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If Discouraged, Try Something Different

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Day 5, Bill Ruesch recession-recovery diary

Dear Reader,

Some may wonder if I’ve been sitting on my hands the last two years. My previous blogs could lead you to that conclusion, but you’d be wrong. For a quarter century (doesn’t that sound painfully long?) I semi-specialized in direct mail printing. Most of my customers were either DM agencies or in-house marketing departments of companies communicating with their customers through the mail.

We all know what happened when the recession hit and companies en masse pulled back on direct mail. We could see it coming. The Internet was making promises of delivering tons of new business at a fraction of the CPM. The post office, thinking in government logic, decided to bump up their rates to solve their cash flow problems. This awful triad of recession-fear–the Internet rainbow–and postage costs all but killed direct mail.

I said we could see it coming and we could, but no one thought it would happen so fast. It was literally almost overnight. One day DM was thriving, the next, BOOM the bottom dropped out.

In an effort to prepare my business for the coming crash, I had already been looking in new directions. I asked myself what I love, and determined that I love books. Wouldn’t it be nice to help authors print books and get samples for my personal library in the bargain? Yes, but moving into new markets takes time. It requires making new connections, and building trust.

To shorten the time I decided to begin blogging. I reasoned that the Internet would provide me with a minimal cost platform. It does, but the competition for attention is overwhelming.  I read somewhere that 17 thousand new blogs are started every day–e v e r y day.  That’s over 6 million a year!

There are many, many Internet “gurus” that for a fee, promise to show you how to drive readers to your site and earn you more money than God while you are sleeping peacefully on your yacht. I don’t know about you, but I shy away from these kinds of promises. I may be old-fashioned, but I truly believe that if it sounds too good to be true it probably is.

The problem still remains, how do you make an impact on the Internet when the odds are so staggeringly against you? The answer for me is to keep chopping at the tree. No one knows how many cuts it will take before it topples, but for certain it will never come down if you don’t wield the ax.


It’s the Market, Stupid!

Thursday, April 2nd, 2009

It’s not “the economy, stupid” it’s the market. Maybe the phrase should be it’s the market, stupid. Printing companies have been dropping like autumn leaves with no immediate end in sight. According to the NAPL, the future is looking “dim” (my word, not theirs). They expect that a minimum of 4,000 printers to as many as 10,000 will shut down over the next 10 years. Over the last 4 years we saw a decline of 4,800 plants with approximately 150,000 employees. Since 1994 we experienced a loss of over 11,000 plants.

What does all of this mean? It means that the current state of the economy, while rough, isn’t the real reason for the decline in the industry. That’s why I say it’s the market, stupid! Thanks to the Internet,the methods we have used in the past to communicate with one another are withering away. For example:

Newspapers: Major metropolitan newspapers have hit very hard times. Some have already closed shop and many more are about to. It doesn’t take a very clear crystal ball to see that those that continue to exist will be very different from the newspapers of yesteryear. Why? Craig’s List, and other free online classified services eroded the base revenues for the papers. Who would pay for something they can get free, and that has larger reach? Also, every newspaper now publishes their content online. You can do more on a web page than a print page–it’s more flexible. For example you can beef up your story with graphics and movies  on a web page. It’s also timely. Hot news can be displayed on the website within minutes, instead of waiting hours for the next edition to hit the streets. We have no patience.

Magazines: Reuters reports that, “Newsstand and retail sales of U.S. magazines fell 11 percent in the second half of 2008, with celebrity and women’s titles taking a hit as supermarket and drugstore shoppers cut back on spending.” Furthermore, “Fifty percent of all magazines are sold in supermarkets, and obviously those types of places took a major hit.” If the decline in single copy magazine sales is because of the economy, will we see a rebound when the recession ends? And more importantly, when will it end? Again looking through my rather murky crystal ball, I predict many titles disappearing, and those standing will see sharp decreases in readership. Printers relying on magazine printing will be hard hit.

Books: Booksellers report decreases, with the exception of Amazon Media who appears to be up. Amazon is invested deeply in electronics. The Kindle reader entirely eliminates the need for printing. Amazon has also benefited from third party sales (see my For Your Consideration Page on this blog). It is estimated that 1 in 3 books sold at Amazon is actually sold by a third party. Smarter marketing is bringing them more business. Borders reported a loss and announced they are trying to sell their international operations and may sell the whole chain.

Direct Mail Marketing: I was once told by Peter Harrison, a direct marketing expert who is now running Affiliate Crew an internet company, that “Everything that goes in the mail must be printed.” What happens when mail volume goes down? Think about it, banks and other financial organizations have gone paperless. You don’t mail in your bills anymore, you authorize payment on-line. Envelope printers have suffered because of this. Forms printers have also felt the effects. What about other direct mail campaigns? The US Postal Service keeps increasing rates as more and more direct mail companies discover other marketing avenues. The ones left in the game will  bear ever heavier a postage burdens. Once the cost of postage reaches the proverbial camel’s back, the direct mail business will be through. Kaput. What will the post office have to do then, personal letters? Even with my cloudy crystal ball it’s as easy as seeing the housing boom collapse. Really, who didn’t see it coming with overinflated prices, and interest rates at 1%?

Catalogs: I had trouble finding some figures for catalog printing, but I can tell you that the catalogs are pushing web sales more and more. If you think about it they face similar challenges to newspapers. You can just do more on-line to show off your product than you can in print. Why not video the item, particularly clothing, so you can see front, back, and side? Once holographic technology is here the public will insist on 3 dimensional views. It’s just around the corner.

Wedding Invitations & Announcements: I’ll admit that invitations and announcements have never accounted for a big slice of the printing pie, but those printers specializing in them have been hit hard. Why? It’s because people have access to paper options, graphic design programs, and digital printing. They create their own invitations with their own style and creativity.

NAPL also reports that only [are the] larger plants growing in number. Those printers without deep pockets will be swallowed by the others. It’s the law of the jungle. The downside is that more print industry employees will find themselves unemployed. What are their options in the new economy?

Like the dawning of the Industrial Age big changes are happening, but at a much faster pace. What will it be like when clouds in my dirty crystal ball clear? I just don’t know–do you?

If You Ask, Paper Info. Comes, & Comes, & Comes . . .

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

When I first began selling sheet-fed printing in the early 1980’s, my company Progressive Printing, printed an announcement flier for me. Before then I didn’t have much experience with paper other than commodity sheets used on web-offset presses. Think of magazines, catalogs, and newspapers. In the sheet-fed business a whole new world of paper opened up. I was so ignorant of paper that I didn’t understand that the paper my announcement was printed on was an expensive sheet. I didn’t know it until the office manager looked at it and said, “Wow, they must really like you because this is Cranes Crest.”

“Huh,” I said, “What is Cranes Crest?”

It turns out that Cranes Crest is made from 100% cotton fibers and is most often used on upper end letterheads and such.

Nothing more was said about my flier paper, but I realized that I had a whole lot to learn. Luckily for me a paper specifier from Zellerbach Paper Company conducted a mini-seminar in our offices. He covered paper fundamentals. His name was Mark Lander and even though he is no longer in the business I can still recall almost word-for-word some of what he taught us that day. Some of the lessons I’ve adapted and use as 60 second sermons when a customer needs to understand one aspect of paper or another.

I learned about paper because I felt I had to learn to do my job. Most people, including graphic designers find paper stocks they like and pretty much stick with them. There is nothing wrong with that approach. After all we can only hold so much information in our heads at one time. Because I took mastering of paper seriously, I found that my customers trusted my opinions and sought my advice.

If you are one who would like to know more about paper and don’t know where to go to get educated, let me give you some ideas.

  • Check the yellow pages, or call a printer to find out who your local  local paper merchant’s are.
  • Ask the paper merchant if they hold educational classes and attend if you can.
  • Be sure to get swatch books and begin building a library of paper options. If you are a frequent user of printing papers they may be willing to furnish you with a whole paper cabinet, at no charge. Ask.
  • Find out how they treat new paper introductions. Do they hold paper parties or bring mill reps around to the various buyers. Ask if you can get on the invitation list.
  • Research paper on the Internet, some specialty papers may not be carried by your local sources.
  • Many of the paper mills have websites that allow you to sign on to their news-feeds. Sign up, this will keep you ahead of the pack.

One service provided by most paper merchants that I’ve found to be particularly helpful is their willingness to create paper dummies. If you have a project with multiple pages there may be weight issues to consider. Your choice of paper could cost or save you a ton of money in postage expense. I’ve often had dummies made and taken them to the business services department of the post office to have it weighed so we would know for sure if we would pay a higher or lesser price. Often postage on a direct mail campaign will cost more than the printing and design of the pieces.

In a future blog I’ll get into paper weights and finishes, so hold on more is coming.

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