What Makes Print Ecommerce Weird?

What Makes Print Ecommerce Weird?


Selling print online requires knowledge of how to both accept artwork and deliver print assets to the manufacturing facility. Generic ecommerce firms don’t understand this which can cause printers to spend their time and money educating resources about what makes print ecommerce unique.

There are a lot of companies out there that will take your money and promise you a great website for conducting ecommerce. They will see you (the printer) like any other business that comes to them looking to sell widgets online. There is one challenge with this scenario.

Print is weird.

This is what I say to the generic ecommerce developers, creative agencies, and consulting companies that don’t normally deal in print.

The online print buying process involves the customer providing a key component required for the custom manufactured product during the purchasing process.

This is not a weird statement to any of us because we have been in this space forever and we understand that’s how this business works.

It is not a normal statement to those outside the print space.

I have seen so many printers get told by generic ecommerce firms that there is no problem supporting this kind of workflow. What happens once they get into the weeds? The printer spends a bunch of time “teaching” the firm things like the difference between a low-resolution preview and a print-ready PDF, the desire for some preflight (which they don’t even know what that word means), and the idea that a customer might want to design a product themselves in the browser. The other wasted effort is when a firm tries to convince the printer to custom build a solution for print design in the browser when there are many good plugins out there that have already solved this complex problem.

Print is weird. Print ecommerce is weird.

There are great web-to-print solutions out there and whenever possible, I recommend printers use an off-the-shelf solution where they get to utilize the software and not have to bring software development inside their print business. There are two common conditions where I see a non-standard approach might be necessary:

  1. Large scale, differentiation
    1. When you are a larger company with internal technical resources and you want the control to differentiate online. In this case I always recommend the assembling of puzzle pieces – do not start from scratch. There are great best-in-class pieces that can be assembled to strategically solve a defined business challenge. I like to say, you need to control content, commerce, and engagement online. Buy the expected functionality (a cart, a content management system, a catalog), code for the stuff that makes you different (100% control the user experience, your unique workflows, special plugins, etc.).
  2. Niche business to consumer
    1. If you have a niche business to consumer market, you need to really engage in order to build an online community, drive search engine traffic, and constantly experiment. In this case your content management platform is AS IMPORTANT as your ecommerce platform. There are great options out there both open source and commercial platforms to build upon. Then you strategically integrate with the right plug-ins to make the commerce into print-commerce. Typical plugins include a “design in the browser tool” which allows your customers to do light design in the browser to create unique printed products in a self-service setting.

The best thing you can do to improve your success with print ecommerce is to spend more time upfront answering the following questions:

  1. Who is your target market? (the more specific the better)
  2. How are you going to attract them? (this is critical in B2C, web traffic is either earned through content marketing/SEO efforts or paid for via AdWords – which can get really expensive)
  3. What products are you going to sell to them?
  4. For your product mix, what technologies do you need (e.g. design in the browser, rules-based VDP, etc.)
  5. Is there a geographically target to your market (local, regional, national, internationally)

When printers have thought through all these questions, they are more prepared to make technology decisions. Unfortunately, many printers start the process by shopping for web-to-print technologies first, no wonder there are so many web-to-print software investments that fail to deliver a solid return on investment. 

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