Web to Print – Disruptive and Here to Stay

Web to Print is all about program based work.  Printers are all about project based work.  The two don’t mix.  Part of the reason for such slow adoption is just that fact.  How does one build a process for program-based production with components which are all based on project based work?  Print machinery is designed for quantity and high speed production.  Digital print on demand is low quantity and digital presses today run at 10 to 20 times slower with 1/4 of the production footprint of offset equipment.  Print MIS systems are built for project based estimating, job tracking and planning, bulk shipping and large complex jobs.  Put a digital job through the estimating module and you’ll price yourself right out of the market before you begin.  Sit with sales, prepress, estimating, press and bindery and mention this type of change.  You’ll see smoke rise, tempers flare and an immediate psychological shutdown.  Change to these people is EVIL.  It threatens their very existence and reminds them that the world will never be what it was.  Those still in the industry are aging and there’s no fresh blood entering this industry.  They hate change, but change is what’s for dinner.

Web to print is made up of storefronts, servers, SaaS, databases and complex asset management, architects to understand and build a client’s specific solutions based on unique needs.  Scripting engineers, security and permissions schemas, multiple HTML interfaces, slow digital presses, automated FTP servers, no allowance for prepress, unique custom automated billing models, integrated automated reporting, market imposed pricing, constant maintenance of templates, catalogs, shipping methods and a unique set of customer service challenges.  Bindery is smaller and requires more agile equipment tolerating no setup time.  If you’re a traditional printer and you’re not turned off yet, then maybe, just maybe you’ve got the intestinal fortitude to survive web to print.

The long and short of it is that a conventional printer doesn’t speak the language required to tackle web to print.  One must go outside the conventional world and bring in the talent from elsewhere.  From where do you say?  Well, first one needs to hire one who has the passion for the Internet, for change, understands process and programmatic vs. project, sees the potential and owns the vision of moving from the old to the new.  (Asbestos underwear is a requirement.)  Then one must stand aside and let them run with the vision to build the new model and hold one’s water because it’s all foreign to the traditional printer.

If you’re good with that, then there’s hope.  If you’re not, then you’ll just have to start looking for the company that has it figured out.  Good luck with that.  You’ll need it.  When you find it, lock it down quick.  There are a precious few who get it and the majority who don’t. It’s as foreign as the PCs forced upon  you in the 90’s. Those who embrace it will win.  Those who fight it will certainly die.   It’s disruptive, but then again, so wasn’t Xerox, Micorsoft, Adobe, Apple, Google, Twitter and Facebook.  It’s a new world and web to print is going to replace the project based world as we know it. So hang on tight and realize that it’s going to be a wild ride.  But the good news is that the model is one of annuity and not project based.  Those who embrace it will  win back the customers whom they lost to the bid process and value add will once again be front and center winning over price and turn.

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What a CMO Needs to Know About Web to Print

As a Chief Marketing Officer, your ability to know what is going on with your marketing strategy is key to your survival.  In the not so olden days, Chief Marketing Officers were all about creative. They knew the best agencies, the best media buyers, the best outlets for their goods and services and just when to change the tag line or to add a new product to the line. If they were in the big arena with budgets to buy prime time air space, then it was simple – more numbers meant more sales.  Neilsen ratings were enough to evaluate and adjust.  But fast forward to today; there is no one-size-fits all solution for the Web, SEO, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and all of the other services that are now vying for your customer’s face time.  The eyes are being redirected everywhere, every second and no one is quite sure where it will all end up.  Monitor Silicon Valley and you’ll discover there are billions of dollars in venture capital being poured into fledgling startups in an attempt to build a new framework to monitor your activity amongst this new phenomenon.   New standards are being devised for big data design, scalable storage, application storage, stacks, cloud schemas and analytical engines capable of telling you just where those eyeballs are going.  But that’s technical gibberish and doesn’t solve your immediate problem.

In the meantime, you’re still the CMO.  You better have proof as opposed to spin when you land front and center in the boardroom to justify why they should keep you.  Imagine the Chairman/CEO’s first question; just how effective have your marketing plans been this quarter?  Please show me.

As the author of your campaign, you know it to be well thought out and first class.  Yet a poorly executed first class plan can kill you and your career path.  When the arrows come flying over the wall and you have insufficient facts in your defense, even if you’re right, you’ll end up as road kill.

Case Study:  North American client had pain with incumbent marcom provider due to both poor technology and lack of execution.  Times to get materials into the field were increasing.  The brand was being diluted due to multiple providers and cost cutting by the broker/vendor.  Reporting was sparse and incomplete.  Complaints from the field were numerous and compounding.  Corporate had to make a change.  After an RFP and a marketing shakeup, the new vendor, a technically savvy solutions provider (not a broker)  installed a custom marketing and communications resource portal as the central repository  for every product used for marcom (over 300 unique pieces).  Now all field offices can interact directly through the portal to customize, direct and track every order.  Management can log on and see every detail of every order, requisition request, PDF proof and shipping record 24/7.

This CMO can now see just how and where the plan is working and who is participating vs. those who are not.  Granted, there are a whole lot more responsibilities in the life of today’s CMO.  But knowing where everything lands and when, is a major step in learning just how well your campaigns are being executed and thus, how effective they truly are.  The role of a CMO has changed drastically.  The new CMO will be measured by their ability to implement systems that produce real time data necessary to produce statistical analysis and thus accurate measurement of the marketing road map.  Gone are the days when a CMO could justify their livelihood with creative and spin using annual year end numbers.

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Will Web to Print Land me New Business?

The truthful answer here is an adamant “NO”!  The days of purchasing equipment in hopes of landing more business ended some 20 years ago.  Unfortunately, the press and the hype offered up by manufacturers, coupled with the fear factor threats they bring into your business centered around “losing your business if you don’t have these tools” are still effective in burying PSPs in new iron.  When your press isn’t churning out enough product and it’s costing you serious make ready costs, then it’s time to buy a new press.  I don’t know of a single case where a PSP will admit that  owning a half million dollar digital press because the rep says you have to have it in order to keep your clients happy, has resulted in positive revenue to the PSPs bottom line.  It’s added to their expense, their payroll and their debt.  It’s added to the complexity and many still have yet to figure it out.  In most cases, the digital presses are treated like quarter size production presses to appease existing customers with instant turns.  They’re not being used for what they were intended as variable data wonders or on demand high volume short run one-to-a-few orders.  Digital presses sit idle the majority of the time in some of the most successful print shops.  Due to their lack of knowledge in how to discern their role in the on-demand digital marketplace, how to deploy processes and systems to appease the instant gratification of smaller print demands stumps them.

Just like iron, web to print isn’t going to land you new business.  It’s one component in the area where you will learn how to bring efficiency to your business.  It will reduce your cost of doing business and relieve many of the hassles that project based work currently causes in your life, the life of your employees and your customers.  Web to print is about streamlining the process, eliminating manual processes, central control and storage.  It brings the convenience of self service for customers (and internal people) who don’t want to have to have a conversation in order to process redundant orders.  It allows them to have all of the information at their desktop with a single login to the portal or storefront before, during and after the order is processed.  More importantly, it eliminates unnecessary internal manual tasks so you can focus your resources and your energies on landing new business.  It’s a tool, it’s not a miracle.  Every PSP should be focused on getting the new business that will bring stability in a market that is shrinking daily.   This requires investment not only in web to print, but in the right people, the right sales strategies and the proper mindset to move into the new realm.

A recent colleague in the M and A business informed me recently that 4.3 printers go out of business daily.  There are no buyers for their equipment.  It’s a liquidation exercise and their book might be the only thing worth looking at.  In many cases, they don’t get a dime even when someone professes to buy them out.  They end up with just enough money to pay off their debt with a “promise” of money in the future for a set period of time if their book results in revenue for the buyer.

I don’t sell web to print.  I don’t hawk anything.  This is just the sobriety of the situation.  If you’re a PSP not investing in the technology to streamline, reduce costs and thus be able to get more business no matter the size of the order, then it’s just a matter of time until the balance sheet turns red and the doors are closed for good.  Web to print is a central component in serving the new print realm.  It’s not the fix, it’s one of the key engines.


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“Prepress, move over for Web to Print”

Web to print hasn’t been part of a printer’s budget up until the last decade if at all.  Much like marketing for a small to mid-sized printer, it’s just never been a factor.  Yet today, it is truly essential.  For decades, we have been surprised by technology coming upon us in waves which require shifts in mindset and changes in the budget.  Just like C2P, Prepress servers, storage servers, web to print must be considered.

Whether its used on behalf of efficiency internally or a requirement of your client base, it must now be included in your budgets.  The past two decades, aside from upgrading presses, prepress investment has been front and center.  Well, move over prepress, you’re not the diva anymore.  Prepress is automated and gets bypassed with web to print.  Now it’s engineering, architecture and cloud systems which will become the major focus for the foreseeable future.

Prepress is necessary for conventional, but it’s getting less and less important as digital on demand takes over.  They won’t be replaced as long as you have 40″ 6 color presses running, they’ll just become commonplace when before they were on top of the pyramid.

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Technology Swallows PSPs

In the beginning, there were writings on cave walls.  Then came the Gutenberg in the year 1440.  For 400 plus years, things really didn’t change much.  In the 1800’s the offset press was patented and changed the industry forever, we thought.  For about the next 70 years,  advancements were made with regards to efficiency and power, but nothing huge.  Fast forward to1937, when a law student, Chester Carlson, invents duplication via Xerography in what we have all come to know as the “Xerox” machine. This still wasn’t enough to upset the printing industry.  In fact, it increased commercial print for small businesses due to its expense and limitations.

It wasn’t until the proliferation of the desktop PC, accompanied by the convenience of the desktop printer, that small to medium sized printers began to feel the pain of print reduction in order quantity and demand for higher quality 4 color print.  In this era, equipment providers like HP, Xerox, Heidelberg, Kodak, Fuji and a slew of others began to introduce their technologies accompanied with their presses and partners to the PSP community.  All in the name of technology and cost savings, they suckered the PSPs into high cost iron solutions.  The PSPs bought into it because technology would reduce their costs, increase their automation and make it much easier to compete and maintain margin.

But technology didn’t stop there.  Two of the most disruptive advancements in the last two decades were Computer to Plate (C2P) around 1996 and High Performance Raster Image Processing (RIPs).  With the creation of PostScript in the 1970s, the onset of raster images as opposed to type began to require large processing power soon to be referred to as RIPs.  It took nearly 20 years for this technology to make it to the laser printer on your desktop.  This new way of printing forced the PSP to further invest in C2P and the necessary RIPs to prepare the artwork coming from their C2P systems to make plates for press.  As the cost escalated in order to compete, banks and lenders lined up to make the finance “painless”.

Add to all of this the digital press (the Indigo invented in the 1990’s, later purchased by HP), the high speed 6, 8, 10 color perfecting presses (prints both sides on single pass) and you have a technology curve heaped at today’s PSP at warp speed.  Keep in mind that PSPs are not in the business of technology, they are accustomed to putting ink on paper and brought up in a manufacturing mindset.  We have incurred more technology change and its associated costs in the last 20 years, than the previous 500 years combined.  Modest offset and web presses required to compete, can exceed 3 million dollars each.  RIPs, C2P systems, MIS systems, Digital Presses are all technology expenses which cost hundreds of thousands and tens of thousands in services and interest annually.  As print becomes less and less expensive, PSPs are forced to add more and more for less return.  The model has been turned on its head.

Iron won’t fix this problem.  PSPs cannot afford to buy more iron.  Many struggle just to keep their lines of credit open for overhead and operations (print buyers aren’t the greatest payors).  Their markets are shrinking and scattered due to Internet gang printers (Vistaprint and others).  Moore’s Law is now knocking on the PSP’s door.  Read his original statement here:

The complexity for minimum component costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two per year… Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase. Over the longer term, the rate of increase is a bit more uncertain, although there is no reason to believe it will not remain nearly constant for at least 10 years. That means by 1975, the number of components per integrated circuit for minimum cost will be 65,000. I believe that such a large circuit can be built on a single wafer.[2]

Unlike high tech providers, PSPs cannot move their manufacturing to China and simply become brokers.  Their customers don’t have that kind of patience nor require the quantity such an undertaking would require.  So how is a PSP to cope?

A PSPs satirical impression of Moore’s Law applied to their trade:

The demand for lower print costs has increased at a rate of roughly a factor of two [times] per year… Certainly over the short term this rate can be expected to continue, if not to increase. Over the longer term, the rate of increase is a bit more uncertain, although there is no reason to believe it will not remain nearly constant for at least 10 years. That means by 2015, the cost per printed piece for minimum cost will be .01. I believe that such a large demand can be built on the Internet and produced on demand and shipped overnight [shipping included of course].

In my honest opinion, PSPs are doomed unless they partner with those who possess the expertise required to move them into this new technology driven paradigm.  This cannot come from the equipment and consumables providers who are intent on selling more iron.  It must come from outside the printing industry as we knew it.   The change will be painful, entirely foreign and egregiously disruptive.  It will turn most businesses upside down, close many, and for those who come out on the other side, it will morph them into something unrecognizable to their past.  Some will choose to go all digital.  Others will merge while others will become service providers and outsource the final product.  Print will not go away completely, but it will morph from the form that Gutenberg envisioned to something more in line with Steve Jobs.

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Web to Print Infrastructure Requirements

Web to print takes a fair amount of infrastructure uncommon to the traditional PSP.  Don’t make the mistake of letting your vendor manage this for you because they don’t have the resources nor the capacity to understand your process and workflow.  They will definitely say they can, but don’t go that route.  Bring on your own staff or a vendor you trust.  If your vendor doesn’t have this capability, vetting the right IT services firm should be one of your first objectives prior to deciding upon a web to print architecture.  Here is just a short list of hardware and IT services (in-house and/or outsource) one needs to maintain a robust web to print solution:

  • Super High Speed Internet available 24/7 (cable speeds minimum, fiber much preferred).
  • Gigabit Ethernet in house (regardless of a server based or an SaaS system) for very fast intake to your presses and fast uploads off the network for SaaS.
  • Strong IT support for server based infrastructure to maintain servers, upgrades and troubleshooting.  Software upgrades to server based solutions can be tricky and painful.  Web to print service providers don’t really concern themselves with this as they often make much more money selling you these services at a very high premium.
  • Bridge and backup servers to accommodate redundancy in case of a crash.  Keep in mind you now own your client’s collateral and a crash can spell disaster at the most inopportune times.
  • SQLServer or MySQL at the least, Oracle for super busy networks (overkill if you’re just starting out).
  • FTP client software for uploads/downloads
  • Storage servers for all client files (offsite is much safer than onsite)
  • Strong multinational hosting vendor who either sells you shelf space and bandwidth at a secure collocation facility with multiple fiber providers or one who rents you servers on a month-to-month model allowing you flexibility and scalability.  Hosting vendors are growing leaps and bounds due to the focus of moving everything to the cloud.  Don’t rush into the relationship as there are many types from full service to “service your own server” environment which will require strong IT team and system architect.
  • SQL or MySQL database software for bridge and backup database management.
  • Backup software to run on multiple servers every few minutes to insure data safety and security.

To summarize, it’s not just the web to print software, it’s a log of network, services, hardware and other components that are required to run a robust system.  Cloud services are touted everywhere but most of them are in their infancy and are missing major components.  Regardless of whether you go with server based or SaaS, the costs are pretty comparable.  SaaS requires a relationship with a vendor just the same as server.  Server based solutions are more vulnerable for electrical or network outages while SaaS has its own set of vulnerabilities.   Either way, the cost of the team, the network and the infrastructure must be factored in alongside the software and services of web to print when making the decision on which way to go.  Most of us don’t have the option of whether or not to put web to print into play, the question is “how”.  Use just as much due diligence in your web to print solution as you do in purchasing that 3 million dollar press and ask every question before you make the jump to avoid false starts or rebuilds.

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Web to Print Resource Guidelines for Digital Press Owners

So you’re a traditional conventional printer.  You have a mid-to-high level digital press capable of professional quality output.  You’ve got desktop software and you’re more than capable of using it for VDP jobs and mailings.  Let’s assume your prepress department handles the bulk of this kind of work.  But how do you make better use of your investment and build more business on the digital side?

First and foremost, it’s not the equipment that’s going to get you the work.  Everyone and their dog has digital capabilities or say they do.  If their demand is limited, they outsource.  But knowing the writing on the wall, you must be able to build more business on the digital side in house as this is where the market is headed and will end up.

There are two core critical assets you’ll need to execute a great web to print system.  First is the web to print architect and to complement this person is the seasoned senior web to print engineer(s).  A good digital web to print engineer is really a graphics person first and a web to print engineer second.  He/She has had prepress experience, is expert in Adobe InDesign, Photoshop and Quark Express, and has significant web exposure.  It’s a foreign mix for traditional print concerns.  The perfect person also is advanced in Excel and has a clear understanding of how relational databases function. (One cannot afford to pass the work back and forth between existing resources and still turn a nice profit.)

Integration with your current MIS and workflow is not only key, it’s critical to longevity and streamlined processes.  If you have a great CTO/IT staff, then this is a snap.  If you don’t, bringing this person on is critical to building the right architecture for the long haul.  This person will know how to design and construct communication of all of the web to print components via web services and XML, understand multiple vendor APIs and how to architect a sustainable framework in the cloud.  He/She will be able to design a scalable system that accessible 24/7 in order to service your largest clients.  Once your architecture is built and your MIS talks to your web to print SaaS or server-based products, has plug and play capabilities for new unfolding technologies, then you are well on your way to servicing your clients in a whole new value-added way.

Making the most out of your web to print architecture is finding the right human resources, not the software, hardware or mailing capabilities (mail, insertion, list preparation, etc.).  As an owner, one must go outside the lines and find these types as your business will morph into a services company while you’re still living in the traditional manufacturing process.

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Evaluating Web to Print for your Internal Workflow

If you’re a print service provider (PSP) and you can relate to the previous posts, here are a few things you can do to relieve the pain.  First of all, don’t beat your salespeople to death with expectations they are going to sell web to print effectively.  There is no incentive for them to do this.  If you’re new to web to print, the first step you should take in evaluating whether web to print is a logical and fiscally smart play for you is whether or not it will save you internal costs and overall overhead.

Managing a small order in the average workflow is just as costly as managing a large order.  The average order process in most PSPs is laborious, fraught with redundant steps and costly internal communications overhead.  From the bid time, during production and especially at billing time.  CSRs are tasked with looking up history and previous orders, more order entry and constant phone conversations to rehash the same requirements from the last orders.  Accounting is tasked with more data entry while billing  is tasked with understanding just what should be billed often requiring more internal inquiry with customer service, project teams and operations.  Conventional project based print might as well be termed “exception based printing”.  It is as though every job is an exception because every customer is inputting preference on top of preference.  Writing operating procedures, remembering customer preferences on jobs they do only once or twice a year can be excruciatingly painful for all involved.  Errors are often made year after year due to payroll turnover, poor updates to the MIS system and lack of adequate record keeping throughout the process. It doesn’t need to be this difficult.

So first things first.  If your customer places large amounts of orders manually, especially those you print digitally, or as we call it “reprint no change”, you are on your way to becoming a web to print candidate. These might be business cards, letterhead, sales or data sheets, catalogs of low volume, subsets of static pieces such as brochures, manuals, operating guides and so forth.  If your client is a large B/W customer and you’re fulfilling orders on a high speed duplicator, then web to print is a good fit.

By placing these types of products on a store front that only your client has access to, they can log on, place the orders, customize them and make any changes, proof them online and the order can then be delivered to the appropriate department for fulfillment.  All client preferences, logos, fonts and details are now resident in a central location.  No phone calls, no emails to find out if the order was received and no laborious tracking when the order has been shipped.  All this can be automated and stored and communicated online via the portal store front.  The client is happy, you’re happy and the mundane can be removed.

Watch for upcoming posts where we’ll take this a step further in which the PSP starts to think on behalf of the client for their benefit of a web to print workflow as opposed to just the PSP’s benefit.

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Print Service Providers (PSPs) are manufacturers.  Repeat; Print Service Providers (PSPs) are manufacturers.  The only thing a PSP has in common with an MSP is that they put ink on paper for the MSP.  This does not make them an MSP.

Marketing is going through a major transition and even the traditional marketing based on creative pitch lines and spinning the story to get a prospect to bite is going away.  When TV, radio, movies and billboards are involved, this tends to work.  As the Web and mobile devices take over the world, even creative is finding they are merely expendable and many have become transient workers moving from agency to agency every 12 months or so.  The average tenure of a CMO today is less than 18 months.  Tomorrow’s CMO is high tech, analytic, extremely resilient and able to adopt new technology, understands the role of the CIO (previously never even spoke when they passed in the hall) and can produce statistics justifying every directional move down to the minute (not once a year).

In the world of the PSP, the thought that a manufacturer can somehow become a marketing adviser because he can print something new is absurd and hasn’t a leg to stand on.  When visiting one’s website you encounter terms like “ROI”, “VDP”, creative services, direct mail strategy, “PURLS” and “QR” codes, run for the exits!  Yes, we have all been pushed by our customers to do more and more and more and we sometimes fall into the trap of trying to reinvent ourselves as we say “yes” to everything they request for fear they’ll go to someone else.  Resist the temptation.  We can improve our efficiency, eliminate waste, get greener, print responsibly, but at the end of the day, PSPs put ink on paper.

Let’s all learn to become more efficient as Marketing Communications Service Providers or MCSPs.   Being the best and most efficient turnkey vendor to your top clients will secure the relationship for years to come.  A well thought out and properly deployed web to print system and seasoned team to run it will assure that type of efficiency.

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My Customer is Demanding a Storefront – Does this mean I have to deploy a Web to Print System?

Many Print Service Providers (PSPs) in their attempt to service all of the customer’s needs get requests from the sales field or from the customer directly asking for a “storefront”.  This in many cases is a trap.  Qualifying a customer’s real need vs. their perceived need is the most critical step at this stage.  If your client has real need, they will be in great pain or in a lot of instances, causing your staff great pain with small orders and lots of requests from the field.  If they have perceived need, it’s a pipe dream and in most cases there is little need.  Most conventional clients do not need storefronts, they need automation for redundant tasks such as business card ordering or orders from your fulfillment center.  Unfortunately, the only option for the PSP is to deploy a web to print solution as there really are very few  service providers who will service the PSP for the front end without getting the print work.  A PSPs best time is spent going after paying work and not perceived need.  If the client is a high volume client, then by all means, begin the process of consulting with a pro to discover what web to print solution may fit you and your client’s needs.  Don’t make the common mistake of thinking that if you deploy a system, it will generate revenue. It won’t.  See the previous post “Why is web to print adoption spotty?“.  Traditional conventional sales staff are not easily trained or accommodating as low volume sales doesn’t provide any incentive for them.

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