What’s in a Name?

By | February 22, 2010

There seems to be an ongoing discussion about names and descriptions of things in our industry, particularly when it comes to the seemingly hotly-debated phrases “print service provider” and “marketing service provider”, as well as their acronym counterparts, “PSP” and “MSP”. Cary Sherburne sparked some debate last year with her post on Print CEO about “PSP”. There have been more recent points of discussion, as well. WhatTheyThink’s Peer Groups blog has discussed what encompasses a company that bills itself as a “marketing service provider”. On Printing Impressions’ blog a few days ago, Margie Dana expressed her distaste for printing companies that bill themselves as marketing service providers. Dr. Joe also weighed in, providing his thoughts on how printers should approach marketing services.

All of the aforementioned posts make a number of great points, some call for new or different terminology to be used, and others call out vendors and industry analysts/consultants (like myself) for causing confusion by instituting these terms in the first place. Vendors often use these terms to describe their clients, and I certainly have used them in many of my writings for InfoTrends, although I try to mix it up a little for variety’s sake. To be frank, I see the discussion about the use of these specific terms as a bit silly at face value. That’s not to say that terminology is not important, but I think this specific discussion really leads to larger issues that are happening within the industry, mostly dealing with structural change and transitioning that many print businesses have been going through.

This type of structural change seems to be transcending all different categories of businesses that are involved in the manufacture of printed products:

  • – Many commercial and quick printers have brought more services in-house like bindery and mailing/fulfillment to provide more value to clients. They have also added Web-based storefronts, marketing management software, and digital printing hardware to extend their capabilities and provide a wider array of services to increase work from existing clients and gain new ones, as well.
  • – Prepress services companies were some of the first to adopt digital printing hardware and variable data software to provide highly targeted, personalized communications. Many have grown to build out their digital fleet and some have added offset presses years after making their first digital investment to cater to longer run-lengths.
  • – Direct mailers have also expanded their personalization services, gotten into transactional and TransPromo applications, and some have even spun off their business into separate marketing-centric units, which is a strategy Dr. Joe described in his post. One direct mailer that comes to mind created a new business unit that operates more like a creative or advertising agency to provide consultative creative direction and drive more work to the company overall.
  • – Publishing printers have been developing new services revolving around digital editions, content management, and mobile interaction. While some publishing printers develop their own solutions or license/partner with existing technology providers, others simply offer their clients consultative analysis on which solution would be a best fit to match with both the printer’s and the publisher’s workflow.
  • – In-plant printers are working to prove their value to their host organizations. They are adding Web submission capabilities, working more closely with internal marketing and communications departments, and providing company-wide training and education to increase overall utilization of a company’s internal print facilities.
  • – Transaction service bureaus and in-plant data centers are adding high-speed, low-cost color capabilities and providing client business users with easy-to-use message management interfaces to enable more TransPromo applications. They are also offering interactive, electronic document delivery to give clients’ end-users choices for how they want to receive their bills, statements, and other customer communication.

Those are just a few examples of structural change or at least a pivot in strategic direction within our industry as a whole. One of the major trends I see throughout many of these shifts is a movement “upstream”. Print service providers of all types are trying to build closer relationships and find new business opportunities with company executives and enterprise organizations. They are trying to reach the CEO, COO, CMO, and other executives to pitch them ideas that help them reduce costs or get better response rates. Software vendors, meanwhile, are adding more integration points with enterprise-level solutions like SAP and Salesforce.com to help companies land and support those types of clients.

By and large, I think the discussions over industry terminology are bolstered by a transitional period driven by this structural change. That makes it hard to find a common term that encompasses all of those businesses, even though print is still an important aspect of what they do. We face this problem in other areas, too: Web-to-print solution capabilities have moved far beyond simply ordering a print job on a Website, although when you use that term, people generally know what you’re referring to. Many people also take umbrage with the term “TransPromo” for varying reasons, but I’ll leave that discussion for another post.

Still, companies should use whatever terminology will best convey the types of services and capabilities they offer to clients. Margie Dana makes a good point in her post that companies shouldn’t be ambiguous about what exactly they offer, especially on their websites. My colleague, Barb Pellow, recently offered some tips about gearing Websites for potential prospects, as well.

In my view, the use of these terms (by me, at least)  is not to offend anyone. I’m just simply looking for descriptive words or phrases to get my point across. I think that “print service provider” is an accurate, concise term to generally describe companies whose primary business involves printing and print-related services. “Marketing service provider” is admittedly a bit murkier, although I believe the aforementioned post on WhatTheyThink Peer Groups provides a good description of the type of companies that get this classification and what traits make them successful.

Some disagree with the general direction that the “marketing service provider” ilk have taken. I would argue that there are a growing number of companies finding success by taking this type of approach. Still, I think that’s only one specific approach and just an aspect of what’s going on, with people getting hung up on names instead of focusing on the palpable change occurring. Most companies across all types of environments within the industry are making an effort to move upstream in the supply chain and provide more value with products and services to sustain and ideally grow business. Maybe that means providing more channel-agnostic, marketing-centric services; maybe that means launching Web-based storefronts so clients can reduce inventory and order print when they need it; maybe that means implementing new equipment and processes to decrease turnaround time and increase in-house capabilities; maybe it means something completely different. I think focusing on these specific issues, their implications, and how to understand/adapt/implement/deploy will help push the industry forward more than the fleeting PSP/MSP discussion. Just my $0.02, though. Feel free to leave yours, as well.

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Jim Olsen

    Bryan great post. Frankly, we’ve been struggling with what we should call the “printing industry” ever since the “digital age” came upon us.

    A company doesn’t need to present itself to a customers as being from a particular industry. It is more important that they clearly present their story as to how they can help that customer prosper.

    The organizations that need to know who “we” are, are the manufacturers that supply us, the trade associations that serve us, and the governments that set the rules and tax us.

    Jim Olsen
    Imagination, Ink.

  2. Michael Josefowicz

    During the last years with digital creating one of the many disruptive innovations in our industry, I think it makes sense that lots of folks have been struglling with the right words to describe what we do. Now that high speed ink jet web presses are getting to market, my sense is that the disruptive innovation is drawing to a close and the period going forward will be more sustainable innovation.

    From what I can tell it seems that heavy metal is now convinced that digital is a reasonable addition to their services. CGX installing a Prosper is just the tip of the iceberg. It seems as if IPEX is going to be a real mix up of heavy metal and heavy duty ink jet digital output from Oce, Screen, Fuji, HP, Kodak and Xerox.

    My vote is that going forward the indsutry is best described as the Print industry. We’ve always been a embedded in every business. In house, print for pay, industrial strength. The nature of the business is that no other single word describes what we really do. To me mind the only word that captures it is Printer who specializes in …..

    This might be helpful in turning the focus of the conversation from joining an “innovative” industry to innovative Print Centric solutions for every industry.

  3. Chuck

    Although the name “Marketing Service Provider” is ambiguous and also doesn’t describe much of what an evolving, modern printing company could and/or should do to be successful, that isn’t the primary problem. I wholeheartedly agree with Margie Dana that PSPs (by the way, a term that I find completely acceptable) calling themselves MSPs and then continuing to have an equipment list and nothing but printer’s services on their (often poorly designed and constructed) website is just wrong, wrong, wrong and will not lead to success. The real problem is, the hype surrounding “Marketing Service Provider”, and the lack of meaningful analysis and advice for printers to succeed in this– as well as the almost complete absence of alternative business improvement ideas that might be better suited to many of today’s printers looking to improve or regain profitability. If you don’t know anything about marketing, why on earth would you try to help other people market? If your print business is in trouble, adding “marketing services” isn’t going to help you– focus on marketing your own core value prop (or figuring out what it is, for starters).

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