User groups are, by definition, made up of a set of people who have similar interests, goals, and concerns. They are often responsible for influencing vendors in modifying or enhancing products. Furthermore, user groups are accessible to a range of users, from first timers to experts, every professional background, and all ages. With the large network a user group may offer, anyone can get up to speed on the latest information quickly and effectively.
Powerhouses like Hewlett-Packard (HP), Kodak, and Xerox have all hopped on the user group bandwagon. At first glance, it would be hard to rationalize a monetary investment into such expansive groups backed by such large businesses. You may think you could get lost in the crowd. However, each user group has an abundance of resources that are targeted toward helping even the smallest company. They can help you run your business effectively, toss ideas back and forth with your peers, and ultimately reach the offices of HP, Kodak, and Xerox. When it comes to user groups, it is all about the customer.
Good Support Goes a Long Way
Lesley MacDonald has been with the Graphic Users Association (GUA), based out of Vancouver, since its start in 1995 and is now the program manager. Before Kodak purchased Creo, the GUA was called the Creo Users Association (CUA). Initial meetings responded to the challenges of integrating CTP technology. The CUA was a self-supported group, and it flourished under its independence. An executive board of nine customers and two Creo representatives functioned as the key promoters between the group and the company. The group ran as a non-profit. Members paid a fee to join, and the only criteria for actual membership was that the member had to be a Creo customer using Creo systems in a production environment.
When Kodak purchased Creo, many wondered if the user group would remain the same. The CUA board met with Kodak in October 2005 to discuss matters. According to MacDonald, "Kodak Executives who attended the 2005 CUA Conference recognized and valued the strong relationship with key customers at the event, and made the decision to continue to support the organization." The philosophy, MacDonald says, is that, "the users come to the table as equal partners."
With its affiliation with Kodak, the group has gained a larger audience. The annual conference attendance has skyrocketed to 3,500 people, and 80 countries are now being represented. Because of this jump in membership, the group has morphed from a single executive board to regional boards all of over the world. The plan, MacDonald explains, is to roll out regional boards globally, as more people become interested in the GUA.
And they are seeing results. In 2005, the first European conference was held in Barcelona. It was also the first conference in the user group’s history to incorporate digital printing. In late May 2006, the North American conference will be held in Vancouver, Canada at the Westin Bayshore Resort & Marina. As always, MacDonald reassures that the conference will be, "governed by what is important to GUA members."
The group’s Web site, www.mygua.org, is in transition and will be redesigned in the future. The site will also offer member forums for the online community. For now, www.graphics.kodak.com allows anyone to search for the latest user guides, release notes, and technical bulletins involving Kodak and Creo products. Many forums are customized by region to accommodate for the growing worldwide success of the user group. MacDonald tells us that, "The forums form a network of printing professionals from all over the world to share experience, expertise, challenges, tools, and solutions. They also provide Kodak development teams a way to interact with customers and stay current on their priorities and challenges."
Pick Me! Pick Me!
Xerox’s Premier Partners Program, based in Rochester, NY, was created to represent the most skilled digital printers in countries around the world. In the late 1990s, the group was envisioned as a response to dot com companies. As dot coms fell apart in the U.S., Europe kept Premier Partners afloat in their area and made it what it is today—a multinational organization built to help printers no matter where they are located.
How can you join? The U.S. division head, John Laurence, manager of Premier Partners and Marketing Operations of Xerox Graphic Communications Business, says the group targets, "creative, innovative people; willing to learn and share," when looking at prospective members’ applications. Members are selected based on their business capabilities, strategic knowledge of the graphic arts printing industries, financial situation, and it doesn’t hurt to have three pieces of Xerox production equipment. According to Laurence, the group wants members who are, "vanguards on the leading edge."
Printers that use Xerox equipment can apply for membership by going to the Private Portal, a multilingual Web site dedicated to providing services to the private partners community—www.ppcommunity.com. A Premier Partners representative will review the application along with the customer’s sales representative and jointly discuss qualifications for membership. If approved, the submitter is then subjected to more paperwork, but the reward here is there is no membership fee this year. In Europe, the fee is one thousand Euros per year. At press time, Laurence commented that the U.S. division was more concerned with building the value of the community rather than charging its new members.
According to Laurence, as a member, you have the benefit of a wealth of resources and solutions at your fingertips, all backed with Xerox’s first rate support. Laurence outlines the three core benefits of being part of the Premier Partners community: knowledge sharing, relationship building between Xerox and the customer and customer to customer, and business sharing.
An enabler for business sharing is the Premier Partners Public Portal, www.xerox.com/xpp, where print buyers can easily locate and communicate with Premier Partners’ specific to their needs, on a worldwide basis. Through the Public Portal, print buyers can initiate a print request by either searching a directory for a specific printer or using a simple print quotation tool that specifies print job requirements and defines specific printing and distribution. The request is then sent to the best partner for the job. Laurence refers to it as "matchmaking." The private portal also provides an online forum where graphic communication professionals can network and share information.
Although Premier Partners is primarily a Web-based tool, members in each region hold a congress once a year. Last year, the U.S. division met at Print ’05 where industry speakers were featured, panels were held, and case studies displayed. Congress meetings are an opportunity for the Premier Partners advisory council to meet. Each region has its own council and each council is made of Premier Partner members that are self-elected.
Laurence adds, "It was in 2002/2003 that the U.S. council met and started to put the U.S. division back on track. The council outlined the three core benefits of Premier Partners and is the reason it is thriving as it is today."
East Hampton, NY-based Indigo Customer Exchange (ICE) is a user group in a state of evolution. Originally formed in April 1995, the group’s first meeting convened in Newark Airport. According to Michael Vinocur, the group’s executive director since 1995, at the request of Indigo management, 12 initial customers gathered in an airport hotel to discuss the many early problems with the first generation of Indigo digital presses. With time, ICE turned into one of the largest and longest standing digital printing user groups in North America.
Vinocur continues, "Through several major management changes at Indigo over the years and then the ultimate acquisition of Indigo by Hewlett-Packard (HP), ICE managed to survive and grow. After two years of trying to work closely with it’s primary vendor, HP, ICE was told that HP no longer cared to offer any financial support to the group. The user group idea was a bit foreign to HP and somehow we never were able to get HP to fully comprehend the immense competitive advantage ICE offered HP over its competition."
As a result of HP’s decision, the ICE Board of Directors recommended a new course for the group. At its annual meeting in November of 2005, ICE members voted to change the name of the group to Digital Imaging Customer Exchange (DICE). The idea of a new entity—in the process of being legally renamed—is to broaden the scope of membership to include other digital press platforms beyond Indigo. "Xerox and NexPress are the first two likely additions," Vinocur adds.
With over 250 companies as members, this user-centric organization hopes to attract even more to their digital imaging community in the coming months. Vinocur, also president of Footprint Communications (a consulting and conference management company that serves the graphic arts industry), discusses some of the attractive benefits ICE/DICE has to offer. There are currently two email peer-to-peer help forums generating approximately 600 postings per month. ICEMAIL is a production-related forum and ICEMAIL BIZ is a business discussion forum. As more platforms come into DICE, additional vendor-specific forums will start.
ICE is also launching a Web-based direct marketing program, hosted by iWay. Members can upload logos and mailing lists that will then generate a print ready file for them to use in marketing. "This new program gives our members a turnkey direct marketing program that would have cost them thousands of dollars to do on their own," according to Vinocur.
It is $495 per year, per company to join the ICE user group, but first-time members can receive a three-month free trial membership. The only requirement to be a member is that you own a digital press.
Digital Solutions Cooperative (Dscoop) is a new arrival to the user group scene thanks to ICE’s split from HP. Regarding the split, Dscoop’s Chairman-elect, Chris Wells comments that, "ICE had a different opinion regarding HP’s role in the user group community," and what resulted was the division between two opposing sides leaving many members of ICE in a, "less than optimal situation."
In stepped several former ICE members, such as Dscoop’s current president, Jack Glacken. Directly after the split occurred, they formed an advisory council and approached high level HP officials to form their own user group in conjunction with HP. The members ultimately convinced HP that they needed some form of customer input and what resulted was Dscoop. The initial board was selected by the marketing manager of HP, Francis McMahon, in August of 2005. McMahon, as well as Glacken, Wells, and five other members compose the board. The tentative plan is to allow the board members to hold their position for one year and at their annual conference hold elections to instate new board members.
Initially funded by HP, the group’s goal is to eventually become self funded based on membership fees, attendance fees at conferences, and by partner investments. Right now, membership is complimentary until October 31, 2006.
Compared to user groups like Kodak’s and Xerox’s, you do not need an Indigo Press to get into the program. Wells explains that the group is primarily looking for the support of the entire digital print community; which will then insure growth of the organization. The group wishes to promote not only the technical side but the business side of digital printing. Wells believes that, "there aren’t enough business resources out there, and it is easy to migrate to the technical side," and Dscoop has made a commitment to invest as much into the business side as the technical side.
How do they plan to do this? If you are a member of Dscoop, you reap the benefits of comprehensive learning forums on their Web site, www.dscoop.org, relationships with HP Indigo professional resources, and networking with a community of peers. In January of this year, the group held business and technical webinars and plans to hold more throughout the year. Also, their Inaugural Annual Conference in Fort Meyers, FL will be held from April 27-30. The first two days of the conference will focus on the business side, and the group plans on holding events that revolve around the marketing and sales divisions of companies. The last day and a half of the conference, Dscoop will explore the technical side of the digital printing world. The plan, Wells explains, is to see multiple people from a single organization attend the event to boost company interest.
"We think it will be in our membership’s best interest to include not only their key technical employees at the annual conference, but their key sales and marketing folks as well. Sales is the gasoline that feeds the engine and this conference is promising to be of great value from that perspective as well," concludes Glacken.
Moving Forward: Morphing into a User Group
Many are familiar with PODi: The Digital Printing Initiative. Its main goal is to foster the growth of the digital printing industry through open standards and market development activities. Originally, the group functioned as a high-level vendor organization, but it is slowly morphing into a user group for all people looking for answers to their digital printing needs. PODi was launched at the On Demand Digital Printing and Publishing Conference in May 1996. The initiative was created by three industry leaders, Adobe Systems, Apple Computer, and Scitex Corporation, to grow the market for color digital printing. The group helps its members to understand how digital printing can be integrated into their marketing, customer service, IT, and executive marketing strategies.
Based in CA and NY, this non-profit organization consists of multi-levels of membership. There are the service providers, who compose the largest group of participants in the organization, holding 240 members at press time. A service provider is a company that can provide print, marketing, and data integration. Benefits of becoming a PODi service provider include free access to PODi reports, discounted attendance at PODi events, and discounted sponsorship opportunities at PODi events.
Events include their 2006 Application Forum that will take place from February 27 to March 1 in Las Vegas. "Each year, we evaluate and adjust the Application Forum content to meet the evolving educational needs of our audience," states Rab Govil, president, PODi. "This year, we have expanded the scope of the program to provide focused sessions on topics like pricing, relevant marketing, and growing a small business. These are issues that print service providers are facing more and more frequently, and the Applications Forum is the ideal venue for them to gain the specialized knowledge they need to succeed in the coming year and beyond."
PODi also supplies a service provider member with a free listing of the company’s name and logo on the PODi Web site. Additionally, company membership provides access for all the company’s employees. Fees are based on a company’s revenue.
Both the benefits and the fees of the service provider member level mirror those of the associated industry vendor member level, enterprise level, and affiliate level. Associated industry vendor members include paper manufacturers, distributors, and finishing equipment manufacturers. Enterprise members include any company not associated with digital printing except that they may use it in their communications. Examples include financial institutions, insurance companies, automobile manufacturers, retail, and restaurant chains. Affiliate members would be individual consultants, educational institutions, or journalists all relating to the printing industry.
There is a general member level of PODi that also bases its fee off of a company’s revenue. A general member is one who may manufacture digital printing hardware, finishing, or server technology that consumes or assists in the consumption of digital pages. Their benefits include the ability to nominate members for participation in all PODi committees and have their company name and logo displayed on the PODi Web site. They also have access to all PODi marketing activities and they pay a discounted attendance fee at PODi events.
The highest level of membership is an executive member. They are invitation-only members that must pay a set fee of $80,000 in dues. They provide leadership for the rest of the PODi community serving on the PODi executive board. The current executive member companies are EFI, HP, IBM, Kodak, Pitney Bowes, Quark, and Xerox. These members meet three times a year to approve PODi revenue plans and review the budget for the organization’s technical and marketing groups.
One of a Kind
Canon U.S.A. provides a hybrid user group and education forum. Unlike other groups, the company invites highly proficient end users to work closely with the firm in developing best-of-class solutions utilizing Canon capture and output devices. The Canon Print Masters program, launched in Fall of 2005, was created to support the new line of large format devices, imagePROGRAF W8400 and imagePROGRAF W6400, while educating and broadening the awareness of digital print technology.
Rich Reamer, senior manager of product marketing for Print Masters, comments, "In the past, many users were capturing with Canon cameras, but outputting with other devices. Print Masters demonstrates how photographers are implementing a capture to output Canon solution."
Reamer also tells us that, "The group was modeled as a compliment to Canon’s Explorers of Light group," and, "three of the members are participants in both programs, with the possibility of more Explorers joining the Print Masters program in the future." Explorers of Light, which began in the mid-1990s as an initiative for photographic education and inspiration, is a group of 60 of the world’s most gifted photographers who use Canon EOS photo equipment and share their expertise and work with the public. The long term goal of Print Masters is to implement an end-to-end Canon solution for the digital marketplace, so, "It makes sense to work closely with Explorers of Light," Reamer continues.
Print Masters currently has five members. "We wanted to start out small, choosing five initial members. However, as the group grows, we should see more participation with the photographic and fine art markets," states Reamer.
Similar to some competitor groups, Print Masters doesn’t use typical board members, and is a Canon-run program. And although there is no fee to be a member, "Agreements with members allow Canon to use and demonstrate select images, created with Canon digital camera equipment, and output those to an imagePRO-GRAF W8400 or W6400," says Reamer.
"The group was set up to be a beneficial situation for both Canon and its members," Reamer concludes, where users get Canon imaging equipment and Canon gets to show successful user stories and applications.
First Hand Advice
EFI proudly offers the Connect Conference, which is not a traditional user group, but rather a large user conference consisting of seminars and product demos. This event provides users with a wide array of learning opportunities. According to EFI, Connect focuses on delivering the useful, practical, and inspirational information that will help its customers advance their business and achieve its full success potential.
Connect 2006, taking place April 30-May 3 at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, will be based on the theme, Expand Your Opportunities. As Guy Gecht, CEO, EFI and Marc Olin, VP/GM, EFI Commercial Print, explain in their letter to their customers, "EFI’s seasoned professionals will lead expert-level sessions on topics spanning from MIS executive tools to fulfillment and mailing operations. We will also offer practical sessions on raising profits through super-wide format printing, integrated digital printing, and variable data printing. And of course, we’ll continue to provide the training sessions on maximizing your existing investment in your MIS system in areas such as report writing, finance, inventory management, estimating, and others."
User groups have evolved in the past decade to serve a mass community of members scattered throughout the globe. Both the GUA and Premier Partners have regional groups blooming all over the world and both Dscoop and ICE seem to have such plans for the future as well. Blatantly created to serve you, the customer, major vendors have put their dollars into user groups and hope to see a successful and knowledgeable graphic arts industry emerge from them in the coming years.