The printing industry's trajectory over the next few years will be determined by the exciting new concepts pioneered by service providers to meet their customers' unique needs. The rise of digital has not eliminated print as some may have feared, but it has forced leaders in the industry to become creative, pushing them to develop solutions that become integral for clients' business strategies. Surveying the defining changes of the market is one way to monitor its progress – and ensure that leaders stay on course with their offerings.

WhatTheyThink's Chris Bondy recently compiled thoughts on the drupa industry conference, explaining what it means for the printing business as a whole. Since the event happens every four years rather than annually, it makes an excellent benchmark for technological and strategic progress, as it's clear that things will have changed significantly between each edition. This year's event saw the debuts of new tech options, but Bondy opined that it will be the strategies around those developments that really define the industry.

Just how big was drupa?
Before delving into the trends glimpsed at this year's conference, it's good to take a look at just what went down at drupa 2016 in numbers. Package Printing's Cory Francer presented a Messe Dusseldorf infographic including all the salient information. For example, the 260,165 people who attended the show came from 183 different countries and saw new offerings from 1,828 exhibitors. More than half of those attendees came from the print sector itself, rather than a related field such as packaging, and 55 percent were there to see innovations.

Other reasons for attendee visits, per Messe Dusseldorf's data, included deepening existing business partnerships as well as scouting out potential new ones. Executives on the lookout for exciting new printing methods were out in force, and the show acted as a massive showcase of everything the digital and analog print markets have to offer. Among this throng of print industry luminaries, important trends emerged. Bondy reported afterwards on the view for the industry going forward, as inspired by drupa.

The view from the show floor
While the main trends affecting print will do with strategy rather than equipment or behind-the-scenes technology, there have of course been developments in the latter fields. Bondy noted that the industry is currently split between using conventional tech and switching over to digital models. He explained that many of the analog presses unveiled at drupa have a number of digital features, meaning that even those taking a more old-fashioned approach have their eyes on digital's ability to add new functionality.

Now, with added capabilities enabled by digital – mostly based around short-run and personalized offerings –  and a market keen to use them, it's important for print service providers to change the way they approach sales. This is where Bondy sees great potential for change and advancement in the years ahead. He explained that printers should be creating platforms that allow their clients to plug print into a multi-platform marketing strategy. The idea of print as a stand-alone offering is fading away, even as print reclaims its uniqueness and appeal as part of an integrated approach.

Some of the shifts in how to sell print involve changing the philosophies that power the whole process. For instance, Bondy noted that print should be sold as a project or a service. Instead of just selling print jobs, the companies sign on for long-term relationships with client companies, strategizing at a high level in collaboration and providing many jobs. The author heard from a printing executive that it may now be advisable to search for new sales talent outside of the print field altogether – the main quality to look for is an ability to sell a service.

Promises of help
When it comes to taking on the new role of assisting customers with long-term needs instead of just striking up short-term or one-off contracts, firms must find new ways to communicate. According to Bondy, printers must now be masters of data, with the technologies and internal processes to support this approach. Organizations should be measuring their results closely, as well as creating new concepts while aided by information. This is all part of a precise and contemporary approach to business partnerships, moving quickly to get results for clients, instead of being brought in on a contract basis every now and then.

Print has emerged from its major trade gathering as an industry taking on a powerful and efficient new shape. The fact that it is no longer the primary communication method between companies and consumers has taken away its numerical reach, but not its utility. As long as leaders realize the role their clients will expect them to play, these executives can plot a course to continued relevance. Technical questions such as analog vs. digital remain important, but mainly for what companies do afterwards, how they use those products to serve their audiences.