The Convergence of Communications and Commerce

by Ramesh Ratan

Chief Executive Officer

Bell and Howell

When I think of our industry, I think of what a challenging and exciting time it is. At the heart of what’s happening in our industry is the convergence of the physical and the digital in the area of communication.

It’s the convergence of these physical and digital technologies that’s enabling the convergence of communications and commerce.

For years commerce was distinct from communications. People went to a store or picked up the phone, or used a catalog to order a good. This information was sent to a CRM system, data was captured, an invoice or a statement prepared, printed and then mailed. Then the check came back in a BRE to complete the transaction. The commercial transaction of buying something, paying for it and getting a good in return was distinct from the communications involved around it.

Over time these communications went from being purely paper-based to paper and digital. For example, the telephone, followed by the internet followed by computing have continued to make inroads into this combination of physical and digital when it comes to communications. But now all of that has come together with actual commerce. It’s going even further to the point where even when the goods are physical these things are now very closely intertwined. And the emergence of the internet of things is fueling that connection.

For the consumer it’s anywhere, anytime, any medium for the ability to shop, consume and pay. No longer is placing a product into a box, adding messaging and then delivering it a one-way interaction with the consumer. The industry is moving beyond producing printed content and broadcasting it, to seamlessly integrating ink on paper with digital content, to ecommerce fulfillment. It’s anywhere, anytime shopping and paying for consumers with an Internet connection.

If you’re at a store and wonder who else nearby is selling the same product for a lower price? Just use an app on your smartphone to check online. And why carry a credit card? Use your phone to pay.

We’re moving from producing content and broadcasting it to understanding that ink on paper can join with digital content to become part of the communications space between the seller and the consumer. Parcels and packaging are part of that – placing a good into a box, adding messaging and delivering the good to the consumer is part of this whole continuum. What was once a one-way broadcast is now a convergence enabling commerce. Savvy print and mail providers are now discovering digital technologies that allow them to move far beyond ink on paper and into the realization of ecommerce fulfillment.

Yet another interactive technology far extends the commercial and brand experience via apps that connect with the printed piece—like our new mobile phone app: When a user hovers over a printed image (such as a direct mailer or advertisement), the app automatically serves up a customized video based on predefined, personalized data. And our app uses true image recognition, so the user doesn’t see a barcode on the printed piece—just a pleasing photo that’s part of the message.

So, the challenging news for the print and mail world is simple: if you are just in print and mail you will become a commodity that will get priced out, become obsolete and outsourced.

The exciting news is that if you become part of a relationship between seller and the consumer, and can add value in a multi-channel communication chain, whether it’s via things like augmented reality or personalized data points, you can gain access to the marketing arm of your customers. And that’s where the money is. Grow that relationship, add value, connect the physical and the digital, and the future is yours.

What print and mailers can do right now to prepare for this convergence is invest in end-to-end digital technology before you put ink on paper. This means digital precomposition, digital composition, and digital production must be at the forefront of your strategy.

After the ink is put on paper, think deeply about how what you have produced will connect to the digital world. Then connect the pieces with data to help your customers make sense of their customers– consumer data, item data, and computational intelligence connects all of this together.

It is a very exciting time for companies who are interested in joining the conversation between sellers and consumers. I think print and mail operators are uniquely positioned to add tremendous value to this multi-channel, two-way conversation.

(This article appeared in the 2015 Executive Outlook edition of MAIL: The Journal of Communication Distribution. Click the “Subscribe” button to begin receiving the Journal.)

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