Q: As we come out of lockdown, how are publishers' print strategies evolving?
A:The real focus for many magazine publishers has been recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic so high on their agenda are print production efficiencies, paper management and reductions in waste. Also, in a strange way, the pandemic has afforded publishers and printers more opportunity to consult on the elements of print which were often ignored, considered too trivial, or perhaps too much of a chore to adjust in busier times.
The chance to pause and review has meant there have been mutually beneficial conversations taking place whereby in some cases, we’ve literally torn up the blueprint of a magazine spec and started from scratch! I think it’s important to have relationships where you feel comfortable in challenging the norm and I’m always frustrated by the statement, ‘We’ve always done it that way’. The difficult situations we’ve all found ourselves in these past fifteen months, have certainly been a catalyst for this type of honest conversation.
Specifically, there are many publishers that have previously desired a unique, yet inefficient trimmed size to try and differentiate from their competition. This could be wider than A4 or perhaps slightly shorter, but this aesthetic difference comes at a price and requires additional management.
Some publishers have realised that now operating with smaller teams and having to respond to shortening schedules as a result of rapidly changing content, fluctuating pricing, lower confidence in advertising and changing government advice, that they need their printer to be super responsive. This has meant having the ability to tap into stock papers very quickly is a must. So, we’ve seen a shift back to traditional A4 and A5 sizes because waiting 6-8 weeks for bespoke paper reels is too restrictive and doesn’t allow them to be current or newsworthy. The production cost benefits for standardising have also been welcomed as budgets are being squeezed.
Aligned to this, printers have always promoted the efficiency of manufacturing magazines in 32pp and 16pp text sections to try and keep the unit cost of printing low and attractive, but despite this, many publishers have persisted in incorporating inefficient 4pp and 8pp sections that require secondary offline finishing at an extra cost and requiring more time. We are now seeing publishers keen to listen and explore why removing these inefficient sections can directly save them money.
Furthermore, with raw material costs on the rise, notably paper, we are encouraged that publishers are open to being creative with their future paper choices. This is often by combining a move to a lighter weight paper or bulky alternative grade as part of a magazine re-design.
We have implemented some really bold adjustments in papers stocks recently, so publishers are definitely looking beyond this challenge and are embracing change. They are re-evaluating and questioning what is important for their titles beyond just being white and glossy. In some instances, it has brought to the fore that we can be too precious about the paper we use and we can over sell its importance. In other cases, we don’t celebrate its qualities nearly enough as this tactile medium can be the reason why readers choose to engage with the content.
Finally, with rising nonskilled labour costs, we have seen publishers seeking to automate their packaging, moving away from labour intensive boxing and eliminating plastics. Striking the balance between copies being secure for transit and also being environmentally friendly is a constant challenge, but simple automated packaging is definitely sought whether that be paper banding on lightweight items or the minimal nylon strapping of bundles. Printers are also having to demonstrate they have responsible processes for bailing, recycling and segmenting packaging waste.
Q: What can publishers do to better promote their eco credentials?
A:Focusing specifically on printed magazines, there are plenty of options that can be advised by printers whether that be PEFC or FSC accredited papers, carbon balanced papers, recycled papers or using some of the simple self-promotion logos like ‘please recycle’ or ‘please share’.
However, generally I think as an industry, we still need to better equip ourselves with the facts because there is still a lot of confusion about print and paper and the suggestion it can be harmful to the environment. Sometimes, this only ever comes into discussion as readers or consumers drive change rather than publishers taking a proactive informed position.
Most publishers have heard of the many options, but they don’t always understand what they truly mean or explore why it is the best choice for them. Printers need to work harder to challenge this lack of understanding and help educate. I’m aware of inaccurate statements from my own conversations like, ‘virgin paper is bad and recycled paper is good’ or ‘forests are shrinking and e-communications are better for the environment’. All completely incorrect!
There are also many examples of greenwashing, whereby companies make inaccurate statements like ‘Go Green, Go paperless’ and switch to e-billing. All myths and very costly ones for our industry, so it is important that we champion the environmental benefits of print so at the very least, we can debate a balanced view. Organisations like Two Sides and PrintPower do this tremendously well but printers have a responsibility to extend this knowledge to publishers and publishers have a responsibility to listen.
PEFC and FSC grades are commonplace now and have been for some time with both organisations caring for forests globally and both promoting the benefits of responsible, sustainable forestry management. That said, I am still amazed that many publishers choose not to use such papers for their magazines and in many cases, it comes at no additional cost.
Q: In terms of print technology, what are the interesting trends?
A:In print of both magazines and catalogues, we are seeing that the market is changing and smaller quantities are becoming more prevalent. This situation has been evolving for some time but it has been even more noticeable during the pandemic. Publishers and retail brands are definitely choosing to do shorter more frequent runs in order to respond to changes and capture the latest information. This is despite the extra setups involved. There is also a lack of confidence in committing to huge print quantities for the fear that print could be rendered useless if the market changes quickly and beyond their control.
The opportunity to provide shorter runs is made possible by changing technology. The newer more agile web presses are so much more efficient with quicker setup and cheaper running costs in terms of energy consumption. We have seen big catalogues like Ikea and Argos grab the headlines with the withdrawal of their traditional flagship catalogues, but these brands are still investing in the medium of print, they are just using it in a more targeted way. Wherever things can be personalised, over-branded or run on as a spin-off supplement this is proving to be a more effective solution.
We are seeing magazine print runs as low as 3,000 copies and with multiple cover and text versions. This type of need gives some magazine presses difficulty because they were not built for this. Also, the infrastructure of some print businesses that house the larger less agile machines cannot easily scale up their staffing to support the increased level of admin and customer service needed to manage a lot of smaller accounts. The printers that have followed the trends of the market and have invested in new technology have better colour control and waste management tools meaning they can respond to this changing need sustainably.
Another trend and somewhat in line with the previous question is eco-friendly paper wrapping. When considering the reported growth of magazine subscriptions as a result of the pandemic, this has become of increasing importance. The understandable pressure to remove plastic like polyfilm has pushed printers and mailing businesses to provide more environmentally friendly solutions.
At first the giants of the UK publishing industry were the early adopters with large run titles making the headlines. On larger runs the process ran well and it was efficient, but this caused frustration for many smaller independent publishers who wanted to offer the same solutions and were having to respond to the same pressures from readers. In many cases the quantities are too low and this means the unit cost proves to be prohibitive and additional waste needs to be included. Now we are seeing investment into 2nd and 3rd generation paper wrapping machines which can cope with smaller quantities and that is widening the availability of the service.
Some printers have invested in paper wrapping themselves which gives a one stop solution but that can also mean the solutions are limited, sometimes offering just plain wrap and missing out on promotional opportunities. Also, a printer with just one paper wrapping line can find it challenging to maintain ‘on time’ delivery performance as this is a single point of failure. For these reasons other printers have chosen to partner combining their specialist print skills with the skills of a specialist mailing company. This is in order to stay at the forefront of changing technology and to secure the knowledge and expertise to meet the many different criteria of successful mail.
Full colour total coverage paper wraps can create an attractive visual experience plus it creates new opportunities to engage over sponsorship and advertising. The demand for paper wrap is increasing and having suppliers with multiple lines is beneficial to accommodate the quick magazine lead-times that are expected.
Despite the trend not everyone is sold on paper wrapping just yet as the price point is higher and many publishers are unwilling to commit to the extra budget. Therefore, a variety of solutions are still needed depending on quantities and the complexity of the pack. These include biodegradable poly, compostable starch based poly, enveloping and naked mail.
Best in class data management has also proved to be a critical need to ensure GDPR compliance and to secure the most advantageous postage service for magazines.
Q: Where do you see room for print experimentation and innovation?
A:I’m asked this question quite often and I always feel a little pressured like I should have something brand new to offer, perhaps some whizzy technology or a brand new service. The reality is printers have many added value services to offer publishers right now we just don’t always do a particularly good job in matching our capabilities to their needs.
As an industry we can be caught up in the volumes that we have to deliver to fill our presses rather than listening carefully and consulting with publishers. We can also assume there is never a budget for extras rather than defining this and agreeing one with the publisher before researching the options. More often than not it isn’t what’s whizzy or gimmicky but a simple reminder of what can be done effectively.
A change in stock to a 16pp ‘in magazine’ feature can be very powerful if the papers are carefully considered and are contrasting. Using 6pp or 8pp rollouts to covers or bound in sections can provide an additional canvass for striking photography. The vast array of in-line and offline decorative finishes can highlight and enhance key text or imagery you are looking to make prominent. Textures can be applied to covers to create a tactile, memorable, sensory feel. Fragrances can be encapsulated to generate emotions and sharing.
Unfortunately, printers can be guilty of expecting their publishers to know about every option that is available in the marketplace, kind of ‘You tell me your spec and I’ll get a quote done for you’, rather than using better questioning like, What is the message or impact you are trying to convey? What do you want your readers to feel when they first receive the magazine? What does the advertiser want to get from featuring in your magazine? These types of questions can spark ideas and help shape innovative solutions. Until you appreciate what someone is trying to achieve, how can you match it with a product, service or solution.
Q: Why is print special?
A:I love print, but then I would say that! However, my love for its power is backed up by far more intelligent theorists and marketers than me. I genuinely believe print to be a very strong medium that is effective on its own, but even more so as part of a combined communications strategy. Often, print can be the trigger for readers or consumers to engage with other mediums and subsequently transact, subscribe, visit or enquire whether that be a website, an event, a podcast, a webinar, a TV channel or a radio station.
Print is memorable and manages to cut through and resonate with us despite the digital overload we can all experience at times. It is also a trusted medium and important information like we have seen recently from the government and health organisations is conveyed in print because it is less likely to be ignored and because we do place greater value on tangible items.
Print, and in particular magazines, catalogues and brochures, are items we feel compelled to retain leaving them within our homes for when the time is right to engage with them or refer back to as reference. This gives the medium greater visibility over many digital channels and creates an opportunity for them to be shared.
Print is also a craft and a beautifully created magazine can provoke emotion, create debate and divide opinion.
Q: What’s in the pipeline from Acorn?
A:The honest answer is a pretty boring one because my sole focus at the moment is supporting our sales and customer service teams to help our customers. We have publishers linked to travel, tourism, arts, culture and hospitality that haven’t printed for fifteen months and we are working very closely with them on the return of their magazines.
Generally, there are still a lot of publishers whose confidence is low and they are still very much in recovery mode, so they need our advice to help them kick on and navigate around the challenges like paper price increases.
We’ve also been reviewing some of our services like mailing to respond to some of the changes publishers have told us they would like to see. So, we will be packaging this up and communicating these improvements in the coming months.
Beyond that, we are all desperate to get back to more face to face appointments, networking and events!
Acorn Web Offset is a specialist printer of A4 and A5 multi-pagination magazines. Established over 40 years and operating from arguably one of the UK’s lowest cost production facilities, we currently produce over 250 titles. We support over 90 publishers, providing low-cost magazine print in a no fuss friendly way, with guaranteed on time delivery.