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VDP: Web-to-Print In the Real World

October 2007 By Heidi Tolliver-Nigro
EARLIER THIS year, The Industry Measure, an industry research firm, sent uncomfortable ripples throughout the printing industry when it released a report stating that adoption of Web-to-print had stalled among print providers. While clearly, Web-to-print has not stalled among corporate users—in fact, adoption in this marketplace is accelerating—the fact that the momentum has largely (if not entirely) switched sides has raised a lot of questions.

According to “Web-to-Print: A Service Provider’s Perspective” (The Industry Measure, 2007), approximately one-quarter of print providers now offer some kind of Web-to-print solution, whether as a static online store, for creating customized/personalized documents, or for creation and dissemination of advertising. Despite the flurry of activity among Web-to-print vendors, this percentage is nearly unchanged from one year ago, and other indicators (such as planned investment, where only 6 percent plan to purchase one of these systems in the next 12 months) may be surprising to some.

These findings have lead many to speculate about the reasons for this “stall out,” but the most interesting speculation comes from printers themselves. What are printers saying? While Web-to-print offers many clear benefits, printers’ answers reveal a flip-side to these applications that is less frequently discussed. Here is what many printers say behind the scenes.

First, it’s important to define what we’re talking about. At its simplest, Web-to-print is merely a technology for driving printing from the Web. Therefore, any discussion about Web-to-print must be tightly defined. Otherwise, it’s like having a discussion about “vehicles.” What kind of vehicle do you want to talk about? Family sedans? Construction trucks? Fire engines? Golf carts?

In the commercial printing industry, Web-to-print is largely seen as comprising three separate sub-categories:

• Static literature fulfillment (online store), whether a public storefront (like VistaPrint) or requiring registration (like corporate users);

• Customized or versioned literature; and

• Personalized one-to-one documents, whether printed in volumes or as one-offs (like sales followups).

Even this narrowed definition, however, leaves room for tremendous variation. This has been part of the challenge. Let’s look at the most common issues that, according to printers, are impacting their decision to invest or not invest in Web-to-print.

The sheer scope of Web-to-print, and the variability with which printers must contend, is a major hurdle to investment.

What is the extent of the functionality that users require? How much flexibility must printers build into the system to accommodate future, as well as current, needs? What if their client base changes? What is the balance between anticipating future needs and what they can afford to invest now? What if printers need additional capabilities down the road, but because they already sunk so much into their existing system, they can’t afford to expand or upgrade?

Even taking the “wait and see” approach carries a high level of risk. Printers could wait to see how things play out, but in the meantime, others are deploying systems and stealing customers. What customers they aren’t stealing—particularly enterprise customers—are looking into deploying their own Web-to-print systems.

Do printers jump in now, trying to catch those high-volume users before they go in-house? Or do they risk making a large investment in a highly functional system, only to lose those customers in a few years to in-house deployment anyway?

This is quite a conundrum. Clearly, business is moving to the Web. Customers are looking to centralize management and ordering of their printed documents. Business is moving toward customization and personalization, which is vastly enabled by Web-to-print. And yet, the uncertainty associated with this investment can result in a business paralysis.

Particularly from an e-storefront perspective, printers aren’t anxious to further commoditize an already commoditized business. A simple e-storefront is the easiest Web-to-print application to get into, but it also carries the lowest margins.

There is still a very traditional perception that printers will adopt Web-to-print once there is a customer demand for it. If printers don’t see the demand, they won’t make the investment. However, with the corporate world moving quickly toward Web-to-print, if printers wait until their individual customer bases are demanding it, the risk is that customers (enterprise clients, in particular) will have already brought the technology in-house.

This is not to say that deploying a full-fledged system capable of meeting the needs of even the most demanding customers is not without risk. Printers that have deployed these systems often express frustration that they are under-utilized, leaving them with a hefty bill and insufficient revenue to pay for it.

“Many large print buyers now require some form of Web-to-print in order to ‘qualify’ to respond to an RFP, but afterward, we learn that a high percentage of them don’t use it consistently or at all,” observes Hugh Griffin, vice president of marketing for Stuart F. Cooper Co., Los Angeles. “The reason usually given: ‘We have high turnover at the print ordering positions, and as fast as we get someone trained, he or she is gone.’ ”

Web-to-print has also suffered from behind-the-scenes buzz about unexpected costs. Sure, the price tag may be reasonable upfront, but by the time you invest in additional servers, more IT, programmers and new sales capabilities, you’re in much deeper than you anticipated. Because of the financial investment that many printers feel is required to do it “right,” many scale back to what they can afford. This often locks them into a system without sufficient functionality for long-term growth.

Writing on the Print Planet VDP forum, Ric Withers, co-owner of Wythken Printing, summarized the issue well: “The cost of purchasing, implementing and maintaining complex IT systems is beyond the reach of the vast majority of printing companies. Even if you can purchase the front-end Web components from a vendor, they’ll still require some customization (i.e., programmer’s time). The in-shop workflow automation piece will likely have to be completely customized (across multiple vendors, with likely new hardware and even more programmer’s time). And to be credible in the marketplace, you have to guarantee nearly 100 percent uptime, which means an investment in internal IT talent.”

Adding to these concerns is the need to continually upgrade and add features as customer needs change and new applications are developed. Also writing on the Print Planet forum, Griffin of Stuart F. Cooper Co. observes: “Differentiation is the key to survival for virtually all commercial printers, and many of us have (and have had since at least the mid-’90s) multiple iterations of Web-to-print. Yes, the big and continuing costs are to keep creating custom features for new and diverging customers—not the initial costs of getting into it. Over time, doing this on an outsource basis proved too slow/costly. We found we had to master it in-house to even begin to meet the need for speed.”

Printers may also find themselves facing other issues, such as the need to ensure the financial security and confidentiality of customer data and a variety of other problems such as Spim, Spam, DDoS attacks, data hacking and more. For this reason, some Web-to-print providers feel the need to operate these services on a parallel network with its own servers and firewalls, with main operating databases entirely separate from e-commerce systems (customer histories, real-time production tracking/shipping data, accounting and billing functions, supplies ordering and other vital data). This translates into even greater cost.

Not all customers will require the highest levels of functionality, of course. Small- and mid-sized businesses, in particular, tend to be less fussy. But if a printer does not implement a full-blown system, can it justify that investment based on the volumes of these businesses alone?

The ability to balance current and future needs adds another layer to the challenge. Whether printers are looking at an entry-level system or a full-blown proprietary one, they often can’t fully anticipate all that a successful rollout will entail. The fear is that they will end up locked into systems that, in the long term, will not meet their needs.

Workflow considerations also play heavily into the mix. Many Web-to-print systems have a high level of flexibility, but none are designed to handle every workflow and type of file. What do printers do when their workflows are a mix of digital and analog orders? In different sizes and formats? Must accommodate high volumes of customized jobs?

For these and other reasons, John Roberds, president of Odyssey Digital Printing, opted to use Web-to-print vendors on the front end, rather than investing in an in-house system.

“Web-to-print vendors want to build what they call ‘print ready’ files, but they seem to think printers only operate in multiples of an 8.5x11˝ format,” he says. “With the exception of my black-and-white laser printing system, all of my machines have something other than that. It took me a while, but I got our two Web-to-print service providers to send me a one-up file with no cut-marks, and we lay out the file to suit the machine that will print it. But I had to pound the table a bit to make it happen.”

Like many printers, Odyssey Digital Printing also weighed the challenges presented by high volumes of custom orders. “My business is point-of-purchase, and our largest Web procurement customer services large consumers of these materials,” he says. “They set up Websites for their customers to order POP, but soon they start selling ad hoc orders. This means custom POP pieces that are going to be used once, so they don’t fit the Web-based ordering scheme. Unless the Web-to-print workflow is set up to handle that kind of job efficiently, that order is not going to be profitable.”

Properly implemented, Web-to-print applications essentially move printers from a short-run sell to a long-term program sell. This is yet another transition printers are having a difficult time making. According to “Digital Printing 2007: A Vendor Perspective” (The Industry Measure, 2007), only 1 percent of commercial printers see “changes in sales compensation models to reflect program selling/business development rather than traditional sales” as a top challenge to their businesses. The extreme disconnect between the critical need for this selling model and printers’ nearly non-existent level of concern about it shows how severe this challenge really is—more severe than printers realize.

All of this presents a challenge both in terms of internal processes and expertise, but also in branding, since customers are resisting acceptance of printers as marketing partners.

In order to successfully sell Web-to-print as anything other than an online store, printers must be able to sell themselves as a source for brand management and marketing support. This transition must go beyond semantics. They must brand themselves as marketing support, with all of the trappings, from marketing and business development experts, expert creative and more. The print portion may still bring in the revenues, but it should be largely transparent to the customer. Currently, very few customers see their printers this way. Unfortunately, few printers do either.

There are companies that have successfully blended the two, but they are in the industry minority. If printers can’t sell themselves on their ability to become true marketing service providers, they aren’t going to be able to convince their customer base of it.

None of this is to suggest that Web-to-print is not a good investment or that it’s not an important direction in which this industry needs to go. It simply reflects the current challenge being faced by printers as the industry undergoes a critical transition.

In many ways, the situation is reminiscent of the earliest days of the adoption of digital printing or computer-to-plate. Technological advancements and changes in customers’ marketing and document management models created a push-pull environment in which each was continually advancing the other. This created an uncertain environment in which printers knew they needed to adopt new technologies, but with such rapid change and the massive disruption those changes would bring, when, how and what to buy created much hand-wringing for several years.

Now, here we go again. PI

About the Author
Heidi Tolliver-Nigro is an industry writer and analyst specializing in digital technologies. She can be reached by e-mail at htollvr@aol.com.
 

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