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Commentary & Analysis

A Printer’s Online Infrastructure Investment

Doing business online requires an infrastructure investment. Your business needs to be able to control content, commerce, and customer engagement online from your home base online – your domain.

By Jennifer Matt
Published: June 4, 2013

For many decades, if you wanted to discuss the infrastructure investment required to start a printing business, you would have discussed buildings, presses, electricity, labor, and management. For the most part, asset heavy, capital investments that required financing and long term return on investment scenarios. Today is different; we have two very different infrastructure investments virtually all businesses need to make; one in the online world and one in the offline world. Most printers have made little or no investment in their online infrastructure, in fact our industry isn’t thinking about the online world as an infrastructure investment at all. It’s time to start.

The “traditional” print industry is dabbling in the online world, while new “pure online printers” enter the established and mature print market and devour market share by focusing their primary infrastructure investments in the online world. In fact many online businesses are sprouting up that never intend to manufacture the print themselves – just drive the traffic, create the demand for pages and strategically source the printing. They are creating asset light, capital light companies which can have much shorter return on investment scenarios.

In case you’re not paying attention, the world is moving online, 2.4 billion people are online today, and this number grows by 8% every year, adding another 198 million people online each year. Commerce is moving online and is expected to reach $1.3 trillion in 2013. Customer engagement is moving online. Marketing is moving online. Yet, less than 50% of U.S. printers have adopted web-to-print and in other regions of the world, the adoption rate is even lower.

What do I mean by a printer’s online infrastructure?

In order to effectively do business online you need to control three key things: your content, your commerce, and your customer engagement. Content is everything you say, do, produce, and spread about your company. Commerce is what you sell online. Customer engagement is the bi-directional communication you enable to happen online – customers expect to be able to talk back now via multiple channels. Today most printers aren’t thinking about their online business in a holistic way. You may assign someone to “do” your website, you may assign another to research web-to-print, and you may assign yet another to engage in social media. The result is frequently three very different approaches to building your online business and brand which can in some cases work against each other.

The primary characteristic of the online world is connectivity. Everything can be connected and your online strategy should be optimized to connect all parts of your online business strategy. I like to use the analogy of real estate holdings for your online business strategy. Your goal in both your online business strategy and the associated infrastructure investment is to build/grow your online real estate holdings. What I love about the online world is that unlike the physical world of real estate holdings you can compete with more than just cash.

If you have more money than brains, you should focus on outbound marketing. If you have more brains than money, you should focus on inbound marketing.

  Guy Kawasaki
  Former Chief Evangelist, Apple
  Co-founder, Alltop.com


Inbound marketing is defined as promoting or advertising a company through the creation of valuable content that attracts new customers rather than outbound marketing which interrupts many in the hope of finding a few.

The source of your online real estate is your domain; it’s your home on the web. You can build a larger and larger home (online real estate) by creating content (e.g. blog posts) that build out the pages that get indexed by search engines and make your home more findable on the web. Your online strategy needs to be aligned with the holistic goal of building up your online real estate and maximizing all efforts to promote your brand, your commerce, and your customer engagement.

Your online infrastructure investment is the platform in which you execute your online strategy on. It may not be a single piece of technology but the pieces should work well together if there are multiple technologies involved. Be careful, lots of technology companies use the term platform, just like they use the term integrated, scalable, and robust and all the other meaningless marketing blather. Most technologies are products, not platforms.

Here’s a good example of a platform decision vs. an isolated project decision. You need a new website, you hire an HTML programmer who builds you custom pages and launches quick and easy, very low cost, and you’re done. That is now an isolated point solution to your online strategy. The alternative is you choose a platform for controlling content like WordPress (free) and you build your website on that platform because WordPress is a platform that has built-in connections to other technologies, plug-ins, and most importantly allows you to control your online content. In the HTML programmer scenario – you don’t have control of the content, only people who can write code in HTML do. WordPress is an excellent content management system and blogging tool, especially for the price. Remember blogging is the easiest way to grow your online real estate holdings; every blog post is another page for the search engines to index against your domain.

I use the term infrastructure because I want printers to realize going online is a long-term and strategic decision. This is a serious move for your business, don’t take it lightly. Your online strategy always comes first, once all they key functional areas (especially sales) of your business are in alignment around your online strategy, then and only then start looking for the online technology infrastructure pieces to execute on that strategy. Your goal is to control content, commerce, and customer engagement online. In some cases you’ll engage with customers using free tools like Twitter but you’ll always be driving them back to your real estate holdings on the web (your domain). In other cases you’ll be using a third party commerce / web-to-print software like the technologies featured in the W2P Finder, deploy it as part of your domain so it too builds on your real estate holdings.

In today’s information age of Marketing and Web 2.0, a company’s website is the key to their entire business.
  Marcus Sheridan
  Author, The Sales Lion Blog

An online infrastructure investment should be made against a documented and agreed upon online strategy. Ask yourself, how are you controlling content, commerce, and customer engagement online today? Do you have a strategy that ties them all together? Are you building out your online real estate holdings? This is your homework before you start shopping for technology. 

Jennifer Matt is the managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Print Software section as well as President of Web2Print Experts, Inc. a technology-independent print software consulting firm helping printers with web-to-print and print MIS solutions. You can reach her at jen@whattheythink.com.



By Roy Grossman on Jun 04, 2013

Excellent piece. Well done.


By Mike Porter on Jun 04, 2013

Thanks for pointing out the importance of changing the way companies look at the online world. Considering their online tools in the same way that physical equipment is regarded helps to increase the value of those assets in the minds of business owners. It is important to also realize that an investment in online infrastructure doesn't end when an asset is purchased or a channel is established. There is maintenance required.

Setting up a web site, e-newsletter, or a blog initially is just the first step. Continuing to populate those channels with interesting and informative content on a consistent schedule is where a lot of small and medium size businesses (within the print industry and without) struggle. They don't have dedicated resources for these efforts and eventually their online publishing efforts falter.

Surveys of content marketing folks reveal their biggest challenges are creating engaging content and developing enough of it. These are people who are pretty focused on the strategy. The effect is magnified in a small business where the responsibility for developing new content for online consumption falls on the shoulders of someone who already has a full time job handling other parts of the business. Even if the content exists, it takes a commitment to pull all the right levers to get the material published in the chosen channels at the right times.

As a writer of content for companies in the document industry I've experienced several instances where we created content for clients that they never published. We eventually created a turnkey system so that we could handle all the details and make sure that companies with these kinds of issues got their messages distributed according to plan. But many organizations continue to struggle with barriers such as choosing appropriate topics, segmenting the audience, writing copy, managing contact databases, tracking, and following up.


By Jennifer Matt on Jun 04, 2013

Mike. I agree with your comments.

I think this is another underlying shift that is happening with the transition to the online world. We used to think, grow our business = hire more sales people. I believe marketing; crafting and distributing your company's story online is the new investment path to growing your business. We used to tell our story one interaction at a time through the voice of the sale rep, in the online world we have much more efficient and scalable distribution system.

BUT - in order to tap into this system it takes a different skill set. Writing, creativity, and the leverage and mastery of the new digital channels is required in this new online world. People can learn. People can adapt. People can change.

Its a new perspective and just like hiring a new sales rep - they don't deliver new revenues on day one - they take time to get in the groove.



By Carl Gerhardt on Jun 05, 2013

Great points by both of you. That different skill set is very lacking in most print companies and even most print companies that now call themselves marketing services providers. Many can come up with good strategy and creative but when it comes to copy writing they lack the skills. Moreover, this skill is lacking throughout the industry and it is difficult to hire staff even if you can afford a full time copy writer.

One of the best marketing tactics especially for small, local printers and small business in general has always been community involvement, with or without outside sales reps. Usually the owner played this role. While direct community involvement is still important one must realize that there is now an "on line" community. As you point out, to not get involved in that community leaves your firm out of a growing market opportunity. Without writing skills this becomes very difficult. Can the owner learn these skills or simply get over the fears of putting their words in print? If not they need to hire it done by someone that understands their business. It provides a great opportunity for printers and marketing services providers to do this "automatic" for other small businesses as Mike noted.....if they develop the skills or find a source to outsource the work. Not an easy task. We provide it to our Allegra Marketing/Print franchise members through our Marketing Resource Center but not all have access to those resources.


By Patrick Whelan on Jun 06, 2013

I've spent the last 20 years providing top tier content to printers, mailers and MSPs. My personal experience is that printers don't lack the content as much as they lack the commitment to utilize / distribute the content on a consistent basis. To often, they treat their own online and print marketing efforts as "I'll do it when I have free time" task. It's all about commitment to execution.


By Robert Miller on Jun 07, 2013

Excellent article Jennifer. I have been involved in the industry for more than 25 years and seen many changes and challenges.

To remain competitive printers need to transition from the mind-set of just manufacturing words and images to actually creating the words and images as well. But creating content (either for in-house or client use)will be fruitless if one is not visible online. The challenge is that online visibility is rapidly changing.

A mobile web strategy is now critical for the future delivery of inbound content. Personal computers are no longer the preferred method of online communication. Smartphone adoption rates are through the roof and mobile is quickly becoming the desired channel of consumers both B2B and B2C. However mobile users desire a streamlined experience and content optimized for PC's does not often render well(if at all)on mobile devices.

So how does one optimize content for mobile?
Well one way is to become the creator of words and images and deliver the message through video.

When my business clients think of video they first imagine sophisticated productions worthy of an Oscar or at least a 30 second spot on the Super Bowl. However I show them that some of the best converting video messages can be as simple as black type on a white background with a supporting personal voice-over and musical bed.

Video production can be an ideal resource for the delivery of mobile optimized inbound content. As well, Video Marketing can become an excellent way for printers and sign manufacturers to differentiate their business models and introduce new exciting services to an already existing account base.


By Vladimir Gendelman on Jun 11, 2013

Great article, Jennifer.
Changing the way printers are viewing online presence is very important especially now that younger generation is completely technology dependent and they will search your site up and down for info instead of calling you.

I also think it is important to note that nowadays people are looking for experience with the company, not only the product or service. Think of Apple for instance. It is the whole experience that you enjoy and that in turn makes you feel like you want to buy something from them. Printers should strive to do the same.

On our site we offer products, but besides that we also have a blog with a lot of interesting posts related to what we do, info-graphics and give aways in a form of downloads. Our clients love that and it becomes part of the experience of dealing with us.
Recently we launched a Folder Design Gallery that you have covered here http://whattheythink.com/news/63957-company-folders-inc-announces-launch-first-kind-folder-design-gallery/ . This Gallery let's people browse hundreds of designs and get ideas on what they can do with their presentation folders. Browsing Gallery adds to the experience that goes hand in hand with our blog and products that we offer.

Mike, you are absolutely right about the importance of keeping the blog going. It is important to plan out your content over the next month or two and keep all that content relative to each other so that readers could get the most benefit from you.

I would also like to stress the point on being honest and open. Do not be afraid to share some of your "secrets" and know-how, it will come back to you times and times over. After all, if you are not adding value then there will be no reason for people to read your material and share it with others.


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