Virtually everyone with access to a computer has bought something on the Internet, from travel to clothes to books. According to Industry Canada, Canadian individuals and businesses bought more than $62 billion worth of goods and services online in 2007, the last year for which statistics are available. Nearly half of Canadian businesses – and two-thirds of printing companies – made online purchases. U.S.-based researcher, eMarketer, estimates that about six percent of Canadian retail sales occur online.

Even in the printing industry, online purchases of photos and photo books are not only common, but the primary method.

The concept of selling (or buying) print over the Internet is not new either. Nearly 25 years ago, industry technologist and consultant, Henry Freedman filed a patent entitled “Automated Printing Control System,” (U.S. Patent No. 4,839,829), a pioneering invention allowing for sending printing job specifications and receiving price quotes over telecommunications networks. Fifteen years later, around the turn of the century, amidst the “dot com” boom, there was a big fuss as “e-commerce” companies flooded the printing industry with tools for Web-enabled print ordering and collaboration. While those systems frustrated and confused just about everyone, and many companies fizzled with the bust, Web-enablement of the print business should be, as John Parsons says, “a no-brainer by now, just as telephones and faxes have become.”

The importance of web-to-print is such that it was ranked number five among the Graph Expo Must See ’em Technology Dozen. Complete web-to-print capability is slowly but surely reducing the amount of human intervention required to produce a printing job. It was ranked as the fifth most important survival technology. It is more than just an up-to-date communication tool – it is the automation of print from customer inquiry to the pressroom. The completeness and way in which web-to-print is implemented is becoming a competitive tool in many print markets.

As Jennifer Matt writes in her blog, thewebandprint.com, “Your customers are asking for online options, they […]want to transact with you in a more convenient way (saves them time). FTP and e-mail were better than phone calls and mailing disks, but they are now considered manual/high touch interactions.”


So why are so few printers implementing selling over the Internet?

Some of it, no doubt, is the legacy of those dot com days, which often left a bad taste among printing companies. The Industry Canada survey of Canadian business’ use of the Internet provides additional insights (see table above). Two of the biggest reasons are a preference for maintaining the current business model – though this might have changed since the last survey – and the cost of implementation. There is also a belief that print does not lend itself to Internet transactions, despite the success of photo books and Internet-only companies such as Vistaprint and Mimeo.com.

Defining web-to-print

The term web-to-print itself also causes some confusion. It replaced “e-commerce,” but it does not have to include payment. We’re told that it is best or only for consumer-oriented business, or for large enterprises with private-branded websites, and that it’s good for simple print production, like business cards. We’re also told that web-to-print has to have a variable component, and thus requires digital presses, but that you can use it with offset too. And with more than 100 vendors offering web-to-print solutions, each different, is it any wonder that people are confused?

These are some of the better definitions of the term, all of which are accurate in their own way and describe the many different aspects of web-to-print.

“A commercial prepress process that bridges the gap between digital content online and commercial print production. This process allows a client to create, edit and approve online templates during the prepress phase as well as upload their own unique content as part of an automated print production process.”

Steve McWilliam, Avanti Systems

“A set of software tools specialized for print-enabling e-commerce.”

Jennifer Matt, Web2Print Experts and WhatTheyThink.com

“The term web-to-print is an inaccurate terminology. Web Portal reflects a better description of what many interactive sites are doing. Yes, a storefront for ordering print is one aspect, but other items often included […] the ability to access digital assets, data lists, promotional items, sending files and much more. Web portals have to be gateways for commerce, not just to take a print order.”

Steve Schnoll, Schnoll Media Consulting

“Web-to-print is an online process that enables two or more parties to facilitate a print-related transaction such as ordering, designing, submitting, proofing, tracking, transferring, or quoting.”

Slava Apel, Amazing Print

“Whatever name is used, a web-to-print solution is typically a suite of technologies, services and production capabilities that automate the processes of ordering, producing and fulfilling orders of marketing collateral documents and other marketing materials. The centerpiece of a web-to-print solution is an online catalog containing marketing documents and other marketing materials. Web-to-print solutions also enable users to customize marketing materials easily and in fairly extensive ways.”

David Dodd, Point Balance

“Web-to-print can be defined as a browser-based software application that facilitates commerce, collaboration and/or customer service interaction between those who buy print products and those who sell them.”

InfoTrends, The Ultimate Guide to Web-to-Print



Even though Canadian printers may be somewhat hesitant to adopt full web-to-print solutions, it is important to note that few printers in the Industry Canada survey mentioned “uncertainty about benefits” as an important barrier to adoption.

There are a number of significant benefits associated with web-to-print, however defined. An EDSF study, The Print e-Procurement Marketplace: 2007 Print Buyer Survey Results “found conclusively that e-procurement solutions offer tremendous benefits over traditional paper and email procurement processes.” Steve McWilliam, vice-president of Avanti Systems says it provides anytime/anywhere customer access to your print shop, reducing call volume to CSRs, faster client approvals through soft proofing and improves turnaround time. Barbara Willans, worldwide director of marketing, unified workflow, at Eastman Kodak, concurs, saying it takes cost out, maximizes productivity and profits.

It’s not just about costs, of course. XMPie Product Marketing Manager, John Arnsdorf says, “Web-to-print brings your business to the Internet, opening the door to added revenue and growth. It reduces ordering time, improving the customer experience and increases satisfaction and retention. Every printer should consider it as it takes significant time, effort and cost out of the ordering process, which leads to an increase in print volume.”

Web-to-print components

As these definitions imply, web-to-print offerings include a variety of categories of functions:

E-commerce or print procurement

Commonly known as storefronts or portals, most web-to-print systems include some type of component for ordering print. These could include ad hoc uploading of files, with or without preflighting, ordering from pre-defined templates, or a simple Q&A that helps define the print job. It does not have to include the ability to pay for the transaction.

Marketing and brand management

These systems are typically configured for a single client. The templates and variations are limited to the requirements of the client and designed with their marketing department to ensure consistency. They usually offer centralized billing and reporting so that clients know who is using the system, how much is being spent and on what.

Document and asset management

This is closely related to brand management. Customers can order reprints and manage inventory and fulfillment. It is important that this function ties into the MIS/ERP system.

Workflow automation

The name web-to-print implies a tight connection between the storefront and the production process. Few printers have achieved this (with some notable exceptions), and few systems enable it. “Lights out” automation may neither be appropriate for nor desired by every printer, but for others it is a goal to strive for. Not every web-to-print offering can be tightly linked to production and certainly not to every workflow system.

Things to Consider

web-to-print-press-readyWhen choosing a web-to-print solution, you should ask yourself a number of questions. Perhaps most important, who is your target audience? Will it be large businesses, small and medium ones, or consumers? B2B and B2C require different features and functionality. If it’s B2B, will it be a private portal, with a unique configuration for each? Will you provide a catalogue of template offerings, allowing customers to pick and choose, filling in key fields only? Will the customer provide the content in an ad hoc fashion, not knowing the content until the job is submitted? Will you provide job quotes and take payment online?

Equally important, you will need to decide a host of questions about integrating the web-to-print system with your production workflow, including design, preflighting, imposition and such. How do you plan to integrate the web-to-print system with your production and MIS systems? Do you want them to “talk” to each other? How automated would you like the process to be? How much human intervention and control do you want, in estimating, quoting, scheduling, production and billing? Which of your production equipment will be used for these jobs? Will you incorporate variable information printing capabilities?

Remember, not all of your jobs have to be supported through your online site, and you do not have to price and quote immediately, nor even accept payment.

You will also need to decide whether to license the product and host it yourself, or to subscribe to it as a Web-based service; their “software as a solution” (SaaS). Some suppliers only offer it one way; others give you a choice.


The “poster child” for web-to-print is, of course, Vistaprint. The company was founded as and continues to be strictly an e-commerce operation. Focused primarily on small businesses and consumers, it has grown organically to $670 million USD in sales for the 2010 fiscal year, a 30 percent increase over 2009. Since its founding, Vistaprint has built its business around the Web.

Vistaprint’s ordering and production system is home-grown and provides a key competitive advantage. The firm holds more than 40 patents. Its proprietary technologies fully automate the way orders are created, proofed and submitted. They are then sent seamlessly to one of three plants – Windsor, Ontario, Netherlands and Australia – and routed to the appropriate offset or digital production equipment. “Because we incur lower costs, we pass the savings onto our customers so they can get high-quality printing, even in small quantities, for low prices,” says Nick Gosselin, public relations coordinator. Without web-to-print, there would be no Vistaprint.


Calgary-based Blitzprint has two divisions, commercial and a consumer-oriented book printing and publishing division. Owner Kevin Lanuke says the company has been using Printable’s Marcom Central for about five years. Blitzprint currently only offers web-to-print to selected commercial business customers, offering a catalogue customized to the needs of each individual client. Blitzprint’s online customers range from one client with 22 divisions and more than 6,000 employees (more than half of whom have signed onto their system) to smaller firms with only 20 employees.

“Web-to-print is for everybody,” says Lanuke. However, he adds that it’s important to decide whether the client is a good fit for web-to-print. “You need to pick and choose carefully,” he continues. “We always do a thorough needs assessment. If the client is not a good fit for web-to-print, don’t bother.” Lanuke believes web-to-print doesn’t have to be limited to simple templatable jobs and is also appropriate for custom work. It is more a question of how important the offering is to the client and their employees, according to Lanuke.

Lanuke is pleased with his system. “The real return on investment comes with the acquisition of larger clients that Blitzprint would not otherwise be able to service well. Doing the work for 22 divisions of one company across Canada that serves both the client and the printer well is possible with a well-invested system.” Lanuke says that printers should not underestimate the costs associated with implementing web-to-print. Even though Printable hosts the software, “the process requires investments in people, time and money to implement and maintain it well.”

Unlike many printers, Blitzprint charges to get a customer up and running with a web-to-print, both an initial start-up and on-going annual management fee. It is not just the cost of the system, but the value and cost savings offered to the customer. Lanuke believes “the industry has an opportunity to acquire new revenue streams providing new technologies such as web-to-print that offer high value.”

Although one would think that self-publishing books would be a natural for web-to-print, “there’s no web-to-print component in the book division,” says Lanuke. Currently, Blitzprint does not have e-commerce capability, in which a customer will be able to pay for the transaction online, nor is the catalogue tightly integrated with the company’s MIS and accounting system. Lanuke expects that the recently announced partnership between Printable and Avanti will, however, make it easier for that to occur. “The transition from corporate customers to a B2C and B2B model would be easy to do, but needs that e-commerce connection and seamless integration.”

Track21 Graphix

Track21 Graphix is an 18-year old printer with 10 people, based in Mt. Carmel Ontario, northwest of London. They do a variety of printing ranging from general commercial, such as brochures, business cards and flyers, to displays, posters and banners. While most of the company’s customers are local businesses, web-to-print has allowed Track21 Graphix to expand beyond its immediate geography. Owner Mark Darling says that while many “people are still hesitant to order online, this year we’re getting more online than in the past. People seem to be more comfortable.”

Track21 started with an online storefront, but “found we couldn’t compete with Vistaprint.” Like Blitzprint, the company now focuses on corporate accounts. “It took a long time to get people on board. Once they are up and running, they either love it or don’t want to do it at all.” Darling says that once his customers are online, “it’s easy for new people to order.” They spend time setting up the customer site and making sure the terminology is consistent. That means, “we have next to no mistakes,” he says.

While Darling believes the process is best for repeatable work – real estate and auto dealerships are good examples – it does not matter whether the job is produced digitally or offset. “We don’t need proofs anymore. We keep track of jobs on our server. Everything is linked through hot folders. The order is placed automatically. If it’s a re-order with no changes, it can go directly to digital or press,” Darling says, according to established rules for whether the job should be digital or offset.

Darling also says that one of the disadvantages of having a web-to-print system is they don’t have as much personal contact. “We do our own deliveries as a way to keep in touch.”

Dots & Pixels

Dots & Pixels has always been on the leading edge. The company, based in Mississauga, was founded in 1993 as a digital colour print provider – one of the first in Canada – and just five years later the company had its first web-to-print customer. Co-founder John Rogers, now retired, says, “As time progressed, we developed a number of good accounts with web-enabled applications.” In the early stages, the company had no method of payment but became e-commerce enabled in 2000.

After their acquisition by NEBS (later acquired by Deluxe Corporation), which had more than 5,000 products and millions of customers in North America, Dots & Pixels ramped up to produce more than a 1,000 orders a day in Canada. “We built our system from the ground up. It is pretty much a lights-out operation. The key to the business is not the front-end, but the back end. You need to streamline the process.” The company’s system does everything from imposition to mailing and sorting. “Web-to-print is more than taking an order on the Web. It’s a way to manage and control a customer,” says Rogers. “It provides an opportunity to look at your customers differently. By means of streamlining the order management process [and] utilizing digital assets to give the greatest return on output,” he explains. “Once you have a customer, you don’t lose them, and you can grow the business by building and adding applications. There’s value in Web-enabled applications. It can be as complicated [and] detailed, or simple as you want.”

“The great thing about e-enablement,” continues Rogers, “is the cost management implications.” By streamlining the process, the customer can eliminate administration management, people and time. “You’re not dealing with lower level purchasing people, but you can get to the CFO. Web-to-print is not just placing orders but also providing information management tools.”