The Era of 'Finger in the Air' Publication Strategies is Almost Over

Somewhere in most organizations is a cupboard. Inside that cupboard is stack after stack of boxes. Inside those boxes are publications – brochures, annual reports, textbooks, manuals or the like – which only purpose seems to be gathering dust. Sound familiar? It does not have to be that way, says Iain Plunkett of on-demand specialist, The Garret.

I once stood with a company director in front of his own particular cupboard. He wanted to show me his current annual report. 'We have a few copies in here,' he said. His feeling of dread before opening the cupboard was palpable.

Sure enough, we were faced by a wall of cardboard. A few had miraculously become a few hundred or even a few thousand. You could say it was a product of poor planning. But, more accurately, it was a product of an organization trying to get the best possible price for producing their publication while not being able to predict demand.

He, and his company, are certainly not alone.

The price of prediction

As with every other sphere of life, communication is the key to business. The more effectively you communicate, the more successful you're likely to be. Stop communicating and you're likely to disappear. But, there's a cost associated with getting your information to the right people.

When it comes to printed material that has always been an upfront cost. You have had to tie up a significant amount of capital in the publications you produced. Moreover, unless you had an incredibly well-defined target audience, you'd have to make an 'educated guess' about how many people would actually want the piece.

When you have experience of the area – via the demand for similar publications in the past, for instance – you could get close to the correct amount to produce. However, I'm afraid 100% accuracy is incredible luck rather than planning. Even member-based organizations, such as trade associations where the size of the target readership is clearly understood, can not be sure that every member will require a copy or estimate the number of non-members that will request it.

If that's the best case scenario, what about marketing communications or supporting technical material created for a new product launch? Even with the very best market research, demand is not guaranteed. You are going to have to rely on a degree of prediction – accept a degree of risk. Put your money where your mouth is and accept the fact that there will be some level of waste.

Turning the tables

Here's an idea: only print a publication as it's required. Print as few as one copy at a time. Like many other parts of business, make your communications on-demand.

For the first time, you can make prediction a thing of the past. If you know there are 10,000 people waiting for the piece then print 10,000. If you're not sure there's anyone then do not print any. In both cases as demand grows, you can easily react. Advances in technology means that the item resides on a server until needed, goes straight to press and out to the recipient; be that a customer, student, employee or partner.

Moving from prediction to demand-based publication strategies also takes the pressure off your cupboards. There is simply no need to be stockpiling those boxes. No need for the publications to spend a life of forlorn darkness. Fulfilment can be handled at the point of print. All you need to know is that there is acceptable turnaround between an item being requested to it being delivered.

Doing the maths

Of course, to state that the ability to print on-demand is a new thing is slightly misleading. You have always had the ability to print one copy at a time. It's just that the cost would have been so astronomical, no sensible person would have considered it. What's changed is simply that short run and single copy printing has become cost-effective. Not for everything but for enough of your communications to make it worth doing the maths prior to any project.

Printing 20,000 copies will always mean that the unit cost is less than printing a single copy. But what if you end up with 6000 unwanted copies? What does that do to your figures?

And, it's not just straight print costs. There is that horrible phrase 'Total Cost of Ownership' to consider. What are your storage costs? How do you handle a request for information? Who despatched the information when it's requested? How do they do it? How long does that take? Is that job or is it a distraction from their proper business role?

More importantly, are you putting a financial cost against this time and effort?

Coming out of the closet

Back in the cupboard, the director rips open a box and proudly hands me a copy of his annual report. Glossy, well designed, very professional. I start to flick through the pages. "Do not pay too much attention to that, 'he says.' Most of it is out of date. '

10 reasons to go on-demand:

1. Print as few as one copy: Using advances in digital technology, it is possible and economic to print in single copies. This reduces the need to produce publications in bulk.

2. Print only when required: There is no need to try to estimate demand prior to printing. The publication can be printed only as it is required. This automatically eliminates inventory and stock control issues.

3. Release limited budget: By reducing upfront investment, organizations can free up capital for other projects. In fact, if the publication is for sale, the customer covers all costs prior to printing.

4. Keep publications up-to-date: Many publications begin to lose value as soon as they are printed. By creating publications on-demand, they can be updated as required so that the publication is always correct when printed.

5. Keep publications in print: Rather than retiring publications when the stock is depleted or order a reprint knowing demand will be small, an organization can keep the publication on the system indefinitely – creating a virtual warehouse.

6. Reduce production timescales: Developments in publishing systems allows the creation of unique templates that speed page lay-out. Once ready, the digital file goes straight to press reducing the time taken to produce the publication.

7. Explore new publishing opportunities: By reducing the cost and eliminating the need for a large inventory, organizations can develop publications where there is only a small target audience – even a readership of one.

8. Relieve the despatch headache: Many organizations end up fulfilling requests for publications internationally. This is time-consuming and can easily become a hidden cost of providing information. An on-demand service can take care of this without the expense of employing a mailing house.

9. Work closely with partners: Using an on-demand approach makes it more efficient and cost-effective to provide materials to partners and suppliers. An organization can make a publication available for partners to amend and print while maintaining control.

10. Superior customer service: Some organizations have canceled publications or offered PDF-only versions in order to control costs. However, many people still prefer printed material. On-demand can allow organizations to continue offering a choice to their customers, members employees or other audiences.

Copyright 2006 Iain Plunkett