Case Study: Print without Printing, Part 4

No, print is not dead nor will it ever entirely die, however our ability to earn a living doing it might if we do not evolve with the new business realities of “print without printing.” In previous articles, I’ve related the significant downward pressure on our duplicate business and gave you my vision of the Killer App (electronic paper or something similar).

What will be today’s print shop tomorrow: What will we be doing in order to make a living in the future? I doubt that I have the perfect answer, for I doubt that there will be just one. But I do think I see where many will end up.

Let’s start with a little marketing. Markets divide. Broadcast television carrying general purpose programs morphed into hundreds of special purpose channels (weather channels, sports channels, and politically leaning news channels). General purpose magazines (Look, Saturday Evening Post) gave way to the specialized (Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Money). Same with restaurants (full service to fast food to fast food oriental) and bars (bars to sports bars to family sports bar).

Markets divide. Now think of printing like television. Let’s name our three broadcast channels Printing, Quick Printing, and Specialty Printing. A disruptive technology (digital, Internet) is doing to us what cable did to broadcasters; it is dividing us into many parts.

Since Gutenberg, there have been two historic roles for printing—information gathering and information dissemination. Gathering info (business forms) long ago went to computers, although there’s still some work around. And dissemination is headed in the direction of the digital do-dads, as I addressed last month.

So what are we to do tomorrow, in a time without duplicates (printing)? We will become many things built around print rather than printing—or content and set-up rather than duplicates.


Marketing Service Providers?

Many say we will become marketing service providers (MSP). Whether the majority of us do that or not depends on its meaning, in my view. If it is meant that an MSP is one who provides a range of marketing services to small businesses, then I think that will be our most logical landing pad. Of course, that depends on what you mean by marketing services as well.

If it means selling mechanical services (print/set-up and printing/duplicates) to those who sell to real customers (e.g.: ad agencies), or if it means morphing our print shops into marketing advisors to the “bigs” (businesses with $20 million or more in sales), then I have reservations about whether many of us can make that leap.

That’s based on the fact that there are just not that many advertising agencies for us to service. One mailing list house shows some 20,000 advertising agencies and counselors today, while showing some 28,000 printers. Whether the numbers are accurate is debatable, but assuming the ratio holds meaning, there are 0.7 agencies for every one of us, or fewer than one customer per printer. Let’s even say we’re off by half and there are 1.4 customers per printer. That’s quite a come down for us because today we see the top 25 customers making up 50-75% of a shop’s business and a total of around 250 customers per shop.

Everything Old is New Again

Printing has always meant taking equipment and technology that is too complex, too expensive, too labor intensive, too messy, or too something; and time sharing it among businesses within a logical geographic area.

The Linotype was too complex, too labor intensive, too messy, and too heavy to be bought by every small business. However, the fax machine wasn’t. It had a short lived commercial life and, for most of us, was a quickly burning star. Some tried to make a business based on the fax machine. Most notable was FedEx, whose idea it was to fax things from one city fax center to another city’s fax center and use their delivery trucks to take the message the final mile. That experiment folded quickly.

Fast forward to today and making duplicates (printing) has become too easy and less necessary because of advanced receivers. While there will always be a need for some printing, we need to find something else to do to earn a living.

The near future, I believe, for most of us, will be to hold onto the complex and labor intensive part of what we do. That’s content creation and the reestablishment of print as an intelligent craft.

That’s right. Printers have always been the intelligent craftsmen of history because the emphasis was on print, not printing. You don’t think of Gutenberg, Benjamin Franklin, or Isaiah Thomas (not the basketball player, the colonial printer) and think of a pile of duplicates . At least, I think of them as literate typesetters. They worked with words and images and created content. I think many of us will do the same in the future. I don’t know what kind of equipment we will use; but I do know that the task that is too complex and too labor intensive for the vast majority of business owners is typesetting, not duplicating.

Look at the tools that are available to any business owner right now and think of their use as comparable to typesetting. Start with a website. Add on a shopping cart and sell something. Give the customer a brochure via a PDF file. In some cases, allow the customer to schedule appointments or provide them with a calendar. Throw in the whole social media thingy: tweeting, friending, and linking. Add maintaining a brand and the creation of and manipulation of images, and there will be a need for reproducing some items as duplicates.

These are tools available to us and we must do like Carl the Fish and waste some time learning websites, HTML codes, and auto responders, etc. We must learn to set type with all of these tools.

Yet, our customers can do the same thing. Where does the complexity and labor intensity come into play? It’s in the consistent content and drumbeat of the message. It’s in the acquisition of followers for our clients. It’s in the ability for us to help create a real selling funnel. It will be tomorrow, as it is today, in the use of these tools, not the acquisition of them.

Won’t that take a new skill set? For printers who have trouble writing an intelligent email, yes it will. But for printers skilled in leading a project team of conflicting interests, personalities, and deadlines—such as customers, prepress, press, and bindery—then the move to leading other, similar project teams—customers, copywriting, graphics, coding—isn’t as big a leap as letterpress to offset.

I do not see this as being an MSP. MSPs provide printing plus incidentals (pURLs, QR codes, etc.) to large businesses or production departments of full service ad agencies. If you will allow me to coin a phrase, I see Managed Marketing. The printer sells to the small business customer, not a middleman. The printer provides the skills needed to do what essentially is typesetting: copywriting, graphics, and coding, using in-house as well as freelance talent. The printer is largely responsible for managing followers (lists, list management, and databases) and then distributes the message via websites, email marketing, auto responders, and even traditional direct mail.

Isn’t this being an ad agency? Again, it depends on definitions, for there are many different types of ad agencies. I see a convergence of small agencies (one or two people) and small press shops. But, as not all small press shops will morph into Managed Marketing, not all small ad agencies will either.

Markets divide. Printers will divide and become many things, as broadcast television became many channels via cable. I envision a time where print shops will provide print services for small business clients. To do this, our current revenue model, based on duplicates delivered, will dramatically change. I see Managed Marketing with a revenue model similar to copier leases—so much a month in exchange for so many clicks with a monthly minimum.

There are limitations on converting to this model. Some will be limited by age and desire. Some will be limited by ability. Some will find more appropriate niches going forward. And some will be limited by their own preference to ride out the duplicate (printing) business model to the end. Then again, I could be wrong. Check back with me in 15 years and we’ll find out. Until then, be very aware of the changes around us all.


Tom Crouser is principal of Crouser & Associates, Inc., 4710 Chimney Drive, Charleston, WV 25302, 304/965-7100. Contact him at And check out the unique business opportunity for small press printers offered by CPrint International at