Executive Workshop

Web-To-Print labels: reality or fallacy?

By Steve Smith, former President and Co-Owner of Lightning Labels | November 18, 2011

In recent years, there has been substantial buzz among label converters around the concept of using the internet as a sales tool. This probably should not have surprised anyone. After all, the internet has pervaded our lives in every imaginable way, so to ignore it would be folly, yes?

Well, yes and no. Certainly the internet (or more specifically the Web, which is the medium via which we all interact on the internet), is an obvious platform for conducting business of all kinds, but it’s important to differentiate between the different facets of what constitutes “business.” In the simplest sense, Amazon.com and its ilk use the Web as a selling platform from start to finish – what online marketers refer to as B2C (Business to Consumer). Essentially, B2C companies display their products online (and often nowhere else), and then use online marketing techniques to attract customers. This subset of Web-sellers typically also provides a total buying experience from browsing products right through to payment via credit card and customer control over shipping options.

To make an analogy more specific to the printing industry and well known to most converters, take Vistaprint.com as an example. It has been extremely successful in automating virtually every facet of its operation, including the customer ordering process. Its model puts the customer in complete control of everything about their order, from designing a business card online right through to payment and shipping instructions. In effect, there is usually no interaction between the company and the customer (at least at a human level). It’s easy to understand why the Vistaprint model has been so successful: The company is dealing in very simple products (business cards, letterhead, etc.) that have very few variations other than content and to some degree presentation. Those variations are relatively simple to present to the customer in a navigable online form with negligible risk of anything going terribly wrong. Indeed, even if the whole order was somehow produced wrongly due to a customer error, the ticket value is typically so low that it is a simple thing to reprint without significant cost.

But how do you imagine this approach would work if a label converter were to put the customer in complete control and assume that they could specify everything about their order completely and accurately? Sure, with a regular customer it’s possible that they could be trained to place re-orders from an existing database of items, but would it work reliably for any new items? I suggest not – at least not without the potential for significant heartache at both ends of the relationship. And if the order were to be produced wrongly (for whatever reason, even customer error), I imagine most converters would at least make some form of price accommodation when correcting the problem and reprinting the job. In other words, the largest part of the risk lies with the converter – the customer does not have nearly the same degree of skin in the game, but could still become extremely unhappy if reruns become a normal part of life, regardless of who’s at fault.

This is where the whole concept of “Web-To-Print” becomes confused, mostly due to lack of a single clear definition. It has been my experience at industry events to regularly hear my former company (Lightning Labels) held up as a shining example of Web-To-Print, when in fact it was very far from achieving anything remotely like the Vistaprint model (and to my knowledge still is). So, Lightning Labels started this whole Web-enabled thing way back in 2003 and led the pack in its adoption, right? Well, once again the answer is yes and no.

Yes, we built the very first online label-quoting program – which certainly caused more than a few hearts to flutter in the converting world (and probably still does). And yes, we made it anonymous (i.e., we didn’t require prospects to identify themselves in any way when getting an online quote), and this caused even more cardiac fibrillation in the industry. Further, we even allowed a prospect to “place an order online” if they were comfortable with the price quoted. But (and this is the critical part), we NEVER asked for credit card details online and we NEVER started a production job without verifying everything with the customer first – one-on-one via human contact. Clearly this is very different than the Vistaprint model, but why did we opt to take this approach?

Simply put, we did not (and I still do not) accept that custom label printing is a simple process that any idiot could do blindfolded. I’m not just referring to the production process here, but the actual process of ordering. A custom label order is a very complicated entity. It typically consists of receiving multiple pieces of artwork (few of which meet the required standards and need to go through significant prepress and proofing processes), and requires definition of the myriad parameters that a converter needs to know in order to actually start a job (substrate, die size, color strategy, varnish/lamination options, finishing, roll sizes, and so forth). To expect the average customer to know all these with confidence and get all the details right without human interaction is simply begging for disaster. I accept that there may be some exceptions to this – very simple template-driven designs for very small quantities for example – but that market is not where most professional converters are engaged.

Having said that, I do believe there is a place for some degree of B2B (Business to Business) Web-enablement between label converters and their customers, and that is largely in the area of re-ordering existing items. It would not be impossible to have a well structured database and user interface that allows customers secure access to their own label items, and provide a way for them to specify re-order quantities etc. However, the program would also need to be sophisticated enough to prevent customers mixing unlike items or processes that would adversely affect the production cycle (e.g., different sizes, substrates or finishing needs) or the whole pricing model would be hopelessly invalidated, not to mention the obvious impracticality in a production sense. In short, anything is possible with enough programming, but this project would not be for the faint-hearted.

So, is Web-To-Print a reality or a fallacy? As with all good questions, there are often multiple correct answers. In the case of label converters, I suggest that some degree of Web-enablement is certainly possible and practical; we proved that at Lightning Labels many years ago and nothing has changed to invalidate the approach. However, I respectfully submit that there are many converters seeking the Holy Grail without knowing what it even looks like. The underlying problem, I believe, is in the definition of what Web-To-Print actually means. In my experience there are an infinite range of definitions, and every converter I meet (as well as every vendor) has a different one.

Hence, if you’re considering the Web as a marketing and selling tool (and if you haven’t, you certainly should), then you need to be realistic about what degree of Web-enablement makes sense for your business. I am strongly of the opinion that any converter busting his/her boiler to introduce a true Web-To-Print model (i.e., with minimal or no human interaction) is simply setting themselves up for a massive fall. As with every new technology, it is definitely appropriate to keep an open mind and explore all opportunities to exploit it, but I have always believed that hands-on interaction with customers is the best recipe for arriving at a mutually agreeable conclusion. The Web can certainly enhance that experience, but I do not believe it can replace it – at least not for label converters. Beware the hype and focus on what makes practical sense for your business and your customers.

Steve Smith was president and co-owner of Lightning Labels until its acquisition in 2008 by Cenveo. Lightning Labels is a Denver-based label converter and was the first all-digital and internet-focused shop in the industry. Prior to his involvement in the label industry, Smith had an extensive career in information technology, including the establishment of several Web-based businesses, and was one of the early proponents of online marketing.