Market Your In-plant … Or Fade Away
As the outside world sees it, in-plants have it made. Firmly entrenched inside their parent organizations, they seem to have a ready-made customer list. The work should just flow right in.
The reality, however, is much more nuanced; only 37% of in-plants have the right of first refusal for print work, according to a recent study by In-plant Impressions. That creates a bit of a Catch-22: internal customers are often free to take their business outside the organization, leaving the in-plant to compete with local printers for the business — but at the same time, most in-plants don’t have a marketing budget. That means in-plant managers need to get creative when it comes to spreading the word about what their operations can do, and the benefits they bring to the table.
More Awareness Means More Business
“Marketing is key to our success in state government,” affirms Tammy Golden, assistant commissioner of Document Solutions for the State of Tennessee. “You would think that, as an in-plant, it would be easier to make sure everyone in the organization is aware of your services. However, I’ve found that it is something that needs constant attention — we are continually trying to get the word out about our services. The more awareness we generate, the more business we get.”
Marketing is also critical to ensure new employees are as aware of the Nashville-based in-plant and it’s capabilities as the regular customers. That, in particular, was a lesson Erica Derrington, manager of Graphic Communications at Olathe Public Schools, learned early.
“We are K-12 education, so people are retiring, switching positions, or starting new all the time. We want to reach out to the employees and make sure they know we are here to support them and make their teaching careers easier,” she says. “One year, we didn’t get our normal marketing out to the buildings before the teachers left for summer. It was our slowest summer, and we were overwhelmed once everyone returned from break. That won’t happen again.”
Despite knowing this, it is easy for in-plants to get so focused on their day-to-day operations that they forget to take their own advice.
“Before COVID-19, we marketed some, meaning printed a catalog/brochure and mailed it out once or twice a year to our customers,” says John Yerger, director of Print, Copy, Merchandising, Mail & Distribution Services at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “We surveyed our clients and found some did not know what we did, how big we were, what services we offered, or that we provided variable printing. About the same time, we hired an outside consulting firm who said we were doing a good job, but we could do better by hiring a sales representative and increasing our marketing.
“Like many other printers, we preached value of … marketing with print, and yet we found we were not truly marketers,” he admits. “We contacted our university communications department to develop our first marketing plan. We redesigned our catalog/brochure for a younger fresher look than the 1990s.”
Yerger points out that not only did these marketing efforts allow his in-plant to stay connected during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they actually allowed it to develop new services such as fulfillment of graduation materials. The in-plant boxed and shipped diplomas, tassels, letters, pins, hats, and more. Fulfillment subsequently “became a new service for our customers to use to help facilitate online events,” he says.
Photo Contest: A Marketing Win
For Golden, one of the top marketing efforts her in-plant engages in is an annual state employee photo contest.
“The state photographers are part of our division, so one year we did a calendar using their photos,” she notes. “One of our customers suggested we let state employees submit photos for the calendar the following year. We were reluctant at first, thinking our professional photographer’s pictures would be much better; we gave it a try though, and it was great. Not only did we get some really great photographs submitted, the employees whose photos were chosen did a lot of the marketing for us. They bought calendars for their family and friends, and made sure everyone in their departments knew about it.
“Over the years this has become a very competitive project — we get hundreds of submissions each year,” she adds. “We switch up the product each year, from calendars to decks of cards, journals, postcards, etc. We even have a reception for the winning entries, where they get a congratulations letter from the governor and a canvas print of their winning photograph.”
Another less complicated but no less effective marketing campaign Golden has employed is using new business card orders to promote the rest of the services the in-plant offers.
“We realized that the employees receiving business cards were people who are often new employees, and that they may not be aware of our services at all,” she notes. “We created a marketing flier that was small enough to fit inside the box of business cards, and we put it in each box, so that’s the first thing the employee sees when they open it. This helps us reach a whole new segment of employees that wouldn’t normally hear about us.”
Marketing at Meetings
Derrington notes that her efforts tend to be toward getting in front of as many people in her Olathe, Kansas, district as possible. She regularly attends secretary or principal meetings to give updates on the in-plant’s services, as well as to remind them to think about their projects in advance and consider how the in-plant could help them. She hands out notepads or calendars at those events as well, so everyone in those meetings leaves with a physical reminder of the in-plant.
In addition, she makes use of the in-plant’s space to connect with more people.
“We have a classroom area, and we loan the space if a team wants to use it for their professional day(s),” says Derrington. “They can take a tour of the shop, and also hold their meeting/trainings. If they can’t come to us, we provide a video tour on our website, along with video training for different topics such as web ordering, how to create flash cards, and how to create business cards.”
For Sarah Johnson, the manager of the Print & Copy Services department at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington, helping to bridge the gap between technology and creativity has proven to be an effective strategy.
“Having sample items to pass around or as a hands-on display has absolutely had the greatest return for us. Since most of our clients are not professional designers, being able to see possibilities in front of them is particularly valuable,” she notes.
Further, creating opportunities for people to see how their peers are using print is another effective strategy, she says.
“While it is not a marketing effort, precisely, we have also had excellent return from encouraging clients to come directly to the shop to pick up their orders, rather than having them delivered or using lockers,” she continues. “This allows them to see other orders ready for pick up, and, due to the open layout of our print shop, allows them to see items in production. We place our equipment so that ‘sexy’ items in production are the most visible — such as our wide-format printers or our 3D printer.”
Promoting to a Captive Audience
Taking advantage of a proverbial captive audience while picking up finished work is a strategy that has also worked for Kristen Hampton, director of Print and Mail Management for the State of Michigan.
“We offer a courier service from our location just outside the downtown Lansing area to all state buildings within a 10-mile radius. At each building, we have a dedicated area for customers to drop off orders or pick up completed projects,” she notes. “We also use this area to market our services with key contact cards, maps, service guides, etc. It’s not wholly measurable, but we continue to replenish the materials frequently, so they are being looked at.”
Yerger notes that when it comes to marketing, don’t be afraid to try different things to see what works — and what doesn’t. Marketing is all about trial and error, he says, and what works for one in-plant might fail for another. Sometimes, even the right idea at the wrong time can make a difference, so don’t be afraid to re-work campaigns or run them at different times to test different responses.
“We tried using social media,” he says. “Our expenditure wasn’t great, and our returns were mostly minimal. We also tried an open house — which we did have a decent response and one we will likely use again — but it failed due to being in the winter and then COVID-19 hit, so we will promote an open house again to help educate our client base.
“The calendar was very effective in that people ask for it when they see their co-workers have one, and that opens an opportunity for us to discuss their needs,” he continues. “We found that sending out postcards was a highly effective tool to introduce services; we often saw an uptick … when we marketed certain promotional products or retractable banners. We also discovered that it is better to do something consistently, meaning monthly. Now we are developing a line of postcards, a new calendar, new welcome kits … and we will have consistent mailings that will be more unified in message and look, giving us the continuity.”
Ideas for Your Next Marketing Effort
Just as there are thousands of in-plants around the country, there are just as many ideas for successful marketing campaigns. Here are a few of the best submitted to IPI in a recent survey.
- At Iowa State University, Director Nathan Thole takes a multi-pronged approach, with efforts that include monthly email blasts, regular meetings with key people throughout the university, and a free calendar that goes out to all the staff, touting the in-plant’s capabilities. He is also promoting the in-plant’s 100th anniversary this year in a variety of ways: a custom logo was designed and printed on notepads and T-shirts; a department historical timeline was created and is mounted to the customer lobby wall; calendars, with promotional coasters attached, were sent to all ISU faculty/staff; and email blasts promote a different product or service each month, with trivia questions that offer a chance to win a $10 bookstore gift card.
- Thad Weikal, mail center supervisor at Kenneth Copeland Ministries, says his in-plant seeks out jobs not processed through his department and looks for their owners, whom he tries to convince to bring that work in-house. To stay in front of customers’ eyes, he adds, “We print and make order pads for our staff dining room, that has a ‘printed and provided by’ line on it.”
- For Bret Johnson, print production manager at Mayo Clinic, a big part of marketing is measuring the right metrics — ensuring he knows which marketing efforts are performing and which aren’t, so he can revise accordingly.
- At the University of Southern Indiana, Director Terri Bischoff notes that one of the best marketing efforts for her in-plant is just sending out internal communications that detail the services the in-plant can provide.
Just Do It
“Honestly, I think any outreach or marketing is better than none,” says Golden. “Since we have our own graphic designers, photographers, and print capabilities, there isn’t a large cost to us for our marketing. While some marketing efforts are more effective than others, I can’t think of anything that wasn’t worth the time and effort spent on it.”
It’s also about tracking — don’t just send out a postcard or have a few meetings and then never follow up. The most effective marketing in the world won’t help your in-plant if you can’t track it and adjust where necessary.
“We are in the process of beginning our new marketing effort, which we’ll be reviewing every quarter to determine if we are seeing a good ROI — not in hits alone, but rather how many of those orders matriculated into sales,” says Yerger. “By closely monitoring the effectiveness of the various channels, and which is driving more [business], it will direct us into where to concentrate the efforts. We are fairly confident that … QR code utilization in print, emails, and various service videos … will drive our customers to the Web-to-print, and our expectations are to return to 20% growth over the previous year, and then 10% to 15% per year thereafter.”
If your in-plant isn’t doing any internal marketing, hopefully one or more of these ideas will spark your creativity. And if you are currently marketing without much success, use these ideas to refine and revise your strategy for the coming months. Just because in-plants have a built-in customer base doesn’t mean marketing isn’t as critical as it is for any other print operation. It’s time to get out there and build your in-plant’s business.
Toni McQuilken is the senior editor for the printing and packaging group.