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Web-to-Print : Finding the Right Solution

September 2010 By Julie Shaffer
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Do a quick Web search for the phrase "Web-to-print" and you'll be served up several million citations. Refine to "Web-to-print solutions" and the list narrows to a mere 110,000! Don't worry, there are not that many solutions on the market (thank goodness), but there are dozens of viable solutions. And trying to figure out which is the best fit for your printing operation can be a daunting task.

The first step is to determine what you want to accomplish with a print e-commerce offering. Think of it as a needs assessment for your shop, but, more importantly, for your customers. Would it make your clients' lives easier to be able to order print projects on a self-service basis (that's ultimately what most consumer-based, e-commerce stores offer)? Do you want to offer templates for common products, like business cards or stationery and allow them to customize orders via a browser interface? How about special projects, like event posters or meeting binders with inserted tabs, or offering online design via a browser interface?

You might provide document management with pick-and-pack of stored pieces. Maybe you want to help manage personalized marketing campaigns and interface with your organization's database or CRM system. The list of what a shop can offer via a Web storefront is limited less by what the vendors offer than by your customers' needs.

Sorting It All Out

We can put the things that can be accomplished with a Web portal into several big buckets that make this easier. While many of the vendors would like their solutions to be all things to all people, and there is crossover between them, the business models for Web-to-print portals tend to fall into the following categories:

Print Procurement: This would be the e-commerce-style store, where users can buy print or related products. These storefronts may allow for ad-hoc upload of client files (with or without a preflight component) or customization of pre-loaded templates. Many offer instant quotes and a shopping cart interface for payment, with credit card and sales tax support.

Online "do-it-yourself" book publishers like and business-to-consumer sites like fall into this category, as do sites selling specific printed products, like labels or buttons. Most Web-to-print solutions offer a storefront-style user interface, so it is hard to narrow down potential vendors in this category.

Marketing/Brand Management: While these, too, are typically e-commerce storefronts, the distinction in this category is that they are built and branded for a specific organization or purpose, not the print service provider. Brand management means just that; sites usually provide templates in which artwork, with color and usage, is managed, helping marketing departments manage their brand more easily than could be done otherwise.

Centralized billing and reporting on how users are spending their print dollars is a major benefit of these types of solutions. Cross-media marketing campaigns and online dashboard management are large and growing components of Web solutions that support marketing programs. Storefronts that allow the purchase of specific products for a campaign, like photo books for pictures of a charity 10K race or a fund-raising event, are also great examples of marketing-oriented Web-to-print solutions. A shop can offer multiple storefronts for different customers or specific products or even one-time events.

Document Management: A self-service Web storefront is perfect to let users order job reprints, and manage on-shelf product inventory and shipping. There is a great deal of crossover between this category and branded storefronts. Look for those that offer true fulfillment capabilities, such that shipping departments receive instructions direct from customers, and reorders can be placed to replenish stock by an authorized user based on preestablished rules and conditions.

If you're managing stored product inventory, it's imperative that the storefront accurately reflects the right amount of product on the shelf, so ties into the inventory and MIS solutions are pretty important here, too.

Workflow Automation: Integrating a Web storefront with production has become one of the most critical considerations when building a Web-to-print solution, especially in the digital printing arena. Most digital press vendors offer Web-to-print storefront components that tie directly into the press workflow solution. This means that projects can be delivered via the Website, preflighted and placed directly into a print queue in front of the press.

Prepress-centric solutions, aimed at content creators and offering preflight, file delivery, soft proofing and approval, have been around for more than a decade. These are starting to be married to e-commerce storefronts, such as the Kodak InSite storefront, which integrates with Kodak's Prinergy prepress workflow solution.

While many printers have built their own solutions using in-house IT and Web development talent, there are so many on the market that it seems unnecessary to do this, unless your requirements and security needs are so stringent that no pre-existing solution will do.

Hosted or Licensed?

A distinction in making a solution decision is whether the product is offered as a Web-based SaaS (software as a service) or if it can be licensed (i.e., you buy the use of the software and can host wherever you wish.) A growing majority of the solutions offer both, with a big part of the distinction in cost (monthly fees for hosted, one-time "purchase" for licensed.)

Some people feel safer with a solution they license, thinking that it makes them less vulnerable than relying on a service "in the cloud." But the truth is that no one "owns" software, and if any vendor goes out of business, service for that product will go with it.

As industry veteran Jennifer Matt said in a recent blog post ( "Web software is not isolated; it has to play nicely with the Internet ecosystem…Internet browsers keep changing, Internet security keeps changing...and if your software wants to continue to work in this ecosystem, it has to change with it."

So it's important to do due diligence on any vendor you work with. Check with existing customers. If it's a public company, check its stock ratings to see how viable they are. This was recently brought to the fore when we heard that Press-sense was having financial problems. Press-sense's Web storefront iWay has more than 1,500 users and is integrated into OEM solutions from Xerox, HP and Océ, so these problems could have a ripple effect through the industry. Fortunately, Bitstream, the company that offers PageFlex, bought the assets of Press-sense and plans to incorporate the product with its own.

As important as the client-facing part of the solution is, it's also critical to consider what the administrative back end is like. A big hurdle that many print service providers have found with the solution they've chosen is how difficult it is to change things like pricing, new products, new templates or even new users on the solution they've offered—not to mention the user interface. The user interface is very important on this end too, as print shop staff are also users of the system.

So how do you filter through the vendor offerings to learn "who does what" and narrow down the scope of your search? Printing Industries of America hosts a Website ( that provides an overview of many vendors in the space, separated by the four business models listed above.

InfoTrends recently launched a frequently updated site called the Ultimate Guide ( where users can compare vendor Web-to-print solutions, as well as cross-media, VDP and transpromo software. The Ultimate Guide site features in-depth descriptions of dozens of vendors, and lets users filter their search based on more than 50 criteria (hosted, licensed, reporting features, integration, document design, print output formats and others). Once the search has been narrowed by the filter, the user can compare multiple solutions side-by-side, including pricing and dozens of very granular features, like CASS certification or database-driven VDP options.

Access to some of the Ultimate Guide is free, but access to the full comparison functionality costs $59.95 for one month's usage. (Editor's note: Visit and click on the "Ultimate Guide" tab for more information.) While there are solutions not listed in the Ultimate Guide, most of the major players are there, and it's a great place to begin your search. PI

About the Author
Julie Shaffer is vice president, digital technologies, at Printing Industries of America. She heads up the Digital Printing Council and the Center for Digital Printing Excellence. Shaffer has a 20-plus year background in pre-media and print, and is often called upon for training, presentations and to provide on-site consulting on topics like PDF, color management, digital printing and Web-to-print. She is co-author of "The PDF Print Production Guide," "The Web-to-Print Primer" and the forthcoming "Field Guide to Social Media." Contact her at



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