By Ben Gossage
Print is no longer an analogue medium. The format might be familiar, trusted and tangible – all attributes that are strongly in print’s favour – but print is now part of complex digital eco-systems, in sectors from marketing to publishing to retail.
So, what do we mean by ‘eco-systems’ in this context? It’s a way of expressing the rich mix of channels, formats and mechanisms for sharing marketing messages and content with consumers and how closely they’re interlinked.
Print doesn’t exist in isolation. It works in tandem with websites, apps, email, social media, mobile, audio, video, virtual and augmented reality, out of home, instore and experiential marketing. Consumers expect to switch between offline and online experiences based on their preferences. This means brand and content owners need to create intuitive journeys that allow them to flick between channels, almost without realising.
The role that print can play as the connecting point between these other media makes the future of our industry so exciting. So take time to understand the challenges customers are trying to overcome and how consumers’ preferences for receiving and processing information are evolving. You’ll see how print can enrich their experiences and start to imagine amazing new opportunities.
Rather than being intimidated by digital media as rivals to print, think about how you can connect on-demand digital print cleverly with other media to help your customers deliver contemporary experiences that extend choice for their consumers, build their loyalty and drive growth.
Let’s look at promotional marketing as an example. We know that most consumer brands today make extensive use of e-marketing to share promotional messages with customers. Their marketing mix may also include personalised printed direct marketing materials, which already give print an important role in their campaigns (though they may struggle to find the metrics to prove their ROI from print).
But what if those same brands could combine the immediacy of email with the impact of print, triggered automatically by a customer’s actions online or vice versa? Sounds futuristic, right?
Actually, even though print is a physical medium, it can be automated or triggered through algorithms and machine learning like any other technology. So, by the same principle that digital advertising can be prompted by online behaviour, it’s possible to embed print seamlessly into a digital marketing journey too.
Here are a few examples relating to typical consumer marketing scenarios:
An online shopper’s abandoned basket triggers a personalised promotional direct mail shot to arrive at their home address within 48 hours, with a prompt to take the basket to checkout, perhaps with an additional voucher incentive.
A customer has been searching a retailer’s website for blue shorts and red trainers. This search data prompts the production of a promotional mini-catalogue featuring these items, with some extra suggestions for matching clothing or accessories, together with a personalised discount to stimulate them to purchase while their intent is high.
These ‘programmatic print’ concepts are different, but what they have in common is that they use dynamic data from an online interaction to trigger the automatic production of a printed asset, using individual insights about the customer.
The same principle can apply in high value marketing scenarios too. A customer views a video on a car manufacturer’s website and uses an online tool to try out various paint and upholstery colours. The same week they receive a premium quality personalised brochure in the post, showing them the car in the specific configuration they chose. The package includes a VIP invitation to a local dealer event and test drive, informed by their location data.
Key to making this work is harnessing and interpreting the brand owner’s digital customer data quickly and using these insights to automate decisions about what content to include within a promotional communication. Then it’s a question of initiating immediate production and dispatch of an individualised printed promotional item.
This may sound ambitious, but if you’re part of a value chain supplying digitally printed marketing collateral on demand, you’ve taken the first step already – especially if you’re already actively promoting the advantages of personalisation. There are certainly software tools you can add that can help you gain deeper experience of personalisation and of integrating print into trackable, multi-channel marketing campaigns.
The next practical move is likely to involve building a more seamless process between all parties in the supply chain and thinking about how to unify workflows and automate production processes. If you want to enable decisions to be streamlined or even automated so that one action triggers another, then closer technology integration with your customers is probably needed, which might ultimately lead to you creating bridges between your customers’ customer relationship management systems and your own workflow.
And it’s not only online activity that can trigger print. Print can enhance the customers’ brand experience and prompt actions online to support lead generation by incorporating innovative digital technologies. For example, you could receive a mailer that encourages the recipient to interact with the physical print by playing a video integrated into the printed direct mailer to bring a product to life (think of the moving newspaper from Harry Potter!).
Taking it a step further – print can also act as a platform for augmented reality, elevating print beyond the paper. For example, a direct mailer could unfold to reveal a rotating 3D interactive hologram of a product, bringing about a completely new experience in the way that new products or offers are delivered or ‘experienced’ by the consumer. And the physicality of the print contributes to its novelty.
The great news is that these concepts have become real applications today. And the added bonus? The ROI on the print element of any campaign is now measurable in a way that just hasn’t been possible before. Now a brand owner can directly trace the consumer’s response to the printed item and see how it provokes a purchase or another interaction in a separate channel.
The place to start today may simply be to initiate an exploratory conversation with your customers to understand how print could increase the value and impact of their customer marketing. Ask how they’re communicating with their target audiences today; which channels they’re using and which are most effective. What are the gaps in the journeys they want customers to follow? Which loopholes are they trying to close? What are the stumbling blocks to maximising engagement with their customers?
It’s time to be bolder about print’s capabilities and see all the new possibilities for print in a connected, data-driven world. Print can already be a smart, seamless step in the customer journey, with a unique ability to engage, provoke response and drive sales. And that will only get smarter – and more creative – as we head into the future.

Ben Gossage is B2B Sales and Marketing Director, Canon Central and North Africa