Cross-media is a gamble: will you lose your shirt?

Jo Francis
Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Data has been described as "the new oil" for the printing industry. If that's the case, then cross-media can perhaps be likened to a new gold rush.

In a world where many print bosses are trying to escape the trap of commodity printing, with its matching commodity pricing, cross-media seems like the answer to many a print boss’s prayers. Like using hot water to create a delicious instant soup, "just add cross-media" held the promise of tastier profits. Print providers would become marketing services providers and be rolling in gold.

And now for the reality check. As with many a get-rich-quick scheme, if something sounds like it might be too good to be true, it generally is.

"The whole thing is a red herring," asserts Paul Manning, managing director at London digital print business Rapidity. "At worst, it’s printing companies seeing a decline in work and grabbing at straws."

Rapidity initially bought into the cross-media dream, even going so far as to set up a separate arm of the business to focus on it. But after three years pushing the services, the company realised it simply wasn’t working out as envisaged.

"There is a massive marketing industry in this country already doing this. As a printing company, with no history in marketing, to be able to go out there and sell this sort of service is a huge challenge," explains Manning. "You’ve either got to create a separate marketing agency or go through an agency, and then you’re just one of many so you’re trying to run a value-added service, but then end up selling it as a commodity."

And it must be emphasised that Rapidity is a tech-savvy company and has just been publicly lauded for its work on the London 2012 Olympics through LOCOG’s Supplier Recognition Scheme, work which included sophisticated systems for delivering operational print for the games via web-to-print. So the firm is certainly no slouch when it comes to harnessing print with digital technologies.

Manning is far from alone in his viewpoint, and suppliers of cross-media systems have also had to take something of a reality check about the way they sell the promise of such services.

"We, as suppliers, have been guilty of bashing printers over the head about cross-media and saying ‘you have to do this’, and they’ve ended up saying ‘stop!’," acknowledges Fujifilm digital solutions sales manager Mark Stephenson. "The reality is that most printers don’t have enough direct customer relationships to be successful at it. And with those who are being successful, it’s like the old joke about asking someone for directions – the answer being ‘well I wouldn’t start from here’."

It’s surely no coincidence that Xerox has recently launched a service called XMPie Cross Media Lab, which allows people who are thinking about investing in the cross-media and variable data system to try it out on a live campaign before they buy it. Giving potential customers the chance to experiment in this way without having to commit to a full-blown investment looks like an eminently sensible idea.

That’s not to say Xerox believes cross-media is any more of a challenge than other services printers have added.

"The print industry can do it, because they’ve done it before, to become a one-stop print shop they took on design, pre-press, platemaking, finishing, fulfilment and dispatch, it’s the same challenge to get more of the control and therefore more of the client spend coming to them," says Xerox marketing manager Kevin O’Donnell.

Nebulous nature

However, the nebulous nature of cross-media does contribute to making it a more daunting prospect than some of those other services. It’s a term that means different things to different people, not least because of the fast-changing digital media and marketing landscape, as evidenced by all the current excitement about mobile media.

"Mobile is now massive, and it wasn’t a couple of years ago," observes Antony White, product business developer for solutions at Canon Europe, who’s been walking the walk about cross-media for at least the past five years and, in doing so, has observed a distinct change in tone in the conversations he’s had at Drupa 2008, Ipex 2010 and last year’s Drupa.

"Previously, people were vaguely aware of cross-media and didn’t really understand it, but at this last Drupa I spoke to about 1,500 people and they were split into two camps," he notes. "The first camp were of the opinion that anything not print was a threat to print; and the second believed that if cross-media is approached in a strategic way, then it’s an opportunity."

For those in the latter category, reinventing a printing business as a "marketing communications services provider" is no mean feat. At the extreme end of such developments there is the example of St Ives. The group has invested on a massive scale, spending more than £60m acquiring a string of businesses to give it data and specialist marketing services know-how. Fellow PLC Communisis has also acquired other businesses in order to reposition itself. Such moves are beyond the wildest imaginings of the vast majority of owner-managed print businesses.

So, when going in search of successful prospectors – when it comes to probing the sands amid the murky waters of cross-media – what better place to turn to than the winner of the 2012 PrintWeek Award for Cross-Media Company of the Year, Inc Direct?

Andy Bailey, sales director at the Enfield-based company, says success in cross-media comes primarily from understanding it properly. "For us, it’s the right use of the right media on the right person at the right time to provoke the right response."

One crucial element in Inc’s success is the company’s focus on gaining a genuine understanding of the customer’s "pain points", while at the same time having the confidence to challenge common preconceptions about what will be the most effective solution.

"Don’t even start talking about it until you understand the current customer journey," he advises. "A lot of printers are getting cross-media capabilities in. But the issue is relating it to the marketer. We do a serious amount of listening first.

"That to me is the main challenge that printers who buy the hardware or software to get into this have – how to relate it to the marketing challenge."

By way of an example, Bailey cites a recent discussion that began with the client saying that what they wanted was an app, and to engage with their own clients via Facebook. "Two hours later, we agreed that what they really needed was an engaging direct mail campaign that talks to their customers."

Howard Hunt joint managing director Lucy Edwards also believes that for cross-media to be successful, it’s vital for the customer journey to be mapped out according to the end customers’ actual preferences, rather than automatically opting for whatever happens to be the particularly trendy media channel of the moment.

"We look at it in a media-agnostic way, using data to drive communications. We are learning all the time, about what customers want and how to communicate it. Some are all online, some are all offline, some are a combination. For me, the data side is absolutely key to successful cross-media," she says.

Focus on data

This focus on data perhaps makes it understandable that companies already used to dealing with data, such as DM specialists, have more of a natural affinity with expanding into the cross-media realm.

Rapidity’s Manning, and Toby Hotston at Acorn Print & Design (see box) have both experienced data difficulties and warn that printers need to be aware of the pitfalls.

"We have had issues in the past with data being incorrectly purchased and supplied," says Hotston, while Manning adds: "There’s a lot going on with the data side, so if you’re not already a mailing house the data aspect is complicated. We found that a lot of data we were asked to use was shocking.

And Inc’s Bailey cites a recent personal example of how bad data – or bad implementation of data – can backfire. "I was on holiday, and I received four emails from the company I’d booked it with trying to sell me a holiday while I was still away. That’s a great example of very poor cross-media."

Whoever decided on such a misguided communication is unlikely to have delivered the required outcome when the results of that particular campaign are analysed. And along with the aforementioned results, Howard Hunt’s Edwards also highlights another important area the committed cross-media exponent will need to get to grips with, that of attribution modelling.

"How do I know the impact of each communication I’m sending? If a purchase is made via a website, how do I attribute it if that purchase was driven by an email, or a catalogue?" she says.

"You can’t bracket any one channel anymore. That’s what we’ve got to get to grips with and understand. And it always goes back to the data."

Last, but certainly not least, it’s also vital to have the right personnel in order to be on the same wavelength as marketers when pitching cross-media services to the client.

"You need people sitting in front of the client who really understand it and can talk about the best way of using it," says Bailey.

This could well mean extensive retraining for existing sales people, or the recruitment of a new type of salesperson with the necessary know-how. And, aside from those whose specific role is sales, it’s important the whole company is awake to the potential for a cross-media upsell, says Jon Tolley, managing director at Nottingham’s Prime Group.

"All customer-facing staff need to have an ability to recognise an opportunity, even if they are not able to sell it themselves. We had a recent example where a telephone enquiry for 150 postcards turned into a £3,500 campaign when we discovered the real objective. This client is now working on much larger campaigns as a direct result of achieving a significant improvement on previous marketing activity."

Informed view

If there’s one thing everyone can agree on – printers, suppliers and those for or against cross-media – it is that what print service providers must do is have an informed view one way or the other.

"Cross-media could be viewed in the same category as ending world hunger; from close up, it can seem too large a task to either undertake or gain any level of success from; it requires a new way of thinking, new skills, new resources and a new approach to a broader customer base," says Xerox’s O’Donnell. "However, the choice for the print-centric supplier is not whether the market wants it – it does – but whether it is a service they want to offer, want to partner to offer, or to ignore and just concentrate on print-based activities. Each is OK, as long as it’s done with eyes open and in consultation with the client."

"If you’re not doing it, you need to be actively not doing it and focusing on other revenue streams. If you put your head in the sand and ignore it, then it is a threat," states Canon’s White. "And there’s no point doing it in a half-hearted ‘me too’ way."

Indeed, Fujifilm’s Stephenson reckons cross-media is, first and foremost, a great tool for printers to promote what they’re doing to their own customers, and in doing so they will develop the sort of understanding and know-how that could lead naturally to more work of this type. "What is essential is that every printer knows where they fit in such a campaign. Am I an A, B or C player in that market and where’s my place? It really depends what their aspirations are," he says.

A few years after the initial rush to cross-media, despite some successes, others have found that all that glisters is certainly not cross-media gold. "We learnt our lesson," says Manning. "If you build it they will come is not a business plan."

Whether that is true for all may take a few more years to discover.


Acorn Print & Design

Liphook-based Acorn Print & Design proves that it’s not just big companies that can enjoy success in the cross-media space. The £1.5m-turnover company employs 15 staff, and began life in the 1970s as a B2 printer.

Acorn has long focused on having direct relationships with agencies and the marketing departments at its blue-chip clients.

"Clients want to get from here to here, and traditional printers are not supplying this," says director Toby Hotston. "They use us because they get the kind of reaction they want. We go back to them with innovation.

"If a client is dealing with an agency, a print firm, a web designer, etc, etc, then co-ordinating all of that lot is very difficult. Whereas we can print, we can produce websites, MPUs… we can do all of that in house and we can be fast and flexible. So we can offer clients a spectrum of services from one company including the internet and the print aspects. And the colour, the branding is all consistent.

"Having the right people on your team is of the utmost importance. I’m constantly, every day, having to learn something new and there are three guys here doing exactly the same. Be it content management or search engine optimisation, you need multi-tasking people who can take it all on board.

"But it really does depend on your client base. If you are dealing with middle men you will lose out in the decision-making process. In order to do it all, you need a close, direct relationship with the client, and a middle-man often muffles that.

"We’re effectively a service agency, even though we’re also a B2 house."


"It is very similar, if not the same, as the way photobook printing has been sold: ‘Get this kit and you can do photobooks,’ with absolutely no regard to where the customers will come from"
Paul Manning Managing director, Rapidity

"To expect a company to just add this service is a tall order. The technical hurdles require a lot of resources. There’s a big investment to be made in software and skills, to do it well"
Lucy Edwards Joint managing director, Howard Hunt

"The number-one thing is to showcase what you’re good at"
Toby Hotston Director, Acorn Print & Design

"Cross-media is possibly the answer to a particular problem. But not always. You need to be not frightened of, politely, challenging marketing"
Andy Bailey Sales director, Inc Direct

"Running effective campaigns for clients eliminates the commodity, price-driven work of traditional print. In our experience, when you can prove the return on marketing spend, the cost of print becomes irrelevant to the customer"
Jon Tolley Managing director, Prime Group

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