Tracking Printbuying Trends


My brother-in-law suggested I try the Sangiovese. The way he said it, I could tell he was disappointed in my habitual selection of Merlots throughout the week-long vacation. A real wine afficionado, my brother-in-law knew that these two wines were similar enough to please even the most dedicated Merlot palate. He was right. I now request Sangiovese, usually a European import, when I find it on wine lists.

While my switched allegiance isn't going to sink the California wine industry, altered attitudes on a larger scale can have profound consequences. In fact, wineries that planted for the Merlot upswing are facing significant losses as demand has steadily declined.

The above scenario illustrates a basic marketing fact . . . buying habits change. It also raises one of my pet peeves: the all-too-common assumption that, since sales reps are in constant contact with customers, other research is unnecessary. Today's frenzied pace of technological innovation, new Internet-based competition and the ongoing consolidation trend all necessitate continuous monitoring of printbuyers and their concerns.


Behind the one-way mirror, we couldn't believe what we'd just heard. The customer was complaining that his biggest printbuying headache was getting invoiced on time! In another focus group, a client discovered that a product he'd developed as a direct mail CD-package was much too light-weight-both in paper stock and aesthetic-to be seriously considered by buyers. Another client was shocked to learn that his New York City customers lagged behind other regional customers in their knowledge and experience of online and printing technologies.

I could go on and on. Every focus group and marketing audit we've conducted on behalf of clients has netted not only valuable insights into existing printbuying habits, but also surprises about printbuying concerns. Time and again, we have found discrepancies between what clients promote about themselves and what buyers actually know, or perceive. In short, very often there's a disconnect between organizational marketing strategies and sales efforts.


Perceptions on both sides can be misleading. Sales reps probably know their customers' immediate needs well. But how often does a rep have the time or inclination to probe the buyer about critical issues other than the job at hand. How likely is it that the rep will question the buyer about concerns regarding the printbuying experience, expectations of the print provider and perhaps most importantly, satisfaction with the their and their company's performance.

Even if a rep did ask these questions, answers can be compromised by the buyer's wish not to make waves, since the contact is usually in the context of a job in progress. Even under the best circumstances of a long-standing relationship, the rep may be asking the wrong questions, or rather not the important ones like "did you know my company also provides XYZ services and do you or others in your organization ever need these services?"

Discovery Channels

Whether or not you're looking at buying a new piece of equipment, designing a new brochure, adding a new service, or better promoting your existing capabilities, objective research and reporting is a critical component. Depending on your objectives, there are a number of research tools at your disposal. From full-blown quantitative market research studies and marketing audits to focus groups and customer surveys, objective research can help you make better-informed decisions.

Sales and marketing audits are ideal for brand analyses, assessing the efficacy of sales and marketing efforts as well as for laying the foundation for effective marketing programming. Although they may differ widely according to purpose, these audits generally entail the following steps and deliverables:

  • Interviews of management and industry experts to determine competitive positioning.
  • Assessment, or situation analysis, of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
  • Analysis of sales and financial data, including key account profiling and product profitability.
  • Report and program recommendations.

One client used a marketing audit to help define a clear identity for its parent company and each of three operating entities while providing linkage and unity to its markets. Another client, a new company, asked us to audit the existing design/ad agency/corporate markets to ascertain interest in and develop branding for its unique capabilities of finely detailed, laser-etched printed products. More typically, clients have used these audits to help design programs that better align sales activities with organizational marketing strategies.

Focus groups are equally versatile. Most clients use these for in-depth inquiry into competitive positioning and printbuyers' concerns, buying patterns and projections of future needs. Again, there are many variations on the theme: Some clients choose to remain anonymous until the very end of session; others prefer to announce their sponsorship at the outset. Regardless, depending on client goals, careful questionnaire scripting and skillfull facilitation can turn focus groups into information goldmines.

Though tightly scripted and timed, focus groups allow clients behind the one-way mirror to feed questions to participants throughout the session when the discussion takes an interesting turn, as it inevitably does. Participants are generally selected at random: sometimes drawn from a client's list of customers or prospects, sometimes from a list of key customers or prospects, or from a list of decion-makers who may not also be the printbuyers.

Sessions are generally conducted mid-week from 5:30pm to 8:30pm in a centrally located, dedicated focus group facility. Food and beverage service is usually provided. Depending on the region and the seniority of participants, dollar incentives for the 10 to 12 attendees range from $75 to $175.

Positive public relations is a side benefit of focus groups. Participants love the opportunity to talk shop with peers, and they truly appreciate the opportunity to air their gripes and grievances. Clients are the benefactors of this enthusiasm. I can't remember a focus group where customers and prospects didn't line up at the end to thank our client sponsors and to promise consideration for upcoming jobs. Incidentally, several clients have used edited video tapes of their focus groups as sales training tools.

Customer surveys-whether mailed, e-mailed, faxed or phoned-are useful for obtaining a quick overview of customers' attitudes toward printbuying in general and their satisfaction with your services in particular. These short surveys are also good benchmarking tools, allowing you to monitor service improvement between surveys.

Buying habits and brand loyalty can change as easily as ordering a new wine at dinner. It's essential to keep a watchful eye on the evolving needs and concerns of our most valuable asset, the customer.

Charlotte Mills Seligman is president of Traversant Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in planning and executing integrated marketing programs for printing and allied graphic arts companies, with nearly two decades of expertise in the industry. Previous columns and issues of the company's Ti Monthly e-newsletter are posted on Inquiries should be directed to (415) 357-2929 or charlotte

© 1999 Charlotte Mills Seligman

June 10, 1999
Print & Graphics
Col#3, 6/99
Printing Journal
Col#3, 6/99
By Charlotte Mills Seligman

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