Where You Gonna Go when the Volcano Blows?


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Thoughts on Marketing Through an Economic Crisis

by Noel Ward, Editor@Large

It is fascinating how conversations in this aberrant age change directions and how points of view evolve over phone calls or emails or text messages instead of over dinners and drinks. Some recent conversations have been with print business owners, C-level types at print industry suppliers, and a couple of free agent industry analysts.

Recession Redux
One topic was how the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009 had a culling effect on print providers who had been hanging on by their fingernails. Back then, through consolidation and closures, the industry contracted in a big way. That today’s version of economic catastrophe will probably be worse is hardly encouraging, but there are ways to beat back the wolves howling at the door. While not without pain, and as dark as things may be, there can still be a path forward for those who act, rather than stand and watch. There are technologies available today that address pain points. For example, there are automation and data handling products that (mostly) work and vendors that are willing to help print businesses move forward and be positioned for better times.

Up and Down
There is, of course, an upside and a downside. One upside is automation, which has the potential to transform a printing business from the moment a job arrives until it lands on a customer’s desk or loading dock, with only minimal touches required by your staff. A downside of this is that automation may decrease head count because retraining employees is not always possible. Still, when a company’s viability is at stake it can be necessary to do what is best for the company. Not ideal, I know.

Still, there are jobs in many shops that are already being automated, often as part of a continuous improvement strategy. This happens because automating some tasks is faster and more cost-efficient than using manual processes. For instance, inline finishing options available on many digital presses streamline the last steps before a job is boxed and shipped. Or maybe the need is to score, trim and fold brochures, flyers or business cards. This can be done using an easily-programed machine instead of having a person manually handle a repetitive work-and-turn process. Thinking bigger, some automation software encompasses an entire business so that jobs can run without human intervention. I expect those shops that survive the present downturn, and thrive in the years ahead, will be the ones that embrace automation. After all, some of the lessons of continuous improvement that helped some printers through the last economic crisis or the dot-com bust can be applied again.

I know automation is going to cost money, which may well be in short supply just now. Still, it’s a good time to do some homework and talk with vendors to learn all you can about the options available. You may even be able to cut a deal for some new technology while business is slow. The more prepared you are to jump into action now the better positioned you will be when business comes staggering back.

Good things come to those who go after them
And staggering back is about what we should expect. The economy is not going to accelerate to 150 mph all at once. Hell, it’ll probably take a year or so to reach whatever the new normal is going to be. But that doesn’t mean you should sit around waiting for good things to happen. Think now about how your business works, who your customers are and what you can do to help them make their business recover faster. Your business is really all about your customers’ businesses: add value and be more valuable. Seize the moment!

Whether you think of the present economics as a downturn, a recession or even a depression, there are things you can do to make sure you come out as a leader in your market. It’s not easy, but you already know how hard business can be, and that you can push forward, persevere and win.

Paths Forward
John Quelch of the Harvard Business School recommends several strategies, the top three being maintaining marketing spending, adjusting your products and services mix, and adjusting your pricing tactics. This often starts with the end customer and trickles up. Like this:

When the economy goes sideways consumers and businesses usually shift priorities and reduce spending. For end-customers, this usually means cutting back on the things they buy. That impacts the businesses they buy from, which may be your customers. Being reactive, many businesses decrease prices. Marketing expenditures head south, too, which can be a mistake when done reactively and emotionally. The upshot of these moves is that containing costs, failing to support brands, and not examining end-customers’ changing needs can impact long-term performance.

Instead, encourage your customers to keep reaching out, perhaps less often or on a smaller scale, but to keep their brand top-of-mind with end customers. This helps them do better while helping your business stay better aligned with your customer and their needs, making you more of a partner. This is especially important because as the end-customers change, it’s easy for a company that has always turned to you for printing and design work to decide you no longer understand their customers. Being proactive about understanding the needs of your customers’ to help them adjust strategies, tactics, and product offerings to match the shifting demands that emerge in the new normal. Never hesitate to ask your customer how their customers’ needs, thinking and preferences may be changing so you can recommend shifts in how the customer reaches out to them. For example, perhaps a direct mail program should have a lower frequency but be combined with a targeted electronic campaign with QR codes or Augmented Reality. Or maybe postcards with texture or other embellishments will be more interesting for recipients. See what the options are and what will fit your customers’ needs. And never stop marketing.

There’s some great content on this topic and more from Harvard Business Review, especially in the “Working Knowledge” section of the website. I encourage you to take a look. ( Home)

Lead by Example
Even though it costs some money, try to maintain at least some of your marketing efforts. Send out electronic and print materials to your contacts. Provide info you find online about managing remote workforces, using technology to keep business rolling, and the importance of keeping in touch with their customers. This makes you more valuable, look smarter, and be more engaged.

This also keeps you “top-of-mind” with customers and prospects, so when wallets open up again it is the companies that have maintained a marketing presence that are the ones most likely to be called. And if you don’t keep at it, who can blame an erstwhile customer for thinking you’ve gone belly up?

What you Bring to the Party
Customers come to you because you can do things they cannot. Sure, they look first for putting ink or toner on the page, but as you talk with them, add value by helping them think outside the box, or if nothing else letting them know you are there for them. After all, the other printer they used before Covid-19 may have disappeared.

Or reach out directly to customers and prospects. For restaurants needing new menus, offer laminating so they can be easily cleaned for reuse. Or make sure the menus are disposable, even by printing on the menu that they are throwaways or takeaways. The menu may also be shorter, so give the restaurant size options. I know a couple of cafés that have different menus three nights of the week. Be there to print the variations. Ask for the business now so you get on their radar. And keep after them with a postcard campaign, offering to extend it to customers a few weeks before they reopen.

Be touchless: If you can fire up some automation, look for ways to minimize how often jobs are handled in your shop prior to delivery so a customer never has to come into your shop. Encourage remote job submission, and automate your estimating and prepress processes. The software is already available and may even be on the front ends of your current printers.

Be direct
When things come back—at whatever level the new normal may be—direct mail is going to be a critical part of many comeback strategies. Be the one to provide it. It’s relatively cheap, has measurable effectiveness, can be well targeted, and be done in coordination with electronic campaigns. OK, I’m not talking about the supermarket cat box liners we all get that are addressed to “resident,” “occupant,” or “postal customer.” Direct mail is going to come back faster than many other kinds of printing and the print shops that are poised to do the work, and that have been promoting themselves during this downturn, are going to come out stronger and be a leap ahead of their competitors.

Will you be one of them?
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