Internet-Based Printing Services
I remember agonizing over the decision. Friends had planned a birthday/welcome home party for a Peace Corps chum who was returning to the US after 25 years in Africa. Though the party was three days away, I was scheduled to be in Southern California with clients for two of those days. Somehow, I had to find time to get him a present.
I'd just finished the Poisonwood Bible, which I knew my friend would enjoy, since he'd spent several years in the Congo region. As a bookstore purist, I was appalled when a colleague suggested ordering the book through Amazon.com.
After wrestling with the proposal, I decided to try it. And it was easy! The whole process took about five minutes and the book arrived at my office the day of the party. While I still prefer to shop at my favorite bookstores, I now don't think twice about using Amazon.com when time is an issue.
The point is this: The Internet is changing the way we conduct our lives and our businesses, and the printing industry is not immune. In fact, print procurement appears to be readily adaptable to Web-based commerce.
By now, we're all familiar with the rapidly expanding number of online printing services. Ranging from basic bidding sites (printmarket.com, printusa.com, easiest.com, imagex.com, iprint. com, printbid.com) to industrial-strength job processing sites (noosh.com, impresse.com, printchannel.com), online printing services have become hot Internet real estate.
The business models for each of these vary widely. Some are printer-focused, others concentrate on addressing buyers' needs, and others have been created by individual and groups of printing companies simply to solicit jobs. With a few exceptions, most are geared for on-demand commodity printing, such as stationery systems, business cards, labels, etc.
The exceptions, however, are notable because their value is not only in expediting the estimating process, but rather in reinventing the way we communicate with customers throughout the entire print procurement and production process, from estimating and job tracking to delivery and fulfillment, for even the most complex commercial work.
I recently was going through some of our company's past research projects and was reminded that a mere three years e-mail was used by very few printbuyers. Today, it's as ubiquitous as the telephone and fax. Websites, too, were just beginning to catch on as a marketing tool, with most being little more than online brochures.
But much has changed in the space of a few years, and technology obviously has been the enabling force. Advances in telecommunications as well as in digital production systems have set the stage for yet another revolution in our industry.
Today, we're building client sites that have everything from general FTP capability to password-protected, online client "studios" set up by printers to house customers' art archives, accessible records of past jobs and estimates, and online job status and inventory reporting.
Ultimately, printers and customers will be linked to the same job production databases, allowing both sides to have instant access to job information. This is precisely the model that's being developed by online enterprises such as Noosh, Impresse and PrintShark, among others.
Threat Or Opportunity
Some printers fear these online services, believing they will eventually spell the demise of independent commercial printers. Others dismiss online printbuying, erroneously thinking it's only suited for work that fits quick print shops, not commercial houses. While there may be some truth to both attitudes, the bigger issue remains . . . the good idea will only get better as innovation and technology quickly address shortcomings.
We just completed an extensive research project for one Internet-based service. The good news is that most of the buyers we interviewed still prefer to use printers with whom they have a relationship. And, yes, a majority of these services are selling the easier 1- and 2-color printed products. The bad news is that many buyers are using the services to shop price.
But these facts shouldn't mislead us into thinking that commercial printing doesn't lend itself to the Internet. Our research showed that many large, multi-color projects are being posted and awarded on these sites.
Many printers are exploring the opportunities these services provide. Like buyers, some are using the sites to benchmark their own pricing. Others are using the services as a prospecting tool. Still others are just checking out the technology to ascertain its usefulness in facilitating communication with customers. While all are legitimate reasons, the last should be a primary focus.
Improving Customer Relationships
Since online printbuying is still in its infancy, both sides are testing the waters. At the shallow end of the pool there are the matchmaking services which may or may not be successful in connecting jobs with the appropriate provider. There are many factors contributing to a successful match.
First is the regional question. The very nature of the Internet removes geographic boundaries. But as we all know, printed products have to get to the end-user-the direct mail recipient who'll take advantage of the that special catalog offer, the shopper who purchases because of the customer's POP display, the consumer who chooses one software over another because of the packaging. Shipping time and costs often are one of the last things buyers consider. Some sites have comprehensive RFE forms with pull-down menus to make sure buyers provide critical information, such as shipping requirements.
Second, while a low price may sway some buyers to try a printer for the first time, ease of use, quality of product, and on-time delivery will persuade them to return. Don't cut price and don't compromise quality. A long-term match should be the goal, not a one-night stand.
Finally, use of Internet-based services for prospecting is fine as long as it's not your only motivation. We all need to be addressing how these services and our own websites can benefit our relationships with customers. As the enterprise-focused, robust printing services are quickly proving, a customer focus is the long-term value of the technology; it's got to make doing business with you as easy as possible. In all of the focus groups and research surveys we've conducted over the years, we've learned this is more important than price and even quality.
Join and test out an online service. See which one works for you. As start-ups, these companies have everything to lose; you have everything to gain. They need your support.
Stay focused on your value proposition and core competencies. Bid only on those jobs that best suit your services. Choose a service that will post information about your company, its niche and equipment. Above all, continue to monitor how these services are improving customer communications throughout the procurement and production process. This will be the true test of their staying power.
Charlotte Mills Seligman is president of Traversant Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in planning and executing integrated marketing programs for printing and allied graphic arts companies, with nearly two decades of expertise in the industry. Previous columns and issues of the company's Ti Monthly e-newsletter are posted on http://www.traversant.com. Inquiries should be directed to (415) 357-2929 or charlotte @traversant.com.
© 1999 Charlotte Mills Seligman
August 17, 1999