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Print and Mail Outsourcing

Author: Gretel Digo

Posted: September 7, 2015

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Print and mail outsourcing is the process of hiring a third party to undertake the printing and distribution of documents.  It is the traditional sub-segment of document process outsourcing or the transfer of responsibility for document-intensive processes from an organization to a service provider.  Print and mail outsourcing generally refers to outsourced printing, scanning and mailroom services instead of an outsourced process.  In many cases, the entire document process is outsourced, including design, scanning and capture, printing, reproduction, quality control, archiving and mailroom services. 

Outsourced Print and Mail Services

Print and mail outsourcing services can be categorized into operational and promotional or marketing communications.  Operational print and mail services support an organization's internal activities.  The materials include stationery, manuals, memos, and other company documents.  On the other hand, promotional print and mail services supports the organization's marketing communications campaign.  Materials include leaflets, posters, banners, packaging, brochures, direct mail and other sales collaterals.

Companies that outsource print and mail activities may need discrete services or end-to-end document printing and distribution support.  End-to-end services encompass every step of the print and mail process: concept development, design, customization, printing, document reproduction, distribution, storage and post-production services (return mail management, warehousing, etc.).

Print and mail outsourcing continues to grow as print and electronic communications become integrated and companies seek solutions to improve workflows, automate processes, reduce the paper trail and reduce costs.  Chief marketing officers (CMOs) who are responsible for driving growth are also beginning to understand that in-house marketing campaigns need to be run like an operational department.  CMOs are thus turning to outside experts that can better turn incremental investment into sales and improve corporate brand value.

One of the biggest benefits of outsourced print and mail services is lower costs.  Print and mail outsourcing is a cost-effective way for companies to maximize their document printing and distribution budgets.  In particular, letting an outside expert handle printing and mailing of marketing communications can help firms reduce the printing budget by 30 percent or more and drive revenue growth.

Print and Mail Outsourcing Growth Drivers

Third parties have been offering traditional print and mail services to organizations since the advent of the modern printing press.  Technological innovations such as the copy machine by Xerox, CMYK printing and the laser printer have further broadened the capabilities of printing and document processing companies. 

Outsourcing of print and mail services in the U.S.  was popular with financial services companies in the early 1990s, around the same time IT companies started outsourcing technology services locally and offshore.  Due to the sheer volume of paperwork, printing and document distribution activities in banks and financial institutions, many firms began to seek partnerships with service providers that can do the job more effectively, quickly and affordably.

The outsourcing of print and mailroom services has grown exponentially over the past decade as businesses turned to third parties to help them reduce cost, improve productivity, and achieve eco-sustainability.  The first generation of print and mail outsourcing engagements saw companies seeking mainly to cut costs and boost productivity.  In North America and Europe, many businesses followed the general trend from local to offshore outsourcing to further drive down spending.  Many service providers claim to save clients up to 30 percent through end-to-end services.  Yet organizations continue to face pressure to save more money while increasing process efficiency and driving innovation.

Today, print and mail service providers, their clients and outsourcing engagements have matured with experience.  The second and third generations of print and mail outsourced engagements are characterized by more demanding clients seeking added value and business transformation and vendors with new opportunities to extend the scope of services and support all types and sizes of businesses. 

For example, enterprise print and mail services have evolved into comprehensive document processing and the outsourcing of higher value activities, with the goal of improving business performance and the top line.  The goal of next-generation print and mail outsourcing is to deliver business transformation through process improvement and innovation, turning vendors from mere suppliers into a strategic business partners.

Basic Flow of Offshore Outsourced Print and Mail

Print and mail outsourcing processes vary depending on the service provider.  However, some steps are common in operational and promotional (marketing communications) print and mail workflow.  The process usually starts with the acquisition of documents from the client and end with logistics, or the delivery of the printed material to the customer or end-user.

1.  Data transfer. The client presents the documents and files to the service provider for printing and distribution.  Paper documents may be sent to the vendor by courier, while digital files are transmitted electronically through the internet (email, Dropbox), computer-to-computer transfer like FTP (file transfer protocol), and other public or private methods of electronic data interchange.

2. Data processing.The next step is the extraction of information from the submitted documents.  If these are paper documents, they are usually converted into a digital format by scanning or image capture for backup, storage and easier reproduction.  For documents that are already digitized, the vendor will extract key information and prepare the data for printing, automation, reproduction, and distribution. 

3.  Document formatting. Document formatting is the process of turning data into a print-ready document.  The provider follows general design and composition rules (as well as rules set in the client specifications) to turn the information into the target design format.  Besides design and content, automation codes and special print notations are formatted into the documents for machine insertion. 

4.  Variable printing. Next, the print-ready file is sent to the printing department.  Document specialists, graphic designers and copywriters often work together to customize each print-ready document to reflect the client's brand and drive customer engagement based on marketing and promotions research.  For example, personalized promotional direct mail (with custom wording, font color, paper color and type of imagery resonant with the target demographic) appeals to end-users far more than generic sales collaterals.  After the client approves the proofs, the mailers are printed out.

5.  Envelope insertion. Inserting documents into envelopes can be done automatically/semi-automatically or manually, even for high-volume orders.  First, each document is folded according to specifications or assembled into a non-envelope mailer piece.  Envelope documents are either a) fed into a machine that automates the process of inserting printed mailers of different sizes and folding into the right envelopes, or b) folded and inserted into envelopes manually.

6.  Mailing and distribution. After preparing the envelopes, they are ready to be packed, addressed and shipped.  Service providers have longstanding partnerships with major carriers to deliver mailers to end users locally and internationally.  In the United States, providers have integrated their systems with the United States Postal Service (USPS) to streamline processes and allow clients to reduce mailing fees.  Service providers ensure that each mailer or package has the correct postage and meets courier guidelines.  For example, machines that read barcodes can automatically apply a new address if the customer has moved or submitted a change of address through the USPS. 

7.  Return Mail Management. Return mail management is a post-printing and mailing service offered by many providers.  The vendor processes and analyzes return mail and presents a detailed report of undelivered mail to the client.  Return mail management can reduce the number of returned documents.  It can also be critical to cost-reduction initiatives, as it provides data and analysis that can be useful for future campaigns. 

8.  Fulfillment. Some providers offer stock management and warehousing services (short or long-term) in addition to print and mail.  The materials are stored in an environmentally-controlled and secured environment, and the provider informs the client when certain supplies need to be replenished.  High-value items are stored in a secured warehouse that only clients and approved staff can access.

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