Digital Original: Implementing Web-to-Print

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.

The Market

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.

The Resources

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.

SaaS services are available from companies such as PageDNA.com, InterlinkONE, EFI, iWay, Saepio, Responsive Solutions, NowDocs, and AmazingPrint. The SaaS companies provide the administration of the site and the printer usually just has to provide the templates.

To cut through the confusion of all the services offered by W2P providers, PIA/GATF has introduced the Web2Print Test Drive Center. A new service of the Printing Industries of America (PIA) Digital Printing Council, printers can now browse, search, compare, and try more than 60 W2P solutions by visiting www.w2ptestdrive.com. The site makes it easy to narrow down the research by the type of W2P application. The site even sports an extensive knowledge base, including a glossary of terms to take the mystery out of the technology. The site is divided into four categories: Print Procurement, Document Management, Marketing Management, and Workflow Automation.

If a printer already has a website, particularly one of the packaged sites aimed at the small commercial and quick printing market, he has W2P capabilities. Suppliers such as PrinterPresence, PagePath's MyOrderDesk, Websitesforprinters.com, Prismatek, and PrintOrder.com include packages for W2P. The sites will usually allow a printer to create a private portal for each individual customer where they can order from a catalog of existing jobs; build business stationery, business cards, brochures, etc. from templates; and manage print production order.

The cost for some of the services is in addition to the base price of the website, but the price is usually lower than adding a specialized W2P application or SaaS.

The Strategy

As the printer begins his search for a W2P solution, he has to decide who he plans to sell the W2P services to and what he plans to sell. Just having a W2P service isn't going to be successful unless a printer does the planning and then the face-to-face selling required to get the service off the ground.

Most printers won't be able to compete with VistaPrint.com for consumer work. A printer will have to look at his top local business-to-business customers and see if there is W2P opportunity there. Does the company buy a lot of business cards? Is marketing material ordered from a number of sources? Does the company have a new print buyer every few months? Is the company spread out over a large geographic area? Can the current printed material be turned into a template that can easily be edited online?

Adding W2P services means a printer will have to make a face-to-face sales call to find out the customer's pain points when buying printing. What pain can the printer cure with a W2P solution? Can a W2P service make ordering printing easier for the customer? The W2P service offered by the printer will be determined by the needs of the customer. It will be up to the printer to interpret the need from the discussions he has with the customers.

Just because a printer offers W2P services, it doesn't mean that the selling price of printed products will be less. Some buyers will pay the same price or more for the printed product if the W2P service has a higher value. For some companies, it lowers the administrative costs for ordering printing. For others, it offers internal controls that limit purchases to the correct number of pieces needed. W2P also can give companies better control over the content and branding of their marketing pieces.

The Reality

W2P services can allow a printer to sell at lower prices if the printer can afford to be a low cost producer. The document created through W2P can become part of the printer's automated system. Some larger W2P printers will automatically enter the job into production and send it directly to plate. Companies such as VistaPrint never let an order be touched by human hands as it goes through production. This allows those companies to produce more work with fewer people.

In the next few years, W2P will become a standard service offered by printing companies. It will become an extension of the printer's customer service system and make print buying easier for the customer. As customers become more accustom to ordering over the Internet, they will force printers to provide similar services. Printers need to begin learning about W2P opportunities today if they want to compete tomorrow.

John Giles is the author "The DTP PriceList" and of a number of prepress related books, including his most recent, "12 Secrets for Digital Success." Giles is also technology director for CPrint. Contact him at 954/224-1942 or john@johngiles.com.

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