Today's Top Five Digital Trends

Listicles—list-based articles—are all the rage these days, so here is our own rundown of what we have found to be the top five “digital” trends in the industry today.

First of all, we should clarify what we mean by “digital.” The term can refer to any number of things, from digital printing to digital media, like the Internet, mobile, and other non-print technologies. So that leads us to trend number one:

#1: Print and Non-Print Are Merging

Actually they have been merging for a long time. Remember the mid-1990s, when print was growing dramatically? The demand for print spiked largely due to the desire to drive people to all those new Web sites that were popping up all over the place. Google pretty much short-circuited that trend by the turn of the millennium, but today print still exists largely to drive traffic online or to some other destination. It could be a physical location, but more often than not it’s an online site. Instead of long URLs, QR codes are one of the ways this is being accomplished today. Although QR codes have their detractors—one longs for a more elegant, less aesthetically unappealing solution to become popular—but for the time being, these printed codes are a quick way to get users from print—be it a poster, a postcard, or a brochure—to a Web site. Augmented Reality (AR) is also a much-ballyhooed technology that, as the phrase goes, “makes print interactive,” or melds print with non-print content. Check out Coastal Industries’ shower door catalog for a great example of how AR can be an effective merging of print and non-print.

Marketers love the merging of print and non-print. Why? Because...

#2: Its All About Metrics

Why have online media been seized upon so readily by advertisers and marketers? Well, yes, cost, as well as timeliness and relevance; to paraphrase Mark Twain, a tweet can make it halfway around the world before print can get its boots on. But perhaps the killer app for electronic advertising and marketing has been the ability to accurately measure the response to a given message. A user clicks on a banner ad, or a link in an e-mail message, or a link in an SMS (aka text) message, and the advertiser knows an awful lot about the person who did the clicking. Too much, it could be argued; it was once said jokingly that “no one on the Internet knows you’re a dog”—but now they not only know that you’re a dog, but also your breed, your age, the dog food you prefer, and your favorite chew toy.

One of the perceived weaknesses of print was its paucity of data. The response rate and the effectiveness of a particular print campaign could only at best be guesstimated. However, the merging of print with online media—and the integration of big data with printing—means that it’s possible for print to be as measurable as electronic media. The most basic implementation of this is a PURLs, or personalized URL. When the user accesses that printed PURL, the marketer knows an awful lot about that user—including what printed item drove them there. QR codes and other print-based drivers can also more effectively track and gather data on a particular user which in turn helps marketers devise more personalized and relevant messages. Which brings us to...

#3: Print Gets More Personal

People love to talk about the “effectiveness” of print, but that effectiveness isn’t necessarily a given. Still, there are ways of making print more effective, and that has been largely the benefit of personalization. Personalization is nothing new—it’s been around in some form or other since at least the 1970s and the advent of the mail merge—but digital printing, and especially high-speed, high-production inkjet digital printing, is taking the idea of personalization to new levels of sophistication. The concept of “white paper in” means that an entire sheet can be 100 percent personalized for a specific recipient—assuming (a big assumption) the database that is being used is robust and complete enough to allow it. Studies conducted over the past 20 years have all found that direct mail that is targeted and relevant will generate a higher response than the old “saturation bombing” approach to direct mail. Inkjet has the advantage over other types of digital printing in that speed and quality can be maximized, allowing personalization on a much grander scale than we have seen before.

#4: Specialty Printing Offers Valuable Niches

Two of the biggest growing and most highly attended trade shows in the printing industry today are the SGIA Expo and the ISA’s Sign Expo, both showcases for specialty printing, especially that using wide-format printing equipment. The emphasis at both these shows is how to create high-value print applications: signage in all its myriad forms, vehicle graphics, floor graphics, building wraps, sidewalk graphics, POP displays, specialty items like printed golf balls, and more are all unique applications that have been enabled by new devices, new inks, and new substrates. Commercial printing has always been about carving out niches (the type of equipment a shop owned largely determined what kind of products they could print and thus what kind of printer they were), but today there are more niches than ever, and the product niches that are in demand by the market change more quickly than ever. As a result, print providers themselves may have to switch gears more quickly to adjust to, and take advantage of, changes in the market. It is easier to do this with digital than with offset equipment, as the former can be replaced or upgraded more readily than the latter. After all...

#5: Time Doesn’t Stand Still—Nor Should You

What does Google Maps have to do with printing? You would think not a lot, but a colleague of mine recently met up with a printing company that realized that a substantial number of print buyers use Google Maps to find the closest print service providers. So, this company identified where in their city the largest concentration of potential customers was, and opened a sales office nearby so they would show up as the closest on Google Maps. And it worked. Call it Proximity Optimization perhaps, but it’s really not a million miles removed from all those companies who used to name themselves AA or AAA Printing to get to the top of the listings in the Yellow Pages. No one—or at least no one under 65—uses the Yellow Pages anymore, so new media require new strategies for attracting customers, and companies that ignore how those customers use new media and new technologies do so at their peril. Facebook, Twitter, mobile apps—this is where people hang out these days and interact with the world. But that will change. Already, we are seeing young people leaving Facebook for newer types of social media, like SnapChat. Users are moving target—and like everything else they are moving faster than ever. That will only continue.

If there is a theme to these and other “digital trends,” it’s that there is no longer such a thing as the status quo. The market for print—and yes, there remains one, even if it’s smaller and much different than we have seen in the past—is dynamic and fast-changing. Shops must be prepared to be similarly dynamic and fast-changing.

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