Using—and Choosing—Web-to-Print and Print-to-Web

Asking all printers: Who wouldn't want to boost your local and regional business in 2011 and widen your geographical market reach in the process? Oh, and at the same time you could reduce sales costs for customers while freeing up your own reps to chase more business—with no snake-oil strings attached. If this sounds like a win-win-win-win proposition, that explains why so many printing firms are turning to web-to-print technology to help increase their profit margins. John Arnsdorf, product marketing manager for XMPie, calls web-to-print "the preferred approach to the marketing and sales environment."

Jay Mandarino of award-winning printer CJ Graphics, Toronto, says online storefronts are his firm's biggest growth area, with three full-time programmers now on staff and two more to come soon. The 40,000-square-foot sheetfed and digital operation is celebrating its 30th business anniversary this year. On average, web-to-print orders account for between 25 percent and 30 percent of most printers' gross total sales, says consultant Bob Atkinson.

Simply put, web-to-print is a browser-based software application that lets printers sell their wares online. More than that, it facilitates commerce, collaboration and/or customer service interaction between those who buy print products and those buyers and sellers of printed products. Web-to-print is nothing new, starting with the onset of e-commerce in the 1990s, say InfoTrends consultants.

In making the industry tradeshow rounds this year, most recently GRAPH EXPO and PrintWorld in Toronto, it is evident just how many web-to-print suppliers are out there today. At GRAPH EXPO alone, more than 40 exhibitors brought some type of web-to-print solution to Chicago. Some names are familiar, such as Avanti Computer Systems, GMC Software and Printable Technologies; others are newer to the scene -- Aleyant, PrintSites and Prisme Technologies' PrintSYS product. (PN readers, please note that this report is not a product roundup and is not intended to be comprehensive.)

Indeed, "the number of vendors has doubled in the last three years," estimates Atkinson, a senior technology consultant with Sabatier who spoke at the biennial PrintWorld show in late November. More than 30 printers gathered to hear Atkinson, who brings more than 25 years of experience in the graphic arts/publishing and new media industries, advise how they can create profit centers using web-to-print technology.

While most North American print firms have websites by now, only about 30 to 35 percent of US small and mid-size shops use web-to-print to their advantage, says Atkinson. Web-to-print shopping is sort of like shopping for dry breakfast cereal at the grocery store: There are so many variations that all look good and all sound good and most probably taste pretty good, too. So, which one should you buy? The answer, of course, depends on what you have a taste for, and/or whether you're counting sugary calories. The consensus is that web-to-print services can be sweet for print providers' bottom lines.


W2P Layers and Players

At its most base level, web-to-print means virtual retail "storefronts" where people can obtain price quotations, submit jobs and, well, buy printing online. The lion's share of web-to-print providers now offer design templates for products such as business cards and letterhead/stationery. At GRAPH EXPO, for example, WitPrint Technology demonstrated its Web Cloud web-to-print software that features an online design tool. End-users can upload popular file types, including AI, CDR, PSD, PDF, J-PEG, TIFF and PNG. UpLinX, a PaperlinX company, has premedia software solutions including on-demand quotes via an e-commerce storefront and an add-on module that merges personalized data into customized print materials.

Amazing Print Corp., a 14-year-old firm, has more than 4,000 US installations, according to CEO Slava Apel, because it makes designing online interfaces simple for printers and their customers who need products such as postcards, business cards and letterhead. Its eCardBuilder web-to-print software includes review, grouping and order desk functions plus integration for e-commerce, FTP support and shipping. Amazing Print also offers customized web-to-print portals. "The response from our clients has been overwhelming in regards to eCardBuilder's online designer," says Lillian Roberts, president of Business Card, Inc. (BCI) of Florida. "I believe this has given my company a weighted advantage in a highly competitive market."

Other providers ratchet it up another notch or two, adding features like online proofing (for non-color-critical work) and customer account management, which can include job tracking and payment options. Aimed at content creators, prepress-centric solutions offering preflight, file delivery, soft proofing and approval have been around for more than a decade. These are now being married to e-commerce storefronts, such as Kodak Insite Storefront, which integrates with the popular Prinergy prepress workflow solution.

Shown for the first time in Canada at PrintWorld, the :Apogee WebApproval 7.0 interactive portal is the latest version of the Agfa Graphics workflow management suite. It allows for job initiation and soft proofing, and also links to the firm's Manage 7.0 prepress workflow. Meanwhile, Avanti offers a modular print MIS solution that includes eAccess web-to-print capabilities, such as online catalogs, RFQs, job submission/tracking, soft proofing and e-commerce, that fully integrate into JDF-certified production.

Datatech SmartSoft has developed PressWise, an end-to-end, web-to-print and workflow automation solution designed as an alternative to purchasing independent modules of web storefront, production workflow, print MIS and mail preparation software. It features Web2Ship Storefronts that automatically generate custom client websites in under an hour, says Datatech. Integrated online estimating tools, with support for custom pricing per client, streamline the entire order process. PressWise integrates seamlessly with existing storefront products such as Saepio, OPS, Pageflex and more.

For digital press users, even more advanced solutions have variable data print (VDP) front end options that drive prepress systems to generate output-ready PDFs on the fly. XMPie's latest version of uStore (4.0), for instance, has a business-to-consumer (B2C) component with features such as anonymous shopping and tagging products and categories to maximize search-engine visibility. And Aleyant Systems garnered Worth-a-Look attention at GRAPH EXPO for its Pressero v. 4 B2B and B2C web-to-print storefront system that provides fully integrated e-commerce, proofing, design, VDP and reorder capabilities. Among the updates and improvements are integrated SEO (search engine optimization) and social media, an open XML architecture for integration with a print shop's third-party applications, and the ability to auto-generate two-dimensional QR (quick response) barcodes for use in personalized print materials. Whichever level of web-to-print you select, "web-to-print is your shop's online portal," Atkinson reminds.

"Make it easy for your customers to reorder and place new orders," PrinterPresence by Firespring president Tawnya Starr advised Show Daily readers at GRAPH EXPO. "Utilize tools such as Adobe PDF JobReady that make it easy for clients to send you files. Be diligent about getting clients to utilize FTP [file transfer protocol] instead of email," she said. PrinterPresence offers turnkey websites with integrated web-to-print solutions created by over 10 years of research with print buyers. The firm now has more than 3,000 clients on five continents. Starr used the show to present more than 20 upgrades to the Springboard platform, including the latest from partner Pageflex, the addition of payment getaways and a tax/shipping calculator.


Rent, Buy or Build Your Own

The hosted, Software as a Service (SaaS) model has grown to the point of grasping about an 80 percent share of the web-to-print marketplace, says Atkinson. "It's a pay-as-you-go model, and they handle all the technical stuff like hosting and back up," he explains, adding that SaaS web-to-print is relatively inexpensive to set up, with low upfront costs. The solution provider maintains all hardware and software, hence the monthly fee. "They're not truly customizable, so there is a limited range of services." But it is fast, "up and running in a week— in one day, in some cases," Atkinson notes.

Ongoing costs vary depending on site volume and features. Flat rates can range from $50 to $1,000 per month, says Atkinson, while fixed rates either are per transaction ($10 to $20 per job) or a commission (say two percent) on each job. "Read the fine print," he encourages, "in case your site really takes off!" A hosted solution is ideal for companies with little to no IT support, suggests InfoTrends.

Employing SaaS, Printable automates and integrates online ordering, personalization, production and fulfillment processes with a multi-channel web services solution. Its MarcomCentral (formerly FusionPro) product suite provides the full range of services including: job submission and tracking, development of customizable storefronts and template design, variable data publishing (VDP) functionality, campaign management, mailing list purchasing, digital asset management, inventory control and integration with production workflow.

Bitstream announced its externally hosted Pageflex SaaS solution at GRAPH EXPO. It competes with iWay from Press-sense, which Bitstream acquired last May. (Ricoh InfoPrint Solutions resells iWay as its web-to-print platform of choice.) It will be interesting to see how these product offerings shake out at Bitstream going forward. RedTie Limited, based in the U.K. with New York offices, provides web-to-print solutions worldwide that are sold directly and through partners, including HP, Heidelberg and manroland. Its latest offering, Red2Go, offers a pay-as-you go module with training available through the new RedTie Academy.

If, on the other hand, your firm has a strong IT staff, you may lean toward a buying a licensed solution off the proverbial shelf. The licensed software model, what Atkinson calls "web-to-print in a box," involves higher set-up costs in the form of a one-time purchase fee—let's say $12,000, for the sake of argument. "Software costs from $1,000 to $50,000, based on features," Atkinson points out. There's also an annual maintenance fee of about 10 percent but no ongoing, monthly fees like in SaaS.

So why would a printer want to incur that kind of initial cost on a licensed solution? The answer is customization and flexibility, which take longer: anywhere from one to three months. Licensed web-to-print is hosted within your facility on your own system/server, or you can rent a server. (Another option is as an add-on module to an existing MIS or workflow system.) In addition to server hardware, you'd also need to provide your own server software, database software, software licenses and a high-speed Internet connection, of course, with that skilled IT person to set up, run and back up. Your tekkie needs to be able to navigate through the complexity of hook-ups to existing, in-house MIS or workflow. This can be tricky, not to mention expensive, says Atkinson.

Some of the mammoth, super-high-volume printing firms take matters into their own hands and build their own systems. Look at RR Donnelley, which is making its own inkjet web presses. (Who needs HP or Kodak, right?) But when it comes to web-to-print, most don't aspire to be like Netherlands-based Vistaprint, says Atkinson. The online-only juggernaut, which caters to small businesses via a proprietary system, had annual sales last year of $670 million, up 30 percent over 2009.

Constructing your own web-to-print system from the ground up is time-consuming and expensive. How expensive? Well, that all depends, of course, but Atkinson says maybe $50,000 on the low end, with a median price tag of around $135,000. "A quarter of a million dollars is not uncommon," he notes. "I've seen some in the seven-figure range." The general programmers and database people required may not have print/prepress knowledge, Atkinson adds, "so you're paying them $120 an hour for weeks on end. It could take three to six month to develop, test and ramp up." But home-spun is the most flexible of all the web-to-print options.

If they're not using their own, homegrown technology, larger printers and enterprise organizations with multiple sites tend to gravitate to higher end, licensed web-to-print tools, such as the award-winning EFI Digital StoreFront (DSF), which delivers a complete, streamlined job management and workflow solution. For example, giant government in-plant DLA Document Services, which is part of the US Department of Defense, recently chose this customizable, Internet-based shopping and communication platform over its own system for 150 global locations. EFI also offers PrintSmith Site, an Internet add-on module that enables easy creation and management of storefront websites within the familiar PrintSmith costing interface—with no HTML knowledge required.

There are plenty of cost-effective choices for mid- and small-size printers, too. Printable was already mentioned, and don't forget Dalim Software with its print workflow solutions, including web-to-print. The list goes on. Even Adobe is in the act, with its Scene7 web-to-print component that enables personalized print products and localized marketing materials through hosted services. There also are suppliers out if the printing industry with attractive pricing, but Atkinson says to tread cautiously. "Make sure you choose a vendor with prepress, estimating and print MIS knowledge," he councils. PrintSites, for example, offers web-based e-commerce software created exclusively for the print sector by multi-generation industry insiders, "by printers for printers," the firm says. (Editor's note: Mr. Atkinson is careful not to endorse any products.)

Mark Vruno, a business writer reporting on the commercial print industry for more than 20 years, moderated a "Case Study Theatre" at the recent PrintWorld 2010 show in Toronto. He also was the lead writer for the GRAPH EXPO 2010 Show Daily and is the former executive editor of Graphic Arts Monthly magazine. Follow him at and email him at