PRINTING United in a Virtual Year

The final word on this year’s digital experience



Ryan McAbee, Eve Padula


Last week, the PRINTING United Digital Experience ended its 14-day run. Featuring four hours of vertically focused content each day, PRINTING United 2020 was really a mix of mini-events rather than a single event with a cohesive focus. Key areas of concentration included apparel, commercial printing, digital textiles, graphics/wide format, in-plants, industrial printing, mailing/fulfillment, and packaging. Every day of the event highlighted a unique area of the industry and featured its own opening keynote. Most also included an industry outlook to start the day. There were educational sessions for each day—some more insightful than others—as well as a variety of vendor product demonstrations.


After just the first three days of PRINTING United, event organizers reported that over 6,600 attendees from 4,700 companies in 97 countries around the globe had consumed more than 30,000 page views and 3,000 hours of video featuring educational sessions, new product demonstrations, and other resources. If you missed out on any of the event activities, don’t worry—all the content is accessible on demand through January 31, 2021.


On day 5 of the event (Graphics/Wide Format – Finishing & Workflow), Keypoint Intelligence directors Ryan McAbee and Eric Zimmerman hosted a keynote to discuss how the wide format industry is shifting over time. The industry has become quite data-driven, and we’re beginning to understand the importance of better leveraging this data. Fortunately, there are a number of software solutions that can help with this.


Building a Manufacturing Mindset Keynote with Keypoint’s Eric Zimmerman


Key Trends Across the Event

Although every day of the event had its own unique area of concentration, there were some common themes that continually cropped up throughout the virtual experience. These included:

  • The impact of COVID: Of course, no discussion from 2020 would be complete without addressing the elephant in the room: the ongoing global pandemic. COVID is the reason that this event (like so many others) was virtual this year, and it has affected nearly every aspect of our lives, including how we work, how we interact with one another, as well as how we do business and serve our customers. Some of the changes that have taken place over the past several months might lessen over time, but a great many others will likely be permanent. Furthermore, some of the changes that were already starting to take place before the pandemic hit have only accelerated as a result of its arrival.
  • The continuing rise of e-commerce: If most of us weren’t already comfortable with online shopping prior to 2020, the arrival of COVID and subsequent shutdown pushed more consumers and businesses toward online purchasing than ever before. Even after the pandemic subsides, e-commerce will likely continue to thrive. This is a trend that was accelerated by COVID and shows no signs of slowing. A web-to-print presence is no longer an option for today’s businesses; it is a necessity.
  • Print service providers continue to pivot: This year has admittedly been tough for a great many businesses, and printers were no exception. Some saw their traditional business models drying up within a few weeks of the arrival of COVID, and they were forced to course-correct. Due to their willingness and ability to adapt, some of these firms have managed to thrive in the face of adversity. These printers have proven their adaptability by expanding into adjacent markets, shifting their focus to in-demand COVID-related items, and (in some cases) moving in completely different directions.
  • The only constant is change: Not surprisingly, the pandemic was a backdrop for nearly every keynote and panel session from PRINTING United 2020. The fluid nature of COVID-19 means that there is a great deal of uncertainty, and that no one seems to know what will happen next. Despite this uncertainty, preparing and planning for change was a common thread throughout the event. We can no longer wait for normal to return because the global health crisis has changed the very nature of “business as usual.” As printers, we can only respond to these changes and continue reinventing ourselves.


Where Do We Go From Here?

The in-person PRINTING United event in 2019 spanned six halls and 720,000 square feet of exhibition space at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in downtown, Dallas, Texas. Over 30,000 attendees mingled with over 600 exhibitors to see, touch, and hear about the industry’s latest innovations. Although a digital experience can never hit the same metrics as an in-person event, this year’s event benefits from the long tail of the Internet. Print service providers were able to register for free, avoid the cost of travel, and consume the content on their own terms. As a result, even those professionals who normally would not have had the opportunity to attend in-person events had the chance to learn.


This year forced the printing industry to shore up existing business but also find new customers, revenue streams, and applications. As a result, printers learned to conduct business online. Similarly, industry events pivoted to virtual through a process of trial-and-error, and attempted to replicate the best aspects of the physical experience. Some, like the educational sessions, worked well and afforded access to a larger audience. Others, like networking, didn’t quite hit the mark. Going forward, event organizers will likely continue their efforts to offer the best of both worlds, combining the convenience of a virtual experience with the physical benefits of in-person events. This will create a win-win situation for event attendees and organizers alike.


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