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Web-to-Print : Hard Lessons Learned

June 2011 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor

It might be said that offering Web-to-print (W2P) solutions to your clients is akin to bringing home a puppy. In both cases, there's a lot of excitement, but the novelty can quickly wear off when you realize that it takes a lot of grooming, training, investment and attention to get the desired results. Otherwise, expect to see a big mess on the rug.

The world of personalized, online print procurement has evolved in its 15-or-so years of existence. At some point along the way, a line was drawn in the sand. Smaller businesses and consumers opted for inexpensive Internet sources, while medium and large concerns had sit-down conversations with their printers and detailed their need for ordering customized brochures and marketing collateral, among other items.

The level of sophistication, and need, for the bigger boys created the W2P niche. The common denominator was evident: companies with a large number of satellites (offices, salespeople, dealers, distributors, independent agents) needed to retain their brand but, at the same time, enable these satellites to customize content/messages for localized purposes. Call it W2P 101.

W2P's adolescence has been a rough one, with printers learning some expensive lessons. They learned how to charge for it. Gratis setups without customer investment generally led to tumbleweeds rolling across unused Websites, which have monetary and man hour investments wrapped up in their design and maintenance. If the client doesn't pay, the client doesn't play.

But, it has also been an exciting time for printers that offer W2P capabilities. Some have tossed away off-the-shelf software packages in favor of crafting their own solutions to meet the needs of particular customers. Included in that group is Batavia, IL-based BFC, which has honed its craft during the past dozen years and now offers a suite of "beyond W2P" tools to address various segments. Its multi-pronged attack consists of Document Manager, for managing customer correspondence; Kit Manager, which allows clients to send variable product and information either electronically or through regular mail; and My Campaign, an automated marketing system for managing the type and frequency of campaigns.

According to Joe Novak, president of BFC, the company has roughly 100 active sites that it maintains for clients, and each day brings new customer requests for updates and changes. The value proposition, he says, is the printer's ability to offer those tools beyond the staid letterhead/business card/envelope offerings.

Best Types of Clients

"The verticals that really do well with these types of products are companies that have extended sales networks," Novak points out. "That includes franchise groups with franchisees, insurance companies and health care organizations that have agents and brokers, and manufacturing companies with distributors and dealers. These tools fit very well within that model."

All of BFC's clients are taking advantage of the printer's W2P offerings in some shape or form. "Quite frankly, we wouldn't have those customers today if we didn't offer the technology," the company's president says. "The technology allows us to change the way that they do business. Once you help them make that change—and it's your tool that they're using—it also makes it really difficult for them to go anywhere else."

BFC has four online managers minding the store and four IT developers who built the proprietary systems. Document Manager, Kit Manager and My Campaign—like the basic W2P system—arose out of conversations with clients regarding solutions that would make life easier for them.

The biggest challenge for Novak and his team is dealing with customer requests to hyper-customize their systems. That taxes the printer from an internal resources standpoint, and Novak is careful to ensure that BFC is billing the clients appropriately. Plus, in order to better manage these new programs, BFC created a development platform that was costly, challenging and time-consuming.

And, when the tool shed is finally complete, the work doesn't end there. It's up to Novak and his sales team to market the capabilities to clients in terms that can be easily understood, and appreciated.

"It's taken us two to three years to figure that all out, and we're finally in a spot where we have a clear path forward," Novak says. "We've defined our development platform, and now we know how to talk to the customer. We're finally starting to get some traction. People understand what we're talking about and they're very interested."

Another Midwestern printer, St. Paul, MN-based Western Graphics has been offering W2P solutions since 2000. It uses Four51 technology which, along with Printable, may be the only surviving solutions from that year, says Tim Keran, Western Graphics CEO.

Western Graphics oversees about a dozen client sites. About half offer variable content, with the remainder used for literature procurement and support fulfillment, according to Keran. Products range from brochures and direct mail postcards to training materials, product manuals and some kit building. Clients primarily include manufacturers, retailers and franchisors. Western Graphics reaps an average of about 40 orders per day from these sites.

"Since we got into it so early, there really wasn't a strategy. We were just seeing if it would stick," he recalls. "We made all of the traditional mistakes those first couple of years. We built a couple of sites on the promise that (the customers) were going to use them; no setup costs. But, since they didn't have any money invested, they didn't have any reason to sell it (within their own organizations). A couple went to mothball right away."

Today, Western Graphics generally charges for the startup and building of the Website. A technology fee is also assessed, depending upon customer volume. Pricing is dependent on how much time and energy are expended on a given site; static content sites won't incur many charges, but the more robust ones with options for variable output will command more fees.

From a technological standpoint, Western Graphics has enjoyed fairly smooth sailing. The biggest snafus occur when clients (particularly the marketing folks) try to add too many variables in the form of excess decision trees. In trying to create an advanced tool, customers can end up frustrating their satellites.

Follow the KISS Principle

"The marketing people think that if they make it all-encompassing, they can then outsource their creation," he says. "It ends up backfiring; a franchise will try to convince a store manager to spend 30 or 45 minutes to design a customized brochure or postcard, but it's just too sophisticated for them. They're not marketing people; they've got a store to manage. So, we purposely try to talk people out of building it too intricately."

Global Thinking, the target marketing division of Alexandria, VA-based Global Printing, jumped into the W2P fray about five years ago using off-the-shelf solutions, but soon became frustrated at the inability to customize. Its program has picked up considerable momentum during the past three years, and Global Thinking is now operating a couple dozen sites, providing marketing collateral and publications for the automotive, publishing and human resources sectors.

Kevin Fay, project manager for Global Thinking, notes that a number of association clients—of which Washington, DC, has a wealth—look to the printer for document publishing. It also provides the requisite stationery and business cards. About a quarter of Global's primary clients have bought into the W2P concept.

"We got into it when people started asking for it, but we also wanted something that was a little easier on us on our end," Fay remarks. "Orders can go straight into production, bypassing customer service. Now, we've created a strategy to help customers and solve their problems."

With each successful site launch, Global Thinking creates more opportunities for itself within the walls of the same customer organization. Fay points out that his firm might set up a site for the marketing department of a given customer, and then another sector within the client's business comes forward with different items to put on the site.

Global Thinking uses W2P as a front-burner talking point for its sales force, augmenting the roster of case studies that can found on its own Website. On the technology side, Global employs a development team of about a dozen programmers and designers.

Like its contemporaries, Global Thinking will waive the setup fees based on a long-term contract. If a customer wants to be able to tie its shopping cart into Global's system, the printer will charge less than clients that require a shopping cart in addition to the site.

The challenge now, as Global Thinking looks to expand on its short-run publishing work, is keeping pace with demand. "All of our customers want something different, so trying to keep everyone happy is critical," Fay says. "We didn't have the ability to customize the sites initially, so that was always a stumbling block. Now that we can customize, our biggest challenge is fitting it in." PI


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