2021 Outlook for Direct Mail and Transactional Printers


As was the case for many other industries, 2020 proved to be a year of uncertainty for print service providers (PSPs). Plans for strategic growth were abandoned as wide shifts in business practices were adopted just to get orders out the door. Some felt the tension and discomfort of not even having a white fog line to serve as a guide through these uncharted roads. Others were able to take comfort in the guardrails they’d had the foresight to install, which enabled them to adapt quickly and carve out new business opportunities.

Regardless of whether you were flying blind or felt well-positioned for the complications of 2020, one thing became abundantly clear—business strategies must be dynamic and able to navigate any bends in the road when things suddenly change. Direct mail and transactional printers that take on an adaptive approach will be better equipped to refine the goals and tactics that can pull them forward. There has never been a better time to take a fresh look at your strategy and considerations. A revived strategy can enable PSPs to capture new opportunities and guard against outcomes that might create additional bumps in the road. As the industry begins to demonstrate positive and steady change, your strategy should start with an objective view of industry trends as well as some considerations to align your capabilities with the opportunities for strong and steady growth. At the beginning of each year, Keypoint Intelligence publishes its annual Road Map to help guide PSPs as they develop a strategy to navigate through the coming year.


Industry Consolidation

Industry consolidation is a term that can mean different things to different people. The first and most obvious definition draws us toward the merger and acquisition (M&A) market. Many owners and influencers within the printing industry are baby boomers, with impending retirement on their minds along with all the challenges 2020 brought. As a result, 2021 will likely see increased consolidation among PSPs of all sizes.

The other definition for industry consolidation deals with technological advancements that cause traditional printing and digital printing volumes to consolidate. Due to the acceleration and newfound ease of purchasing print online, we expect to see a shift from office and home office print volumes to mid- and high-level digital toner devices. Looking upstream, a similar transfer of volume shifting from digital toner-based devices to production inkjet devices is beginning to occur. To remain competitive, you must understand the drivers behind this consolidation. Investments will play a critical role in your strategic plan for 2021.

Evolving Applications

Direct Mail

Marketers recognize direct mail’s unique ability to cut through the clutter of emails, banner ads, and TV/radio commercials. They also understand that direct mail allows them to engage consumers in a tactile, singular way. With this in mind, best practices indicate that creating a more strategic focus with the intended audience is a must. As direct mail continues to evolve, attributes that continue to foster engagement include the use of full-color, tactical coupons or tickets, and high-quality photographs and designs. Strategies to improve the quality of direct mail will resonate in 2021.

Figure 1: Techniques That Encourage Engagement with Direct Mail

N = 1,550 Consumers in the US and Canada who read/review direct mail before throwing it out

Source: Annual State of Marketing Communications Consumer Survey, Keypoint Intelligence 2020


As would be expected, the volume of transactional print continues to slowly decline. Despite this decline, it still represents the third-highest application segment. As shown in the figure below, the growth opportunity over the next five years exists with transpromotional (TransPromo) communications. Due to recent introductions of high-quality, high-speed inkjet devices, marketers can cost-effectively reach their audiences with full-color promotional offers.

Figure 2: Application Overview

Source: US Digital Production Printing Application Forecast, Keypoint Intelligence 2019

Channel Preference

COVID-19 has caused an uptick in the volumes of digital-only communications like email and text messages. Even so, concerns about secure, safe, and authentic communications will carry into 2021. Keypoint Intelligence recently took a critical look at consumers and their channel preferences in its annual Transactional Communications research, and two very interesting phenomena were uncovered:

  • Channel Fog: The uncertainty consumers experience with their communications in today’s multichannel world. Concerns about the security of personal data, coupled with reports of fraud and identity theft, are the primary contributors to channel fog.
  • Channel Fatigue: The difficulty associated with managing massive amounts of digital data. This fatigue is driven by the overwhelming number of communications consumers receive, which is concurrently driving down the appeal of digital channels and increasing the desire to communicate through traditional print channels.

As businesses seek to establish meaningful relationships with prospective and current customers, the use of personalized and relevant content can create a meaningful connection. PSPs are well-positioned to help their customers stand above the fog, eliminate fatigue, and tighten the bond with target audiences. The stage is set for print providers to bring new insight and knowledge to the conversation in 2021.

The Intelligent Press Room

The disruption in business during 2020 was a clear indicator that a sound system to keep jobs flowing through the shop in a virtual environment is a huge payoff. It is fair to assume there will be other reasons where a more consistent work from home model may be necessary, yet the topic casts a wider lens. The benefits from an automated and connected environment can provide payoffs every day, regardless of employees’ physical locations.

Standardizing the way work gets done is not a foreign concept for direct mail and transactional printers. The last year has proven that it is time to take automation to the next level. The snowball effect of a manual process can transform a minor mistake into an unimaginable catastrophe. Meanwhile, a defined and documented process creates an additional value in your overall value statement that cannot be touched. In 2021, there is no question that the digital transformation will soar.

The Rise of e-Commerce

Convenience and ease-of-use are the primary drivers of online purchasing. During the lockdown phase of the pandemic, the need for online portals and contactless e-commerce practices accelerated. Now, even as the economy has started to reopen, consumers and businesses will continue to gravitate toward the newfound convenience of e-commerce. Online portals and web-to-print solutions were first popularized in the late 1990s, and PSPs are quite familiar with these practices by now. A well-designed print portal can ensure that service-level agreements (SLAs) are met and fit seamlessly between your customer and production team. Although many of today’s customers crave the online experience, they also want it to be well-designed and easy to use. A solid strategy for 2021 includes a review of e-commerce solutions. If you already have a solution, make sure it meets the needs of your most important customers. If you haven’t already implemented an e-commerce channel, now is the time to explore your options. Competition is increasing all the time, and a well-designed e-commerce platform can be the difference between capturing new/repeat business and seeing a valued customer walk away.

Rethinking Sales and Marketing

A shift in job titles occurred when COVID-19 forced much of the industry into lockdown mode. Outside salespeople suddenly became inside salespeople. This created a multitude of challenges for even the most experienced reps. With more and more buyers and sellers of print embracing online meeting platforms, an important decision must be made in 2021. Ask yourself—will your pre-COVID sales structure stand up to the requirements of today’s buyers? A strong look at how your customers respond to your sales and marketing activities will be critical in 2021.

Savvy PSPs will include lead generation programs to support their sales reps’ responsibilities. This might mean developing one lead generation program to capture the interest of your targeted audience and implementing a different program to move a prospect through the sales pipeline. Sales traction in 2021 will depend on the processes behind it. There has never been a better time to examine sales best practices and model your sales efforts around specific, well-defined steps that can help earn your customers’ business.

Security as a Differentiator

According to the FBI, cybercrime has risen 300% since the onset of COVID-19. Cybersecurity became a topic of huge importance with the growth of data utilization and consumers’ increasing demands for privacy. As a result, privacy and security clauses are showing up in more printers’ request for proposals (RFPs).

On the consumer side, a recent poll by IAAP indicates 93% of citizens would switch to privacy-conscious organizations given the opportunity. Consumers take comfort in the knowledge the organizations they’re working with have put security top of mind. Data privacy and security is a differentiator that can generate higher profits and customer retention.

Developing a strategy behind security involves identifying gaps in your current processes and procedures. Examine both on-site and work from home scenarios, then consider obtaining certifications and accreditations that will put your customers’ minds at ease.

CMYK+ Technology Delivers in 2021

Digital print technologies that enable CMYK+ print enhancements are becoming more prevalent in digital production devices at all levels. In recent years, PSPs have made investments in CMYK+ technology to create competitive differentiation and expand their current offerings. While the idea of print enhancements and color embellishments is certainly an exciting conversation, adoption and print volumes in this area have been slow to grow. According to surveys conducted among many PSPs, customers simply aren’t asking for it yet. Even so, direct mail has only seconds to grab the attention of the intended recipient. CMYK+ is a perfect opportunity to improve a campaign’s return on investment.

Print—specifically offset print—has historically initiated the ability to offer CMYK+. This begs the question—did all print enhancements go away, or are they just misunderstood by today’s digital print buyers? An opportunity exists for PSPs to include customer education in their 2021 strategy. Those that educate and inform will be better positioned to capture the opportunities as digital print continues to encroach on traditionally offset printed offerings.


Transactional and direct mail providers must reflect on the lessons they learned in 2020 and make decisions that align with their customers’ changing needs. A strategy for the future includes bold ideas. Dig in, define the steps to execute your strategy, and then follow through so your vision does not fall victim to poor execution. As we navigate through 2021, the leaders in the print industry will continue to focus on communication practices and business processes that add increased meaning to the customer experience. The pacesetters of tomorrow will also consider additional investments in print technology, software platforms, well-designed automation, and education so they can create a friction-free path toward better serving their customers’ needs.

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