"You need to get out of the document print/mail business." That's advice we're giving some of our clients.

If that statement sounds scary and sacrilegious to you, then you are probably not going to like the rest of this article. Feel free to stop reading any time it gets too uncomfortable.

The fact is, there is hardly an industry left that could be accurately described as strictly print/mail. We're really in the communications business. And being in the communications business in 2010 requires the intelligent use of many options besides just print. Thinking of yourself as only a print provider will hamper your ability to expand your offerings to match the needs of the market.

Printed communications remain a vital link between companies and their customers. But those facilities who choose to provide only print services must understand that they are selling a commodity. And customers of commodities are easily lured away. I wouldn't want to stake my business on such a tenuous relationship.

The Writing is on the (Digital) Wall

"For the first time, spending on digital/online advertising and marketing will overtake print in 2010."
Outsell's "Marketing and Ad Spending Study 2010"

"The majority of companies now have five-year print suppression goals of 26%-50%, with banking and financial services sectors pushing toward the 50%-75% range."
Madison Advisors "Print Suppression Study 2009"

"These declining volumes are unlikely to reverse. First-Class Mail is succumbing to the online diversion of bills, invoices, statements, and payments. Senders are aggressively attacking the cost of paper transactions - both for sending mail and processing responses."
Boston Consulting Group "Projecting U.S. Mail Volumes to 2020 Study"

I guarantee your document center customers are looking at alternative communication channels. If you can't help them achieve their overall communication goals, your work load may eventually erode. Reduced volumes can precede consolidation, outsourcing, downsizing or acquisition.

You Are No Longer in Control
Consumers want to control how they receive messages from companies with whom they do business. If you offer print as the only choice, your messages won't get the attention you'd like them to have. Or they will get ignored altogether.

Managing multiple customer communications channels is not an easy job. Most print/mail operations don't have experience with anything that could be characterized as a two-way conversation with customers. Obviously, this must change.

You've got to develop some way of capturing communication preferences. And those preferences are going to be fluid - just look at Facebook and Twitter. Two years ago, those technologies weren't even on the map. Now they better be a part of your overall communication strategy.

Keep Printing, but Be Intelligent
Figuring out how to integrate relevant communications rendered in multiple formats and distributed through various channels is a survival strategy for document print/mail operations. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools to help you succeed. Set aside some time every week to learn about the new technologies and then develop a plan that works for your business.

It's especially important to consider strategies that enable connections between printed documents and electronic ones. Use PURLS, links or QR codes in the items you print to guide customers to richer online content. One of the reasons print volumes are dwindling is the high production cost and low metrics availability when compared to electronic communications. Improving the value of the physical mail pieces by tying them to other messaging will encourage companies to keep funding postal mail as a viable communication medium.

Mike Porter is an expert in Print and Mail operations and President of Print/Mail Consultants, a consulting firm that helps companies nationwide respond to changing trends and operational challenges. He welcomes your comments. Email Mike directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com.