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April 2006 BY ERIK CAGLE
Senior Editor
THE ABILITY to order print-based communications via a Web browser has garnered steam in recent years, but it is hardly a snap-together concept. With the intent of making the procurement process quicker and easier, Web-to-print solutions can be tailored to meet customers’ varied needs. But the capability doesn’t come cheap.

The implementation process can be tedious and long for printers without a Web-to-print footprint. IT-savvy individuals, and possibly even programmers, must be hired; labor and software figure prominently into the equation. Throw in the time required to get an estimating system up to speed, and the investment, from a printer’s standpoint, is hardly inconsequential.

“Don’t give this service away to get the print, because the print margins are too small,” advises Mark Parent, president of Sugar Bush Media Solutions in Auburn Hills, MI. “There was a time when we gave away the typesetting and layout of a job, in some cases, to get the print orders. Those days should be in the past. Charge monthly fees for these services (Web-to-print); don’t give them away.”

Implementing a customized, multi-layered Web-to-print solution for a major client is not a plug-and-play process, notes Roy Grossman, president and CEO of Clifton, NJ-based Sandy Alexander. From initial overtures with a customer to creating a viable Website, he says the process takes anywhere from four months to a year for companies without a pre-existing solution.

“It’s very difficult to do it much quicker than that,” Grossman says. “The upfront costs are big, and you have to make the client a partner in that process. You can’t take that all on yourself; it has to be a shared expense. You can have $100,000 invested into the project in short order.”

Branching Out

Grossman points out that a major U.S. bank may have 6,000 branches in need of access to the site, which brings a multitude of requirements. Invariably, the hands-on people in the building stage of the solution are all IT in nature. And with such a major ramping-up investment of dollars and resources, the final product inextricably links client to printer, diminishing the possibility of losing the account.

The many facets of Web-to-print could fill an encyclopedia. Consolidated Graphics (CGX), headquartered in Houston, offers tools that manage, grow and effectively leverage databases across various media, including print, e-mail and the growing use of personalized Websites, according to Ryan Farris, president of CGXSolutions. Online ordering systems enable users to customize materials as needed and immediately execute their delivery, decreasing time to market.

Other services, including digital asset management (DAM), can provide a central online resource to organize and protect files, while providing instant access worldwide (if needed) via a Web browser. Farris finds that DAM often integrates with the online ordering system, creating an enterprise application.

And the applications? Certainly the stationery and inventory functions are basic, yet popular. A higher tier of complexity allows for the customization of nationally branded marketing campaigns at the local level, swapping out offers, headlines, price points, imagery and regional disclaimers. Such high-end offerings entail systems integration and database work, where information is funneled into pre-designed templates to generate a production file and execute a program automatically.

The attractiveness of Web-to-print solutions can even provide a windfall for third-party solution providers who don’t own a single press, digital, offset or otherwise. Willie Brennan is owner of Custom Print Now Solutions, which customizes Web-to-print solutions to a client’s specification by building on universal back-end applications, including an inventory module, pick-and-pack solution, and customized collateral, direct mail or premium marketing solution.

“The entire user interface is highly customized to a particular user of that particular client,” Brennan says. “It’s got to be doggone easy for each user.” He also recommends keeping the fulfillment aspect as simple as possible.

Parent stresses the importance of ensuring that the Web-enabled customer interface covers all of the aspects of the order and production cycles. He favors systems that contain the universal elements, including file uploading, preflighting, online proofing and approval, automated and customized pricing, quotation, estimating, job tracking and variable data. Variations of the print workflow are supported within the ready-made solutions, depending on the price point, Parent notes.

Allowing clients to order business cards online in the late 1990s provided the starting point for Consolidated Graphics. Its first foray into Web-to-print began at its Printing Inc. facility in Wichita, KS. An independent entity, CGXSolutions, was born from that branch, with its own office, a crew of programmers and developers. That entity, headquartered in Houston with a full staff of developers, customer service, technical support and sales staff, now services all CGX branches and their clients.

“As we built a team to support the products and services customers requested, they wanted other items to be available—inventory product, print-on-demand product and other types of marketing literature,” Farris says. “We can offer a salesperson the ability to customize a sales sheet, or allow a marketing department to offload some of the routine customization or typesetting that it was doing for various office locations. We can add in legal disclaimers, offers, price points and phone numbers and roll the same technology that the business card application afforded across all of the different collateral materials the company might want to have available.”

Complexity Growing

That progression of functionality dictated increased controls for access; instead of only a chosen few trafficking stationery orders, the solution would now support an entire company and its numerous branches. And it is here where Web-to-print’s complexity grew, Farris says, demanding a need for having approval processes in place, methods for managing costs, budgets, charge backs, shipping issues and the like.

In its eight years of operation, CGXSolutions has found that a template-driven solution is the most popular form of Web-to-print, though the company offers a print-on-demand technology for uploading files and repurposing them for print. Templates are attractive for managing corporate standards, Farris notes, and are the most user-friendly.

“When you have a more open template, you have to increase the controls, which requires a human eye,” Farris says. “If you go with a (formatted) template, you’re more likely to avoid that human interaction with the piece, and you can control and monitor what they do digitally. It’s a process with fewer approval steps.”

While there are off-the-shelf software solutions for generating a Web-to-print model, Farris finds that many clients’ needs gravitate toward custom development programs developed by CGX-Solutions. In the end, the printer and customer reap production efficiencies.

Some printers feel the ASP (Application Service Provider) models have their advantages, as well. Parent believes printers need to weigh the overhead of a programmer against using an ASP model that may not have all of the desired features or functionality. For example, some off-the-shelf products work on only Windows PCs or Macs (not both), and certain applications are only compatible with specific Web browsers.

Parent forecasts that over the next five years, most (if not all) of what he considers to be “universal” elements will become standard in all solutions.

As for the future of Web-to-print, Grossman believes some of the best applications are yet to be discovered. “This is going to become a big business,” he predicts. “It’s not just about going to print clients and setting up a Website for their use. Think about the photography business, wedding albums, cruise lines, colleges and universities. There’s no end to it. What’s important to understand is that all of these mediums work in conjunction with each other. This isn’t replacing offset.”

Getting customers to understand the value in Web-to-print solutions will go a long way toward shaping the future of the application, according to Parent. “It hasn’t reached full acceptance yet. Right now, (customers) really aren’t looking for it,” he says. “You have to sell that solution.”

Farris feels that the fortunes of Web-to-print are closely tied to the success that digital printing achieves in validating the capability’s ROI in relationship marketing for personalized campaigns. “That’s really the future of Web-to-print—going from customization to personalization,” he says. “We’re in degrees of that now, but really high levels of personalization are going to be the future of the tool.”

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