In this roundtable discussion about W2P, Peter Lancaster, consultant, Gavin Page, Macnhester Printers, Richard Clark, Raccoon, Christ Southall, Fosco Hayes Hurdley and Ian Richard Ingle from www.eyeswidedigital.com debate the issues.
“You have to spend a shed load of money on Web-to-print (W2P) to make it work. And if it’s just to sell cheap templated posters what’s the point - you’re just forking out to sell free print.” Hands up all of those that agree with Richard Clark from Raccoon.
The level of involvement in W2P by those in the wide-format print sector would suggest many feel the same way as Clark, and certainly, at the Round Table discussion among grassroots players on the subject towards the end of 2012, that was the general feeling. Initially. As this feature will uncover, attitudes changed somewhat during the course of the afternoon’s debate on the value of W2P to this part of the print market and whether it should be moved higher up the business development agenda.
Image Reports, backed by Fujifilm, brought together printers in the wide-format print space that nevertheless run quite dissimilar types of business, and likewise have different views on how W2P fits into those businesses in particular and into the wide-format landscape in general. The point was to establish whether W2P has become any more accepted and established here than it was when Image Reports conducted an investigation into the topic two years ago and found W2P was making little impact.
At that time its detractors were arguing that it commoditised print, wasn’t really suited to wide-format print providers doing anything other than template-based posters, was costly and time consuming to implement and diverted attention away from the work at hand. The other side of the argument was that W2P is how a lot of customers - or perhaps more accurately, prospective customers - want to work given that the 'print buyer' is often much younger than the 'print seller', lives in a technical world and expects its business partners to do so. The question to printers then was: if you don't offer W2P aren't you cutting out potential business? The response was in effect, “we’ll wait and see”.
So we did, but after two years it was time to see what had changed. At the start of the debate it seemed little had, though by the end, the overall feeling among those printers at the table was that they’d be fools to ignore it. In between some meaty issues came to the fore. Cost was a biggie as you’d expect.
Of those using some form of W2P already, their systems had been built either by or for them with the cost reflecting that.
“Generally doing development in-house costs you more because you have to sub-contract parts etc. You’re better off buying a ‘core’ ecommerce engine and building on that,” was consultant Peter Lancaster’s advice to those like Clark who has been putting Raccoon’s house in order in terms of workflow and colour management ahead of possible W2P integration in another year or so.
“The real sticking point for W2P in wide-format is return on investment,” he ventured. “You have to spend real amounts of money on W2P. You really have to take one person out of the business to scope it for a start.
“I’ve spent a lot of money over the last 18 months on internal workflow and colour management so we reproduce jobs accurately, and I’ve gone with a Clarity MIS system with the idea of integrating it with W2P in the future. We already have an online approval system/workflow in place but that’s not what I call W2P – to me that’s a customer being able to go right through the order process without our intervention, and the more I look at that the bigger the issue becomes and the costlier implementation looks. But the bottom line is that we’re vehicle wrap specialists and though that’s OK we want to get into new markets so we need to look at how a fully-blown W2P system will work and perhaps help us do that.”
Ian Ingle of eyeswidedigital is proof that this is possible. “We’ve been going ten years and started operating online about eight years ago. We do loads of bespoke products – customised deckchairs etc – where people upload their own pictures etc. About 30% of our work now comes to us W2P, but we did pay someone to develop a system for us.”
“For any business the priority is making money. For us, W2P is an add-on for clients who want to work over the internet, but it’s not in wide-format. Wide-format is about 15% of our business now – only about 7% undertaken in-house – and so for us W2P for that part of the business is just not worth the development cost,” added Gavin Page of Manchester Printers, which has a template-driven W2P system that it uses for stock call-off more than anything else.
“But it’s not just about cost. I’d say around 80% of the W2P orders we do take involve calls to us to sort things out. You can throw money at making the system as simple as possible but the problem is those using it still need help so you still spend loads of time talking them.”
This was another topic that struck a nerve. “We have a good internal automated workflow but I’d say that 80% of the files we get coming in need work before they are print ready, so God help us if we were using W2P,” said Chris Southall of Fosco, who has been looking closely at W2P for some time with an eye on getting involved as cheaply as possible initially to test the waters.
“I must admit that we don’t always get workable images via W2P,” added Ingle. “And we don’t have an automated file checking system so we have to do that manually which is time consuming. That’s a real downside, but without W2P we would miss out on work that we manage to capture.”
It was on the issue of file management and the types of work best suited to the W2P approach that Lancaster pointed out the differences between handling ad-hoc work (ie jobs in which the printer receives all sorts of files from customers it doesn’t know) and contract work (where you know the customer and can provide templates to their requirements – so they can just change information/images etc. when they want to reorder).
“There is a perception problem with W2P – it’s not just about Joe Bloggs ordering print from an online catalogue of products. W2P is basically ecommerce and that’s the way purchasing is going in all walks of life. What makes print so different? But I understand the sector’s concerns. The world is littered with W2P system for buying business cards – so that’s the perception of what they’re about. But they are so much more than that,” stressed Lancaster.
“Perhaps its easier to separate ad hoc types of work from contract. I’d say don’t even think about ad-hoc W2P in wide-format. It’s too costly to develop and you have no idea what files are coming in and what you’ll have to deal with. But in terms of contract work – where you work with a customer to form a W2P site storefront for them with agreed, pricing, templates, job parameters etc. it makes real sense – and it’s they way customers are going to want to conduct business.
“In effect you’re cutting out the print manager. And if you’re cutting out that step you should actually be able to put your prices up! But for this to work successfully printers need to become marketers and handle customers’ campaign management – become a real solutions provider. The designer/agency/in-house marketers buying print are in their 20s and they want to do business online. But they may not know what they need to know about print. This is where a contract orientated W2P can pay off.”
“But I think people still want to talk to somebody – then they know they can trust you,” argued Southall. “Also, the 20-something marketer might want to work online but they don’t want to be alerted to file problems and the like – as far as they’re concerned that’s your problem not theirs.”
“As I see it, the only way W2P will work in wide-format is in conjunction with brands and those of a level that understand how the whole print process works,” added Page.
“But we want to test W2P as cheaply and low-key as possible to learn about it,” was Southall’s response, to which Lancaster said: “But learn what? It’s back to looking at ad-hoc W2P and that isn’t where you make money. To make real money from W2P you need to provide added-value for the client – and contract type storefronts are the way to do that.”
“One of the biggest issues I have is customers saying we don’t get back to them quick enough on quotes on little bitty jobs. So I’d like to push all that online via an ordinary template based W2P portal. Then I could free up people in-house to concentrate on the more complicated jobs – and now I see there might be another W2P route there via the storefront idea,” Clark added.
“I can see all this only works if you take payment up front on the ad-hoc site – where it’s always going to be about price. And so then you want to brand that very differently to the contract/storefront type sites where you can make more money.”
Page agreed: “We make sure we brand our W2P differently. And from an organic Web search point of view, you have to make sure you focus on SEO so that your branded sites show up at the top of Google searches!”
So halfway through the afternoon’s discussion, the participants were asked: “Do you think W2P is or isn’t fulfilling its potential in wide-format?
Ingle was up first. “To my mind there still needs to be a lot of software development that enables true online proofing, full artwork checks etc.” To which Lancaster interjected with “elements of that exist. A problem is that PDF is open source so what you see on screen is not necessarily what the printer delivers. There are system that work for ad-hoc W2P but they’re very expensive.”
“I think there are still lots of barriers to W2P in wide-format, many of which we’ve already discussed. I see there is potential but there’s still a lot to be ironed out,” added Page. “Paying a fortune for a system and then you don’t even get a workable file in through it is a major problem. W2P creates too many issues at the moment; it’s only really going to work when it enables you to print with less intervention and right now that’s not really the case because you still have to help customers through the process.”
“Which is why I’m concentrating on getting the internal workflow etc. right first, otherwise you’ll fall over as soon as you start using W2P,” added Clark.
“We around this table all have very different businesses, but what I think we’re agreed on is that clients just aren’t demanding W2P,” reiterated Southall.
“One of the reasons they’re not is because clients don’t fully understand what W2P is and printers don’t know how to explain it to them,” was Lancaster’s take. “You need to look at the longer-term business argument, look at your branding etc, and fully understand how it could fit in with your own development strategy then be able to go out and tell clients how it could work with theirs to their benefit.”
In terms of strategic fit within a large-format print operation the trend towards SaaS based systems should make it’s mark. “In the old days you had to buy software and run your own hardware. Now, with software on multiple servers in the Cloud, systems are faster to deploy and there’s better back-up etc,” explained Lancaster.
“Also, you need to think about the potential for variable data printing (or versioning), integrated print, access to W2P via mobile phones and tablets…”
“The problem is that all these possibilities also put people off W2P. Printers don’t even consider it because it seems so involved and costly a process to even start investigating,” replied Clark. “Even getting your MIS to talk to a W2P system so that they work together is difficult – getting both parties to talk about how to do it is just about impossible! Once I have everything sorted internally on the workflow front, then I will go to a W2P solutions provider and say I need an API to talk to my MIS but I know how hard that is going to be.”
“There really needs to be a standard on how W2P talks to other systems – JDF is part of that,” added Southall.
“I agree that there needs to be more joined-up thinking in terms of JDF/XML etc. and that there are still plenty of issues with W2P but what we all have to start realising is that ten years from now the amount of online print purchasing, including for wide-format, will be massive and the norm because youngsters are so conversant with that way of communicating. So we have to prepare now,” stressed Clark, to nods of agreement.
“For us W2P has already pushed its way up the agenda. You’d be a fool to ignore it, however difficult it may appear,” ended Southall.
According to Lancaster fewer than 1000 printing businesses are trading online in the UK today. Are you about to join them?
Main issues raised
- In general customers are not yet asking for W2P though it was accepted that
print buyers will expect to be able to purchase print online in the future.
- W2P could provide customers with a better service (ie better tracking of job progress) but education is needed.
- The W2P systems used by most in the room are currently bespoke ones, thus expensive, but in general they see the cost advantages of using standard products in the future
- Ad-hoc workflows (end users uploading PDFs) were seen as very problematic and not easy to manage. W2P is considered much better suited to stock call off or template type production.
- Preflighting files as part of ad-hoc workflow is necessary, or printers will end up with unprintable files.
- To implement W2P requires someone within the business to be dedicated to the project for up to a year
- Linking to MIS systems is considered important.