Web-to-Print Strategies for Large-Format Printers
Many of us spend hours in conference rooms discussing new products that we hope will differentiate us from competitors. The reality is that being a large-format printer isn’t unique and it won’t keep your good customers from looking around. However, if you’re able to present opportunities to clients that address the goals of their marketing teams, then you have something exciting to offer.
Web-to-print (WTP) solutions may be the ticket you’ve been looking for in providing a service that truly adds value. These web portals address three specific needs that are critical to every brand owner: protecting the brand, ensuring graphic consistency, and getting the most mileage from brand assets. Done well, WTP portals provide better control for the marketer in the design process while suggesting new ways to employ their brand images—content in which they have invested millions of dollars.
These web portals change the purchasing dynamics from the classic model of “bid, transfer file, proof, and print” to something much more interesting and interactive. In its simplest form, a WTP system is a storefront or online ordering site that allows customers to purchase specific items in whatever quantity they need. They fill in job information, get a quote, and pay. An artist who offers reproductions of his work from an online ordering site and prints them on demand would be a simple example of a zero-inventory, seamless operation enabled by WTP technology.
At the other end of the spectrum, a more ambitious WTP site would allow customers to choose from design templates, upload and modify their own files, input data for any variable fields, and submit their orders with the ability to come back later and check the job status. This model tends to be used in the direct-mail industry, where the variable data involves addresses and personalized promotional pieces. In our industry, the variable fields are more likely to be design templates with choices for customizing graphics such as banners.
Imagine a supplier that provides cooking equipment, utensils, and other goods to fast food chicken restaurants. They might see a competitive advantage in providing a custom P-O-P program to their clients, which is where you as the print provider would come in. You could design a custom portal for this client to produce “meal deal” signage showing the choices in meat, sides, and beverages and a variable-data field for the price. You could offer different options for the graphics based or create a field where co-op deals with brands such as Coke could be incorporated. The client would build their own graphics, approve the designs, and submit them to you for production and fulfillment.
Options in WTP systems
One approach is to hire a software developer to build a custom WTP engine for you. Advantages of a custom-built solution include the ability to communicate exactly how you want the system to work to the person who designs it and add more features as your online business grows. The disadvantage is that most proprietary software and server-based WTP solutions on the market today are too expensive (including the initial purchase, system costs such as servers, future software upgrades, and technical staff that must be hired) for small and mid-sized printing companies to justify the return on the investment.
WTP providers have addressed these prohibitive costs by offering hosted web portals, an approach known as SaaS (software as a service). These WTP providers include the creation of the software, maintenance, upgrades and enhancements, technical support, and hosting. The associated costs are spread across a large base of clients, enabling most printers to offer professional WTP services affordably. Some of the more common SaaS names in the commercial printing space include Presscentric, XMPie, Pageflex, EFI-OPS, and Printable Technologies, but there are many more. Generally, these services are delivered purely online, allowing for a relatively low cost per seat, cross-platform compatibility, multi-user collaboration, and live database integration for digital asset management.
Another advance in WTP solutions, seen by some as an indicator of things to come, is the incorporation of WYSIWYG design support, which allows clients to modify design templates working within strict rules established by the system designer. Blurring the line between desktop publishing and WTP, these systems enable non-designers to edit and proof customized artwork within a safe environment that protects the brand. WYSIWYG solutions are usually based on Flash or Ajax technology to eliminate concerns with browser and OS compatibility. Newer ones also incorporate advanced page processing so that users don’t have to wait for pages to reload.
Designing for the users
WTP solutions must be designed to allow anyone using them to go from password creation to payment without assistance. Field marketing professionals will not use a portal to create or order graphics if the interface is clumsy or unintuitive. For the fast food chain I mentioned earlier, the person accessing the site may be a sales rep from the restaurant supplier, a franchise owner (more likely his tech-savvy son or daughter), or a marketing person from the chain. Regardless of who uses the portal, you want them to have an easy transaction so that they come back time and again. Remember, most buyers will not have been exposed to this method of ordering graphics before, and some will have never bought graphics at all. As always, the technology must serve the user, not the other way around.
When I was shopping for a WTP solution, I sat through a multitude of demos to get a feel for the user’s experience. My first impression was that many providers were familiar with small-format promotional printing, but less so with large-format applications such as P-O-P and event graphics. I quickly learned that file size can be a real sticking point. A software vendor might consider a 5-MB file large; we commonly work with files 100 times that size. This surprised many of the WTP software companies I evaluated. Most had well-developed storefronts that focused on the e-commerce side of the customer experience, including checkout and payment policies. In large-format-printing, we need more attention to prepress—file uploading, manipulation, customization, and the tools to create and work with the templates. My advice is to look for providers with experience in the large-format industry, and to analyze providers from your customer’s point of view, using these tips:
1. Create a strategy. Consider whether the product suits your current client base—or perhaps specific clients or prospects you are targeting for WTP. Large brands such as Coke or Oscar Meyer will likely adapt more readily than smaller ones. Also, consider the scale and the level of customization you will offer; both of these decisions are directly proportional to cost of the portal. Do you think you’ll need 20, 200, or 2000 customizable templates? Having a clear strategy will help you maintain focus on your business objectives and assist in budgeting.
2. Decide whether to build the software or use a SaaS solution. A new mousetrap may look cheaper at first, but with the speed that technology changes and web browsers are updated, a custom approach will cost more over time. You still have to decide which elements to do in house or outsource. If you host custom-built software, an in-house IT department is a must and you will need a customer service group to deal with the client experience, e-mails, and complaints. Ask yourself whether you want to be a software developer or a graphics company.
3. Dedicate manpower. It’s important that you have the staff to evaluate your options and back the service up when you launch it. SaaS products address some of the IT concerns, though they are still software that must be learned. Underestimating the man hours needed to build and maintain a system, as well as support it for your clients, can be a pivotal cause of failed WTP strategy.
4. Don’t get too caught up in the production. Remember that WTP is about providing the easiest, most convenient, and most competitive experience for your clients. Most customers only want to hear how this new service is going to make things easier for them, not you.
5. Plan the content. Do not underestimate the time, effort, and cost needed to create engaging content for your website. Without content, your WTP portal will be virtually invisible and potential clients who stumble upon it won’t stay.
Questions for SaaS vendors
SaaS solutions bring some unique considerations to the table, mostly because you won’t be working directly with the developers or giving them specific instructions about how you want your system to work. Here are some critical questions to ask:
• How do you manage the content?
• Are there monthly traffic allowance limits?
• Can you add new functionality (modules) later?
• What’s the largest file size? This is often a quandary for large-format printers.
• How much storage is allotted and how long will files be retained? Many SaaS vendors only allow 2 GB of free storage and purge files after a year. Others are cloud-based systems that keep data indefinitely.
• How will your system be backed up?
• Will you receive one unique URL or can you have more for additional brands? Is there a cost for additional branded sites?
• How many users are covered?
Take the time to understand the workflow and usability of the design features, particularly creating templates. Most SaaS providers have methods for creating templates within the software, but many are cumbersome. You should be able to generate templates – and edit them later – without incurring additional design time and charges for your clients. If you’ll be doing a lot of variable-data work, look for design features that recognize static and changeable areas and allow you to easily populate them.
Also, be sure the templates are user-friendly for your clients. They need to have a certain degree of flexibility for user-input variations. Corporate designs require constraints to preserve the branding. On the other hand, making the rules too strict can mean lost business for you if the user can’t input data because the rules don’t apply and gives up. In addition, remember the size of the files your clients will be using to build their graphics and be sure that won’t cause any issues. Advanced systems automatically preflight uploaded files, preventing problems that will frustrate the client while saving you time and money.
One note of caution about using online design tools: While some web-based systems have very advanced features, use them very carefully. Flash plug-ins are client- and not server-based, so all calculations are performed on a client’s local machine inside their web browser. There is a danger that large, complex files can crash web browsers or cause delays due to long loading times. (Here we go again with our large files.)
WTP systems have been around for a number of years. The main factor that has limited their growth has been affordability. Early systems set the stage for major printing companies to offer WTP services to corporate clients and the general public, but the solution providers are edging further into the business and developing products aimed at small- to medium-sized printers.
The challenge that all print-for-pay providers face today is differentiating themselves to clients and prospects. WTP solutions offer unique marketing advantages to the brand owners while pulling in grassroots support of sales staff in the field. They also benefit you by reducing your prepress workload. If you have a well thought-out plan and work with people who have the right expertise, you’ll find that WTP technology can be a game-changer for your business.