The long-term development of print in the digitalisation era 


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2019)

Why does print continue to play such a major role in product communication despite all the digitalisation? We addressed this issue in the last issue of the Produktkulturmagazin. This time, we are examining another interesting question: What role will print play in the long term? Will it eventually go extinct after all? Is the discontinuation of Germany’s main Otto catalogue, for instance, a sign of things to come?

In order to be able to find a better answer to this question, it is useful to carry out a “critical” evaluation of 20 years of PIM. A silo way of thinking between online and offline still prevails in many companies. This gap between online and offline seems to be growing with the increasing dominance of digital channels rather than shrinking. The “digital first” strategy proclaimed by companies manifests this gap because there is a lack of including print in digital communication. 

This is a mistake, as many analyses have proven. Several noteworthy figures by Nonstop Signs from the US (a highly digital market) have shown that print is still immensely popular among consumers. 56 per cent of online searches in the US can be traced back to offline marketing, of which 39 per cent lead to sales. 92 per cent of young buyers prefer direct advertisements which make it easier to reach a purchasing decision. 85 per cent of consumers prefer to shop with companies that possess individual printed material such as business cards, flyers, signs and banners. And as much as 90 per cent associate the quality of the printed material with the company itself. 

Regardless of the fact that print continues to be a significant element within the communication mix, there are other reasons not to ignore print channels through the course of digital transformation. To begin with, the digital product experience can be improved by incorporating relevant product information from print publications. More than 90 per cent of B2B companies’ print publications (catalogues, product brochures, data sheets, etc.) contain a variety of such information that is not depicted in the digital touchpoints. These findings were reported in a WERK II analysis of 20 typical B2B companies. The treasure trove of experience of editorial product information amassed over decades that lies “hidden” in these print publications has yet to be digitalised. Valuable information that also needs to be made available on the digital touchpoint. 

Secondly, consistently incorporating print in the digitalisation process frees up resources for creating media-neutral content. After all, companies that establish a PIM process know just how complex it is to generate product data for all channels while constantly keeping it up to date. A great deal of effort is traditionally devoted to adapting and creating data for print channels, and print publications are still often created manually. The future slogan should therefore be “all hands on deck”. All available resources must be aimed at the golden product data set while the effort spent on channel enrichment and creating the touchpoint presentation needs to be minimised as much as possible.  However, this inevitably involves the increased automation of the print channel, as there will be a lack of  resources for manual activities. Publishing systems such as the priint:suite not only provide an opportunity to save time and costs, they also create room for better product data. 

Cost efficiency is another reason to incorporate print in the digital transformation. Otto certainly discontinued its main catalogue for cost reasons. But Otto is now printing more target group-oriented catalogues. Switching to custom or personalised print publications can potentially save companies a lot of money. Print additionally leads to an increase in the conversion rate – which is noticeably enhanced by the seamless integration of individualised print in digital communication.

The dominance of digital communication is likely to continue growing. There are many good reasons to consider print as an element of digital communication in order to make it even more successful. Print will cease to exist as an “independent” channel in the long term through the digital transformation of marketing. Print touchpoints, however, will continue to exist as a part of digital communication and will therefore have to develop further. In other words: the offline silo needs to be torn down. 

But how will print continue to develop as a component of digital communication? In order to answer this question, it worth taking a look at the digital parameters. Most digital touchpoints (such as web shops or apps, for instance) nowadays already provide a custom or personalised user experience. Targeted communication in the customer journey is the prerequisite to a successful product experience. Considering the user’s context is also of crucial importance to targeted digital product communication. Furthermore, interaction with digital touchpoints occurs in real time and on demand. 

The trial-and-error approach that is often applied online (trying ideas in a quick and uncomplicated manner, learning from mistakes and trying it all again in a new approach) is rarely found in print channels nowadays, as printed errors cannot be undone. Offline communication and print are therefore focussed on avoiding mistakes in general. As an allegedly expensive channel, innovative concepts are therefore tested with some hesitation, or not at all. This mindset will inevitably have to change once integrated in digital communication, because agility is the process mantra of digital transformation. Quickly implementing ideas and improving or dropping them in accordance with a trial-and-error approach is the key to successful communication. 

When the principles of digital communication are applied to the print channel, a high discrepancy is revealed between philosophies, which is sure to be a reason why offline and online rarely overlap. A radical change in thinking is therefore necessary for the digital transformation of print: Offline communication follows digital rules. Many companies struggle to change their way of thinking to that effect, but it is a significant aspect of the digital transformation of marketing. 

So how do you ensure that companies’ print undergoes a digital transformation? To begin with, there cannot be a silo mindset. All those involved in the process must work on the best possible “golden” data set. Supplying just the digital channels with sufficient data cannot and must not be the aspiration. The introduction of database publishing solutions as global publishing platforms such as priint:suite are currently experiencing a renaissance. Resources traditionally created by print publications up until now must be incorporated in the media-neutral content generation process – which requires the automated creation of print publications. This approach should be given high priority, as these publications need to be created in an increasingly customised, timely and needs-orientated manner. 

Another important factor is the establishment of a continuous success monitor of print touchpoints. The same quote by Henry Ford continues to apply to print today: “I know at least half of my advertising budget works; I just don’t know which half”. As part of the digital strategy, print must be measurable and continuously monitored in future.

In summary, it can be said that print will cease to exist as an independent channel in the long term. Comparing it to dinosaurs is therefore fitting on the one hand. On the other hand, however, print will live on as a component of digital media – similar to birds, which have evolved from dinosaurs. The time will come, for instance, when there will no longer be any more traditional main catalogues. They will instead be replaced by custom or personalised catalogues created as required or by editorial-style catalogues (magalogues). This is precisely what has already happened at Otto. The main catalogue was replaced by target group-orientated catalogues. In the same week that Otto laid its main catalogue to rest, Amazon announced its entry into the print market – the best evidence that print certainly does have a future in digital communication. 

The third part of our series of articles will highlight the future of print in B2B communication. 


Horst Huber

Horst Huber is a pioneer in data-driven publishing and founder of WERK II/ the priint Group. WERK II’s flagship product, the priint:suite is an enabler for digitalisation and the future of print. It is currently the only globally available publishing technology platform for product communication. More than 400 customers worldwide rely on priint:suite.


Picture credit © Roger Harris/Science Photo Library/Getty Images

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