (PURL) that contains personalised information or a pre-filled sign-up form. Shortened PURLs can be generated to simplify the link for recipients who are entering URLs manually from printed information.

Newer enhancements to print-based digital interactivity include augmented reality applications which give access to additional content such as 3D graphics or video when a printed icon is scanned on a mobile device. There are a number of apps for this which require little or no programming skills to implement, but there is no clear standard, so careful consideration must first be given to the target audience.

An interactivity option still in its infancy is Near Field Communication (NFC) in which a radio transmitter disc the size of a small coin is mounted or embedded in the printed product, typically a poster or point-of-sale item. No app is required for tablet and smartphone users to be able to interact with NFC, but it is currently mostly supported on Android devices and requires additional equipment and finishing.

Moving into cross-media services isn’t just about broadening a printer’s service portfolio, either. InfoTrends’ 2013 report ‘Trends in Cross-Media, Emerging Trends’ states that for nearly two thirds of print-for-pay providers offering cross-media services, volume of digital print increased by between 10 and 39 per cent, and for 10 per cent of them, it increased by more than 50 per cent. The profitability of work also seems to have a direct relationship with the number of channels supported, with the combination of print, email, web/mobile and ‘pure’ mobile (SMS, apps and mobile-friendly websites) being significantly more profitable than any smaller set of channels.

Adding cross-media services to VDP is a way to further cement relationships with print customers and increase margin by moving up the production chain. Further articles in this series will explain how choose cross-media software and to sell the new services.