A Look Back (and Forward) at Web-to-Print

By | July 15, 2011

I started writing about Web-to-print at the genesis of these solutions back in the 1990s. At the time, it seemed the clear path that, over time, they would become the norm. Increased automation, greater customer empowerment, every printer would have them. Indeed, during the dot-com boom, you couldn’t walk the halls of a trade show without tripping over someone who worked for yet another new Web-to-print solutions provider.

But over time, something interesting happened.  First the percentage of printers offering Web-to-print exploded. Then it peaked.  Then it slowly waned over time. Now it’s down to less than one in five.

This morning, I was looking through old versions of my report “Web-to-Print: Transforming Document Management and Marketing Models.” Back in 2008, Digital Printing Council’s “Management Metrics for Printers” reported that 32% of printers now offer Web-to-print. Of these, 13% offered some kind of general storefront, while 80% offer a customer-branded portal.

In my Q2 2011 update, the numbers look quite different. I use Printing Industries of America “Print Market Report” Q4 2010 numbers in which 15.6% of PIA members offer some kind of “e-commerce style storefront,” while 11.0% offer a customer-branded portal.  That’s less than half the percent of printers offering Web-to-print of some kind three years earlier. This is also down from 13% offering storefronts and 80% offering customer-branded portals in 2008.

Is Web-to-print itself waning? Not at all. But when it comes to pure production efficiency, much of the volume has already moved to the buy side. On the supply side, the activity now relates to Web storefronts and marketing automation. It’s no longer just about automating production or even document management and marketing. It’s become about integration with marketing channels, data, and  everything that goes with online marketing, especially SEO and mobile.

Printers who — to use the words of a friend of mine — “can’t hang with it” may as well hang up the  idea of Web commerce entirely.

Next week, I’m going to talk about something very interesting happening in the world of Web commerce (imagine being able to buy an online printing storefront that comes with top search engine ranking and even an active customer base!). In the meantime, I’ll entertain this lingering thought that, when it comes to the future of our industry, here we are . . . again.

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