The concept of Web-to-print was born during the dot-com boom in the late 1990s. During that time, more than sixteen newly-minted, venture-capitalist-backed e-commerce vendors with patent-pending technologies were crisscrossing the country explaining their vision for bringing procurement and workflow management to the printing industry. At the very beginning of the 21st century, hardly a day went by without an additional online service being announced.
Each one was structured to move quickly towards an IPO, making their founders and early employees overnight millionaires. That following Spring, the dot-com bubble burst, tech stocks plummeted, and the IPO market evaporated. Over the next year, venture capitalist funding dried up and many of these companies closed their doors or sold their technologies to the apparent survivors.
Web-to-print solutions have come a long way since the burst of the dot-com bubble. InfoTrends, Inc. reports that the global Web-to-print software market was worth $195 million in 2006 and will surpass $432 million in 2011. This increase represents a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17.3 percent. One clear differentiator between the dot-com era’s Web services and today’s online services is business model. Most early services were intended to save time for print buyers, but only created additional work and expense for service providers. In addition to offering print service providers an affordable cost of entry and a recurring revenue model, today’s Web-to-print systems offer several features that move far beyond simple online job submission. Vendors have continued to add functionality to their solutions, and the term Web-to-print has thus expanded to mean far more than simple online job submission.
If you ask a dozen graphic arts professionals what Web-to-print means, you’ll get twelve different answers. The term is too simplistic for describing what the tools in today’s market are doing for graphic communications service providers and their customers. This redesigned print e-business infrastructure is fundamentally transforming the graphic arts market.
It is altering how customers interface with graphic communications service providers as well as what they order. It is enabling the SOHO worker as well as the corporate marketing executive to become super-efficient at ordering products and services, protecting their brand, and delivering relevant messages.In parallel, the print e-business infrastructure is the pathway to super-efficiency for graphic communications service providers. It signifies that an online print order flows directly to a machine and through production, kitting, and fulfillment without human involvement. The following includes several significant operational business opportunities for print service providers.
Customers key and proof their orders and documents online. The burden of typographical errors is now moved to the actual end-user, minimizing rework and reducing the resources associated with customer service and sales.
Orders can be aggregated based on type, run length, paper stock, finishing requirements, and due date to streamline the manufacturing line.
The print service provider can easily track jobs and provide customers with online status reports.
Online jobs can flow directly to a digital press or CTP device with little or no human intervention.
The graphic communications service provider can support marketing in protecting the brand through storing pre-approved templates with standard layouts, fonts, and colors and making them accessible to remote users.
Graphic communications providers can become an integral part of the supply chain through catalogs of printed materials like business cards, stationery, and forms as well as marketing templates for brochures and sell sheets. They can also become the fulfillment agent for non-print promotional items like mugs and t-shirts.
Critical functions like collating, sorting, and numbering can be completed before the actual job is printed.
Payment processing can be incorporated into the online workflow to accelerate billing cycles and improve cash flow.
More advanced value-added services can be added as printers build experience, user relationships expand, and software suppliers do a better job at application integration. Print service providers can add variable data, list management support, and multi-channel campaigns as they gain experience.
The Internet opens entirely new niche markets for graphic communications service providers, including everything from customized calendars to books on demand to personalized photo books.
From the perspective of the print service provider—not the technology provider—the following four fundamental e-infrastructure business models have emerged.
Commercial printers and in-plant graphics communications providers are both establishing corporate portals. The Web has enabled them to serve enterprises of all sizes with a cornucopia of online services.
These private doorways to online functions may be branded for the client or a specific department or set up with personalized URLs that take users to a secure, private site especially for them.
Some print-for-pay establishments and in-plants have set themselves up to accept jobs on an ad-hoc or impromptu basis. Types, sizes, and finishing options for these products are typically standardized, although custom work may be accepted. These sites serve all comers, from consumers and small businesses to divisions within enterprises.
Many commercial printers and in-plants set up a catalog with frequently-ordered printed products or documents with-in a corporate portal. These catalogs typically contain documents that can be ordered on demand by authorized users and incorporate either a credit card payment or charge-back system. There may be limited customization or versioning capability included, such as changing the name on a business card or a price and address on a sell sheet. As software tools become more sophisticated, some print service providers are offering on demand ordering systems that include database-driven versioning and customization. There are a number of print service providers that are doing custom published newsletters for financial advisors, realtors, and insurance agents, where the user can vary text and articles predicated on the relationship with the recipient.
Using predesigned templates or patterns for a printed piece, some online print services now offer consumers and SOHO clients products that were previously unavailable in short runs, including business cards, marketing postcards, and brochures. These sites also offer some consumer-oriented products including invitations, birth announcements, greeting cards, calendars, and even photo books. Some savvy print service providers extended this service into more complex direct mail applications. Using predesigned formats and online sites, businesses can upload composed letters incorporating images, address lists, and price lists. These services will take care of printing and mailing and enable even the smallest businesses to take advantage of postal discounts.
Cathy Skoglund assumed the role of manager of operations and business development for graphic information solutions (GIS) at Arizona State University (ASU) a little over a year ago. GIS serves more than 17,000 ASU employees with a staff of eight. The operation needs to be self-funding. Employees can buy print for less than $1,000 without going through any bidding process, and there is a competitive bidding process for jobs over $1,000. Skoglund needed to be competitive, and that meant operational efficiency and customer reach.
When Skoglund started, the work process was typical of a number of in-plant and print-for-pay environments. Someone would fax in a form requesting a print job. The designer would do the work, send back a proof, wait for sign-off, and then the job would go into production. Turnaround time ranged from one to three months and there was no mechanism for tracking jobs in the print facility.
Based on several years of experience in dealing with the automated system at the Phoenix-based R&R Images print facility, Skoglund realized that automation was essential. The first step was to streamline simple repetitive applications. Press-Sense’s iWay became the foundation for GIS Online. GIS established structured Web-based templates for business cards, stationery, and envelopes that transformed turnaround time from one to three months to three to five days.
One of the key ingredients to success is education of the client. Skoglund used a postcard mailer to build awareness of the new utility available to staff and faculty to explain how to get online with GIS. The highest rate of creation for the new accounts took place the day after the mailer went out.
When a faxed job comes in today, GIS sees it as an educational opportunity. Where possible, the company converts the job to a template and points the user to GIS online for future work. Clients now say, "This can’t be ASU... It’s too fast." GIS is processing more than 450 jobs per month through GIS Online with an average price per job of $168.
Now that there is high confidence in the GIS Online system, Skoglund says she’s going to build out the applications available to users. Her strategy is to integrate tools like DirectSmile and MindFireInc for critical applications. Recruiting new students is critical in any University setting, and blending personalization with the Web will help drive new student recruitment. As with all University locations, sporting events are big business. Driving up attendance through effective customized Web-driven materials is also part of her strategy.
She is also evaluating use of Press-Sense Manager so that she can incorporate not just her digital print assets into the workflow, but also the offset technologies in her facility.
Efficiency and Profitability
Web-to-print is clearly an emerging and poorly-defined market as many print service providers see the technology as a critical element of their growth strategies and a necessary part of providing better service to their customers. The highly fragmented nature of Web-to-print vendors and the large number of local companies also points to an emerging market. The volume of print submitted via Web-to-print is projected to increase, and this shows that many print service providers see strong potential for the technology. In fact, the astute print provider knows that in today’s market, he must provide a super-efficient customer-facing Internet capability and also drive operational excellence in the print facility.
Print providers need to understand that Web-to-print involves much more than job submission. It is time to take a leadership position in educating print buyers to drive more widespread adoption of the full capabilities from creation through to delivery and fulfillment that can be Web-enabled. While some have said that the Internet is the great democratizer for graphic communications service providers, my view is that it is the agent for business transformation on the pathway to profitability.