Tech Talk: Pros Give W2P, Online Storefront Advice
Web-to-print (W2P) technology is a powerful tool that allows printers to automate their ordering, customization and production workflows, as well as convert online traffic to sales. In selecting a W2P solution, there are many factors that printing companies need to take into consideration when trying to find the best solution that meets the needs of their organizations. As each enterprise is different in the services they provide and the vertical markets that they serve, a company will need to decide which W2P solution will work best for their specific environments.
We talked with an industry consultant and leading manufacturers of W2P and online storefront solutions to get their advice on what printers need to know when selecting a solution, trends in the marketplace and the steps involved for an implementation.
According to David Zwang, principal consultant of Zwang & Co. in Danbury, Conn., a key question that a company should ask when looking for a W2P solution is: “Does it match the requirements of their process?” In addition, he notes, the system should be well integrated into an MIS system, if the company has one, and into a production workflow. He advises printers to also designate an internal champion/owner of the W2P solution.
“A company needs to find someone who’s going to be taking this on as a dedicated responsibility for implementation and then internal training. This employee would need to work with the software provider. This is actually the make or break as to whether it’s going to succeed or not,” emphasizes Zwang.
Some Key Requirements to Consider
When looking for a W2P solution, Charlotte Tueckmantel, GM and VP, Web-to-print and Value Added Products, EFI, advises printers not to purchase a solution for just for one requirement, but instead to consider their customers’ requirements as a whole. Printers also need to think about what their mid- or long-term business strategy is that this tool needs to support.
“The same questions that a printer would ask when investing in capital equipment should be similar for a W2P solution in terms of how it will support its business vision — a company should have a business strategy in place and in consideration when looking to invest in a W2P solution.”
Tueckmantel also points out that companies should be looking at how the software solution will fit into their workflow environment, and if anything needs to be adapted. “Any W2P strategy should also be driving a strategy around automation as well because, very often, one of the biggest goals of W2P is to drive volume and make orders more predictable by establishing sticky relationships with your customers. So it can certainly make order volumes go up. But if you’re not automating, you’ll end up with bottlenecks and error-prone workflows.”
Another factor that printers should take into consideration, Tueckmantel says, is the ease of use of the tool itself, as well as deployment. “[As a customer], if I can go online whenever I want, order what I want, know exactly what I’m getting and have all the information on delivery and cost, I’m more satisfied. The tool needs to be highly usable, primarily for buyers, but of course internally as well. It needs to support automation and integration.”
She adds that the W2P solution also needs to have flexibility and scalability. “Printers should ask if the tool can support different users, different brands or storefronts, depending on what tool you’re looking at.” Other questions printers should be asking, according to Tueckmantel, include: “What do I need from the tool today, and does the software I’m looking at support that and more? Is it going to give me a place to grow?”
According to Reuben James Ben Quesus, director of business development at Racad Tech, developers of Web to Print Shop and Web to Print Cloud, some of the common functions printers look for in a W2P solution are things like e-commerce elements, shipping integrations, label printing and product catalogs, along with variable data, template editing capabilities and general adaptability/flexibility of the W2P system. But equally essential in principle, is the W2P support culture which covers support responsiveness, service options (when you need websites and templates built for you) and a willingness to integrate with third-party systems. Printers should also ask to see sample sites and/or existing customer sites.
“But the magic is in the details,” he says. “You want to make sure that you have a system that can accommodate unique product and pricing options — such as dynamic templates, fixed templates, rule-based templates, custom requests, paper products, promo products and maybe even 3D products.”
Ben Quesus also advises printers to find a provider that comes highly recommended by an existing customer. “While technology is certainly essential, you don’t need to make sure that the solution you’re looking for has all the bells and whistles you need. Something will come up in the future that the solution doesn’t have. You want to make sure that the provider you go with has the skills and openness to enabling it when the time comes,” he says.
According to Ben Quesus, Racad Tech kicks off its on-boarding process with an introductory call to set customer objectives, and then maps out a setup/training schedule accordingly. “If setup is facilitated by training, then training will go according to their needs so that by the end of their training, their first online store is ready to launch,” notes Ben Quesus.
“If setup is facilitated by our services/labor department, then we provide a multipage document/questionnaire that our customers fill out and comply with by sending us the necessary materials. This document and the materials they send will orient us on how to build out their online store,” he adds. “Delivery of the initial store, for an average customer, is typically within 30 days. More complicated sites may take longer depending on the scope.”
Off-the-Shelf Versus Custom Solution
Some printing companies decide to go with an off-the-shelf software, while others decide they need to develop one internally instead. Zwang cautions that while a company may have the internal programming and IT resources to develop their own system, they should weigh the options. For example, a serious concern with opting for a customized solution is what happens when the key employee who created the system leaves, and how will that knowledge be passed on?
Tueckmantel says that she would counsel printers to think very carefully about which option to choose. “It’s not about building a tool one time. It’s about the customer really understanding what the underlying driver is and coming up with a different strategy. If we think about how often browsers change, security patches are released, software versions change, those will all affect an online system. So there is the constant care and feeding that should be taken into consideration,” she points out.
Stephen McWilliam, executive VP of Avanti, notes that the real benefit of an “off-the-shelf” system is that users can take advantage of a supplier’s professional development team working on a platform that can be used by many companies and, therefore, the development costs are shared across multiple clients.
“A W2P vendor completely focused on their platform is constantly improving their system, learning from working with multiple customers concurrently and can keep up with the constantly evolving technologies,” he explains. “However, the greatest risk associated with a custom site developed by a ‘programmer for hire,’ is the potential for a ‘single point of failure.’ This could be because the programmer who developed the original site may not be available to make the changes you want in a timely fashion or has moved on completely and thus is unavailable to manage any issues.”
Dmitry Sevostyanov, CEO of Aurigma Inc. (Customer’s Canvas), a company specializing in image processing and W2P technologies, offers three reasons why printing companies would hire programming teams to develop custom solutions over purchasing from a manufacturer.
“A printer will hire programming teams if they need a workflow optimized for ordering specific kinds of products that are not widely supported by off-the-shelf solutions; they are looking for a flexible platform that will allow them to experiment with personalization workflows to increase conversion rates on the website; and they want a tighter integration of the W2P workflow with the production processes.”
What Keeps Printers Awake at Night?
One challenge that Tueckmantel says that she hears from printers is finding talent to handle internal systems.
“Today, the employee needs to be a bit of a marketer and/or a designer. It also helps if they have a little bit of HTML skills,” she notes.
The most common frustrations Ben Quesus hears about is printers investing substantial money in a system that is anything but simple. For example, the setup ends up taking months or sometimes close to a year, the systems have a very narrow focus and the companies that support the technology are inflexible when it comes to adding additional features in a timely manner.
Sevostyanov adds that many printers see their W2P sites as tools that will bring them orders automatically right away. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way and sometimes we see growing frustration on the customer’s end,” he points out. “Printers should set the right expectations before they make a decision to go with a W2P solution. Set up goals and KPIs for tracking their progress, and be ready to spend time and resources learning online business and marketing.”
Current Trends Related to W2P
One trend that Tueckmantel is seeing — and something that EFI has been developing its solutions around — is diversity of products. “Many of the printers that I talk to are looking at new revenue streams as growth opportunities, such as adding fulfillment. Their customers will ask, ‘Since you are producing my marketing materials, can you just keep the folders as well and go ahead and stuff them for me?’ So it starts out as a smaller conversation that can grow into a really profitable business,” she explains.
Ben Quesus points out that an up-and-coming trend is the inclusion of 3D products on the Racad Tech Web to Print Shop platform. “We have had the technology for some time, but our customer base is only now waking up to it. So, I think we will be seeing a lot more in the world of 3D.”
Sevostyanov has seen trends toward more printers investing in custom solutions, and W2P technology expanding into new niches. “For example, the packaging market, which has always been oriented for long runs, is starting to adopt short runs with the advent of digital packaging solutions and W2P technologies.”
Overlap Exists Between W2P and MIS
McWilliam says what customers want is a “self-serve” way to do as much as possible remotely, at a time that is convenient to them. W2P capabilities are perfect for a quick quote, job submission, online proofing, job tracking, billing queries and even checking on inventory levels for fulfillment items — all traditional roles of a print MIS system that a W2P platform can perform just as well and, in some cases, better. However, he says, there are still some things that require the sophistication of a print MIS that would go beyond the capabilities of a typical W2P platform.
“Complex estimating is a perfect example of this,” McWilliam contends. “W2P platforms can handle the quoting for most digital jobs, but complex offset work probably requires the robust estimating engine of an MIS system. Production planning and job costing/shop floor data collection and warehouse management are other areas that will continue to require a print MIS.”
Another trend McWilliam sees in the market is that print shops are utilizing multiple W2P systems from multiple vendors, based on their end customers’ requirements, as “one size does not fit all.”
“Each W2P vendor has its own strength, be it variable data, marketing collateral management, WYSIWYG job creation/submission, etc. In that environment, the MIS system plays the role of a centralized system that all work flows into and is managed,” he notes.
With an MIS component, says Ben Quesus, a printer’s back office management and production is meant to be a lot simpler since all aspects of the back office management is recorded and will give them optimized production and reporting.
“So for every material you have inventoried and for every order that you fulfill, you should have a direct correlation of what your production expenses are compared to your revenues,” he emphasizes.
Sevostyanov notes that for many printers, especially small companies, W2P solutions are becoming the first step toward automation. He says that it is a natural process, when a system originally designed to streamline ordering and personalization workflows expands to adjacent areas to bring more value to customers.