Web-to-Print : Easy Does It for CustomersAugust 2012 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
If you think being a commercial printer is difficult, well, that's nothing compared to being an online-only printing company. Those guys really have to battle in order to survive.
Uttering the preceding statements in a room full of printers would likely elicit a barrage of rotten fruits and vegetables. Sometimes there is truth in seemingly outrageous statements, however, or at least perspective.
The Internet is teeming with low-priced printing offers from firms serving both business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) clientele. For example, do a Google search for "brochure printing." Now, imagine operating as an online-only printer, hanging your hat on being one of the first 50 search results yielded. Cold calling sales doesn't seem so bad now, does it?
Yes, our tongues are firmly planted in-cheek. Online printers either learned, or knew, what traditional print providers had discovered long ago: Competition is tough, regardless of where business is conducted. Technology, including the Internet, has only raised the stakes and—coupled with the brutal economic conditions of the past five years—helped to thin out the printer herd.
Point of Differentiation
The survivors aren't the "marketing service providers;" they are the differentiators who set themselves apart from the herd. A Web-to-print (W2P) workflow is a prime vehicle to achieve separation from competitors, whether for wrangling in new customers just surfing through or enabling long-term clientele to order customized marketing collateral through a password-protected interface.
New York-based Mimeo.com is one of the first online printing companies, having debuted in 1998. It offers an array of documents—presentations, manuals, brochures, booklets, flyers, posters, newsletters and rack cards/postcards—to corporate clients on a non-contractual basis. Thus, the firm has a unique perspective on the concept of online ordering interfaces. And, according to Chuck Gehman, vice president of product platforms, W2P is an ongoing quest for the perfect beast.
"(Co-founder) David Uyttendaele bought a DocuTech and connected a Website to it," Gehman observes of Mimeo's first W2P solution. "There was no other way to do it back then, as there were no off-the-shelf solutions. We're constantly making improvements; we do releases every couple of weeks that add functionality."
Gehman is an ardent supporter of having a great user interface. Though he says it may seem obvious, many Websites he's seen aren't as user-friendly as they could be—an overly-busy layout, a nonlinear shopping process and needless stumbling blocks toward a quality shopping experience. Considering that retailers such as Amazon and eBay have made great strides in taking online ordering to the next level, Gehman believes online shoppers won't have the patience to tolerate perplexing Web interfaces.
"Even most off-the-shelf solutions can be made to look like a mainstream shopping site," he says. "It's really about the implementation of it. Companies don't dedicate enough brain power, enough cycles, to looking at examples of non-printing-related selling on the Web. At Mimeo.com, we're constantly looking for ways to make it easier."
That said, a user interface will never be flawless to all, and for those shoppers who get tripped up along the way, Mimeo offers both an 800 number and live chat functions to help save a potential sale. The site also includes instructional videos to aid less-than-savvy online shoppers.
Mimeo keeps an open line of communication with clients and listens to suggestions from buyers as to ways the shopping experience can be improved. "If we can satisfy the need for things that customers ask for in a way that doesn't require us changing something technically, it's a much better outcome for us—and them," Gehman says. "That takes some creativity. I would put that under the category of when your customer asks for something, just don't throw technology at it."
Across the state in Amityville, NY, is the home of Envelopes.com. The online envelope mavens rely on a 100 percent customized W2P solution, with integrated proprietary systems for different functions.
"The nature of our products, and our desire to present our products and pricing in a specific way without any design limitations, pushed us in that direction," notes Seth Newman, company president. "Off-the-shelf systems are getting better, but a pure play, online printer risks losing any differentiating power by using a cookie-cutter system and will most likely suffer from limitations and lack of control."
Like Gehman, Newman believes that ease-of-use is imperative for any successful W2P customer interface. Similarly, the presentation of options can either make the online shopping experience pleasant or frustrating.
"Print is a custom manufacturing process, with many options, add-ons and details that can make an order unique," Newman notes. "You must give the customer all the options they are looking for, or they won't be able to continue."
Internally, Envelopes.com's goal is to achieve a completely hands-free workflow from file submission to printing; for now, it lacks direct imaging capabilities. Newman says the company will continue to pursue technologies, equipment and software to realize the hands-free goal.
Another challenge for the industry, according to Newman, is the lack of qualified workers with a W2P background. "The debate is whether to take IT people and make them W2P specialists or take prepress people and make them W2P technicians," he says. "I think a mix of both is the right choice because it takes both worlds coming together for a successful implementation."
Newman notes his company is working on a new version of its online design offering, which offers template-based designs that can be customized. The stumbling block, however, is HTML 5 and the in-line editing of typefaces rendering in all browsers.
"We are at the mercy of the browser wars between Apple, Google and Microsoft all choosing different standards," he says. "That has to play out for our online designer to get to the next level."
Sourcing Print Products
Many traditional printers use W2P as a customer-facing, password-protected vehicle for print procurement by clients with multiple retail franchises or firms with a network of sales representatives/offices spread around the country. A prime example of this is Cockrell Enovation, of Fort Worth, TX, which boasts client verticals in banking/finance, health care, life sciences, event planning and publishing.
Cockrell has been using a RedTie solution for the past three and a half years. Ryan Crist, who heads marketing and client services for the firm, notes it is one of three solutions used by the printer, but is the preferred choice for a "glossy, easy-to-use interface." Crist is proud of the fact that orders aren't touched by human hands until they come off-press.
Cockrell has customized the RedTie solution with a live chat application and customer support call center feature. The idea is to massage the W2P solution to resemble a B2C-type platform which, incidentally, appears to be in the cards for the Texas printer.
"We have around $5 million in B2C revenue in our other lines of business; we're pretty robust on e-commerce applications," he says. "We're evaluating the (printing) market potential for B2C, because it's so saturated with all of the companies offering print. We're asking ourselves, 'What's missing from the market and how can we be different?' "
Naturally, as long as W2P has been around, there have been clients angling to have printers set up customized sites gratis. Proving the value proposition to customers hasn't been as difficult, according to Crist.
"Once they see what other things we're offering them, far beyond what they can get for free from Printer XYZ, they see the value in the investment," he says. "We've been successful in overcoming that." PI