At the dawn of the cyber age, printers held out hope that the Internet would eliminate the need to ever have to deal with a customer again. Soothsayers predicted that a customer would sit at his desk and order printing online whenever he needed it. All a printer needed was a website to accept the orders. The customer would find you on the Web and enter the order. The order would then be printed, billed, and shipped without any additional interaction with the customer. Printers waited in quiet anticipation for the day they would be free of customer interruptions and could concentrate on just printing.
Most printers are still waiting for the day when orders will just roll in off the Web, but the Internet has become a tool that makes print buying easier for the customer. Web-to-print (W2P) bridges the gap between digital online content and commercial print production. W2P allows the printer and customer to communicate online to create, edit, and approve documents. The customer can pay either by credit card or on account. Most systems are built on a PDF workflow to take advantage of automation systems.
To get started, a printer will establish an online "storefront" that can be either public or private. Within the storefront, customers can choose pre-designed templates where they can alter the typeface, copy, images, and layout within a template, or approve a template layout and design that has been created by another person. Most Web-to-print applications allow customers to customize pre-designed templates or let customers to upload their own unique content for automated print production. Sometimes it is as simple as a "pick and print" system when a customer orders from existing documents. Products produced by a Web-to-print process commonly include business cards, brochures, and stationery.
A couple of printing companies took aim at the consumer market for commodity printing products and have developed a sophisticated automated system to deal with standard print orders. VistaPrint.com and Printingforless.com allow customers to order commodity items such as business cards, brochures, and stationery. 4over.com targets the print trade market with a variety of process color products. The companies maintain strict standards for what can be ordered as well as colors and papers that can be used. The standards allow these companies to automate and become the low cost providers for those items.
The primary W2P markets for quick and small commercial printers are local businesses and existing customers. Smaller print shops can't afford the marketing costs required to reach a national audience. VistaPrint devotes more than 30% of its income to marketing and advertising.
Customers well served by W2P services, and therefore the best prospects for your sales efforts, are those who have a number of people ordering printing within the organization and those who have multiple locations. For larger companies, ordering printing can be time consuming and an expensive internal cost. W2P can lower administrative costs and eliminate tasks usually required to order printing in large organizations.
A printer can get into W2P by buying a software application package from any of several providers. XMPie, Printable, PageFlex, GMC, and others offer programs a printer can install and maintain internally. Usually, the systems require someone knowledge about computer and Internet technology. Most of these systems will require the printer to maintain his own website and keep the software running. These systems are usually modular and a company can implement an entire system or only the modules necessary.
Other companies offer W2P as a "software as a service" (SaaS) solution. A printer will subscribe to one or more modules and use the software without having to install or maintain it. The vendor manages the server hardware that hosts the software. This allows for a lower capital investment and fees are usually charged by the volume of use of the software. A printer wanting to get up and running quickly usually selects an SaaS solution.