What is the role of print in today's world? It is not what it once was – the primary method for the dissemination of news and media. That's undeniable, it's not going to change – but it's not a death sentence for the print field. The past few years have seen printers settle into a new kind of equilibrium, where their products have found an audience eager to reach customers and colleagues in real, physical space when online communication isn't enough. Targeting the right markets and opportunities can carry print service providers through.

It pays to take periodic looks at the printing industry to determine both the general trends underlying its progress and the best bets for success in the years ahead. The information does not present the universally gloomy outlook that may have been a bit more common during the initial rise of mainstream digital communication and advertising. As speculation has given way to reality, the true role of print has emerged.

What does print mean in 2016?
A recent overview by WhatTheyThink commentator Joe Webb highlighted the many factors that may affect print right now, tying the strength of the industry to general economic indicators such as the employment rate and GDP. He conclusively pointed out print has made up a shrinking portion of the GDP since 1992, with the printing business's largest share coming in at 1.26 percent. Now, it stands at 0.46 percent. Is this a catastrophe? Not exactly. Instead, it is more of an evolution. True, the bulk of opportunities for print providers has faded, but there is still a role for these providers.

Describing the current state of the print market, Webb noted that print runs are now typically short and target specific events. Instead of open-ended production, businesses are interested in getting specialized items on demand. Webb also called attention to the fact that print is often used as an arm of a media strategy instead of an independent venture. Companies don't just print, they add physical assets to ongoing campaigns that exist in the web, social and mobile realms. This is no tragedy – it's a viable and specialized role that won't go away overnight.

The author directly asked his readers whether their companies are ready to cope with the world of on-demand and event-based printing. This is the major question all leaders in the field should be pondering now. The same business models that worked when print made up over 1 percent of the GDP seem slow and ponderous now, and they are based on order volumes that are simply not being seen anymore. An agile, digital-savvy provider can carve out a sustainable segment of today's industry.

Management is the role that will have to step up, according to Webb. He speculated that today's leaders must be smarter than in decades past to make their businesses into winners. Taking command of the mixed situation that is the modern print field, devising projects that will please discerning customers and sprinting ahead of the competition through better-judged offerings are the steps that managers today hope to follow.

The ideal business model
Back in July, Webb pointed out the difference between large and small print providers, again writing for WhatTheyThink. He pointed out that small companies are outperforming larger organizations when it comes to profitability. He pointed out that small and medium-sized businesses, sporting $25 million or less in assets, are half of the post-2012 industry when broken down by revenue. Profits, however, are another story, with the SMBs seeing over 75 percent.

Webb indicated that the statistics are a little misleading because small organizations that don't profit close rather than suffering through the bad times, but the general point stands – agile organizations rather than traditional giants are finding a way forward in the print sector. There's no longer any need to regard longtime powerhouses as models of print success. The gains to be had in small-batch and highly responsive print projects may keep the small providers ahead for a while to come, as the large companies change their tactics and direction.

A field in transition
The future of print won't particularly resemble its past, but as long as physical media holds interest for consumers, print service providers will be called on. Those with leaders who appreciate the value of understanding their clients and being agile enough to provide the assets they need may find a wide-open field in which to excel. Those mired too deeply in the past may find the problems that were prophesied when digital first emerged.

In any case, staying aware of the field and monitoring further changes are indispensable tactics. Webb's charts show tremendous change over time, and while the print market of today has settled into a status quo of sorts, it's a safe bet to assume that things will shift a bit more over the next few years. Just as companies shouldn't get too attached to yesterday, they should be wary of staying as they are today.