The print industry's current transformation has brought many important questions to the surface: What is the new value proposition for print service providers? How will established leaders cope with the rise of digital communications? Which types of products will be most popular in contemporary offices or as part of modern marketing campaigns?

Over the first few years of the IT-dominated era, the answers to those queries were somewhat clarified. There is still a lot to learn, though. After all, the evolution's not quite done yet – but, at least provisionally, experts have begun to offer up realistic views of where the print business is now and how it can take its next steps. Although it won't be easy becoming a next-generation print provider, such a metamorphosis is possible. This is a fact which may surprise those who have declared the print industry over, but insiders know there are opportunities for companies to take new forms.

Scale: No longer an advantage
What ever happened to the economy of scale? That's a very important question about the current state of printing put forward by Joe Webb in his most recent analysis for WhatTheyThink. He also provided an answer: Organizations that became large and efficient, offering high-volume versions of popular print products, have been hit especially hard in recent years because those types of orders, with massive output, have become significantly less popular. Some of the more gloomy predictions for the print industry could be based on what these large stalwarts have encountered.

Webb put it in unsparing terms: "There's no use in being efficient at things people no longer want, which creates a mismatch of invested capital with needed capital." He explained that some of the services that work much better at scale, including shipping effectively through the post office and getting national coverage with long print runs, are no longer that interesting to companies. Organizations are targeting their local markets with a pinpoint focus, or looking for more precise marketing to prospects. Big printers are being weighed down by assets that fairly recently helped them excel.

Don't get trapped in a niche
While smaller and more focused print service providers are naturally better equipped to survive in an industry based on agility and precision, they have to watch out for a few caution signs as well. Webb added that businesses that are closely specialized to focus on a single element of an industry are at risk of running out of clients and capital when that niche collapses. This is why organizations should ensure that they are able to pivot on a dime. A high-risk, high-reward effort to corner a particular market should be flexible enough for the company to change gears when the trends turn.

Low overhead and flexible operations may be the way forward for the print industry. Webb explained that loans for big equipment purchases are the bane of the large operators in the field. Therefore, companies operating without these debts over their heads are at a natural advantage. While it's easy to conflate one kind of printer's struggles with the whole industry, there will be chances to succeed as long as consumers and companies require and value printed documents – and that era is still ongoing.

Marketing sector in flux
For print providers that make the necessary changes and stay active and relevant in the industry, there may be a variety of opportunities in marketing, a space that some would have written off as lost years ago. While the stage seemed set for the replacement of print by online advertisements at the dawn of the digital age, it hasn't quite happened. According to a new Financial Times report, the tides may have turned – the decline that once struck print has now turned on banner ads.

The source referred to Zenith data which found desktop-based online advertising is no longer a great choice for companies. They have realized their targeted audiences are repelled by banner ads, which have become annoying over the first two decades of the internet's presence in homes. Now, marketers are targeting mobile devices. Through all this reshuffling in the online space, print remains. The losses in print won't reverse themselves, but there is every chance that the market will stay near its present levels, with plenty of room ready for printers that offer valuable products to their clients.

Print providers may take some solace in the fact that this sector has taken such a turn. The source pointed out that 2011 to 2015 was probably the worst period of contraction for print marketing. Now, the digital sector is fighting itself while print stays at its present level, or near it. This is a lesson that can inspire all corners of the commercial print sector. Just when it seemed that digital alternatives were seeing off the physical media channels, the sector slowed its descent, with a niche still remaining for printed options.