Print technology of all kinds; presses, production software, Print MIS software, and web-to-print technologies have one thing in common – they are constantly changing. This one factor probably causes the most pain in the purchasing process. As a buyer you want to feel confident with your purchasing decision, yet the very thing you’re investing in is in a constant state of change.
Some change is dramatic; like when the technology company whose product you’ve invested in gets acquired by another company – this happens immediately, typically without warning, and could potentially have an immediate and direct impact on you and your business. Other change is more incremental; like when a technology company struggles over a long period of time which impacts their ability to address your issues and continue to invest in the evolution of their product.
How do you go about choosing a web-to-print technology partner in this ever changing environment? The purchasing decision has to extend beyond what the software does in its current form. You aren’t investing in a specific version of the software, you are investing in the company, culture, and team that has built the software, supports the software, and has a vision for where the software is going. When you understand that you are picking a long-term partner vs. a specific version of the product you can let go of the focus on specific features in a specific version of the software.
Obviously this is easier said than done, how do you assess a web-to-print partner in this manner?
Much like we assess candidates for hire by looking at their past experience, software can also be assessed in this manner. Web products need to be in a constant state of evolution simply to remain functional and of course to continue to be competitive in the marketplace. One of the key things to evaluate in a web-to-print software product is what we call the “product roadmap” both looking backwards and forwards. As we all know software is released in versions that are typically numbered or named. An interesting thing to review is how the software company handles software releases.
- Review the release notes of the last few software versions.
- Ask the vendor how they handle the software release process.
- Ask the vendor how often they release new versions of the software.
- Do you have a choice when you get the release? Or does everyone get it at once?
- What kind of communication and/or training is done with each release?
For assessing the vision of the product, software companies keep an ongoing list of features and functionality that they are constantly prioritizing for future releases. The individual in a software company that typically owns this roadmap is called the product manager or product owner. This person is charged with making the often tough decisions on what gets included in the software releases. The product manager is as important in software as a quarterback is to an American football team.
There are larger scale trends that affect any web based product which are important to understand how your potential partner is addressing with their product development. Two of the most critical trends in the online ecosystem are the growing importance of mobile (phones and tablets) and the integration of everything. Before you choose a web-to-print partner you should understand their current support for mobile and integration as well as their vision for the future. Neither of these topics can be answered in a yes/no fashion or with a checkbox – incremental improvements to both integration readiness and mobile compatibility will probably be part of every single software release moving forward. Get comfortable with their knowledge, approach, and vision on these two key areas by asking questions like these:
- What is your vision to support the growing mobile internet trends with your product?
- What is your vision for integration?
- Do you have or plan to have a documented API (application programming interface: specifies how some software components should interact with each other) for integrations?
- What portions of your product are API addressable (meaning where have integrations been defined and can be easily accessed?)
- What products have you integrated with and what products do you intend to build integrations with in the future?
As a printer you are in the communication business, technology will be a part of virtually every business decision you make moving forward. The rate of change of technology is only increasing, this requires you to assess your technology partners on both their history (how their product has evolved) and their vision (what they see as important to helping you maintain competitive advantage moving forward).
Simply take a wider view of the decision, obviously assess the current version of the software and make sure it fits your needs but extend that view to set yourself up for establishing a long-term partnership that will be mutually beneficial to both you and your partner. They need your business and your feedback about the use of their product; you need their technology and their technology expertise.