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GETTING MORE FROM YOUR WEBSITE: Websites can be powerful tools for printers - if they are well constructed

Sep 1, 2000 12:00 AM


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If you don't have one, get one." That's the widely shared philosophy amongst industry pundits and Internet professionals regarding printers and websites. The secondary message: "Make sure it's good, or don't bother."

Despite early predictions that it would amount to nothing more than a fad for eggheads, the World Wide Web has become an integral business tool and a force for economic growth.

More than 19 million domain, or dot-com, names have been registered worldwide, and new Internet and e-commerce companies emerge daily. The printing industry itself has been infiltrated by e-vendors that offer printers and print buyers Internet-based workflow management solutions. (See "Who's who in e-commerce," June 2000, p. 60.)

Traditional "brick-and-mortar" printers, if they haven't already, should jump on the Internet bandwagon as well.

THE GREAT LEVELER

And some have. According to a 1999 survey by the National Assn. for Printing Leadership (NAPL), 97.6 percent of its Printing Business Panel, a representative group of nearly 50 printers, have online access, primarily to exchange files with clients and for e-mail. More than 75 percent of Printing Business Panel members have websites up and running.

Perhaps not surprisingly, more than 92 percent of large printers (those whose annual sales earnings top $5 million) have websites. But an online presence is not limited to the printing mammoths. Sixty-five percent of mid-sized printers on the panel ($1 million to $5 million in yearly revenues) maintain active sites, and 45 percent of printers earning less than $1 million annually have websites.

Observes Patrick Whelan, vice president of White & Associates (Boston), a producer of digital and traditional newsletters for print and prepress buyers, "The Internet, for the small printer, is the great leveler. It allows the small printer to give the impression that it is just as sophisticated as the larger one - it levels the playing field. Buying is influenced by perception, and websites create perceptions among print buyers."

"It's like the yellow pages - if you see an ad you like, you might call," says Ed Webb, president of French Bray (Baltimore), a $25 million commercial printer. "People go to a printer's website, sort of dance without touching and then decide whether to go further."

A "dance" at French Bray's extensive website, www.frenchbray.com, includes a company history and a detailed walk through each department and major piece of equipment. The printer originally launched the site to promote its computer-to-plate capabilities, believing that the marketing of a digitally driven business ties into a website.

BARE NECESSITIES

Every printer should have an online presence, regardless of size or earnings level, according to Tonya Starr, president of Premierprinter.com (Lincoln, NE), a company that develops websites for printers. She cites a market research study that indicates a 35 percent higher level of credibility for a company that has a website, compared to a company that doesn't. One note of caution, however: "Even if the site is just a single page, it has to be good," Starr says. "It must be simple, organized and easy to navigate, or it will hurt a company's credibility - not help it."

So what exactly makes a site good?

According to Jay Wilkinson, president of Internet agency Level 100 Communications (Lincoln, NE), printers should follow six guidelines to follow in developing and maintaining a website:

- Use common-sense tools on the site, such as pull-down menus on every page, a search engine and a site map.

- Implement an organized site structure that is designed with your target's interests in mind.

- Provide ample, yet relevant content.

- Employ a straight-forward design. People do not appreciate slow downloads caused by graphics or animation requiring large amounts of memory.

- Implement an appropriate page width: 800 x 600 pixels per square inch is the acceptable standard.

- Ensure quick page loading: No page should take longer than 10 seconds to load on a midsize modem.

Clint Funk, principal and lead trainer of Clint Funk & Associates (Chicago), a training and consulting agency serving the printing industry, insists that basic contact information should appear on every site. "A lot of printers' websites utterly lack contact information," observes Funk. "Physical addresses and e-mail addresses are nowhere to be found, much less the specific e-mail address of someone who is in the prepress department, for example."

Starr recommends posting a single e-mail address, such as info @abcprinting.com, that directs online queries to a single recipient, who then forwards messages to appropriate parties within the company. After a client or prospective buyer has made initial contact with the printer, specific e-mail addresses can be distributed.

WEBSITE FEATURES

Although many printers have these "basic" websites, few are using them for true e-commerce activity. Almost 90 percent of the Printing Business Panel members with websites use them primarily to post general information about the company, according to the NAPL survey. Information is often limited to a brief description of equipment and services offered by the printer; a street address, e-mail address, phone number or other means of contact; or a short company history.

Only seven percent use company websites to conduct e-commerce, although printers' sites are not entirely non-interactive. Fifty-five percent of the sites have quoting capabilities, which allow prospective or current customers to submit job specs and receive a cost range for that specific job. Clients can post questions at 40 percent of the sites, and actual orders can be placed at more than 33 percent of the sites.

Only seven percent of NAPL's panel offer job tracking for clients through their website, and fewer than five percent allow them to pay for their jobs online.

There may be a reason for these low numbers, according to White & Associate's Whelan. "I don't think that a lot of functionality that printers are building into their sites - such as job tracking - is necessarily going to be a big help to customers," he says. "The average print buyer doesn't want to deal with a job after they've dropped it off."

John Lehman, vice president of sales for Great Lakes Cos. (Cleveland), disagrees. The $20 million printer offers online job tracking, and according to Lehman, the added function has been well-received.

"Our customers don't have as much time as they used to, and people want things quicker. They do want to know precisely when they can expect things," the executive says. "I argue that it is a useful tool - one that we're going to see more companies embrace and offer."

ONLINE EXTRAS

Other providers, meanwhile, have managed to add other features to enhance their sites. Banta Corp., for example, (Menasha, WI) positions its site, www.banta.com, as a resource for anyone who is buying print or seeking supply chain management - rather than as a customer-centric site. Marketing coordinator Nancy Wiggins says that one of the most popular features is the company's "Technovation Handbook," a high-tech review of industry happenings. The handbook - and other supplemental features, such as the company's annual report and news releases - are posted on the site in PDF format. Site visitors can thus easily download and print the documents.

Banta's large size and annual earnings - $1.2 billion-plus last year - certainly enable the company to flex its innovative muscles when it comes to its website. But innovation doesn't have to be limited to the big dogs.

Brennan Printing (Kansas City, KS), which employees just seven people, allows established clients to order re-prints on its site, www.brennanprinting.com. "We are working with our largest customers to further develop that function," president Hugh O'Neil says. "We're customizing it for them. I want clients to tell me what kind of description of the re-print they want to appear on the site."

NAPL Management Plus Hall of Fame winner Intelligencer Printing (Lancaster, PA) also offers features that are customized for clients. Prepress forms, a sign-up form for the company newsletter, requests for estimates and file transfers are all available. Intelligencer also went the extra mile for out-of-town customers who come for press checks by posting a map and tourist information about the Lancaster area.

SELLING THE SITE

But no matter what information is there, a dot-com location is useful only if a company succeeds in driving its target audience to it. "Many printers think that having a website will bring them a new customer base - which is not necessarily true. The only way that will happen is if the printer sets aside funds to really market the site," notes Starr.

So how should printers spend funds for marketing?

Great Lakes Cos., the family of companies that earned $20 million in total sales last year, positions its website as one component of a total marketing communications plan, which includes direct mail on a monthly basis.

"The site plays off the monthly mailing," explains vice president of sales John Lehman. The mailing, typically a postcard, features a different message each month. A recent postcard asked, "Wish you could grab what you need?" A follow-up comment in the mailing gatefold exclaims, "Our digital power tools give you instant access!"

Recipients of the piece who logged on to the Great Lakes website (www.gll.com) found detailed information on how the company serves customers - and helps them "grab what they need."

NEC Inc. (Nashville, TN) also promotes its website, www.necinc.com, through direct mail. The digital prepress provider sends brochures and flyers primarily to potential customers. Some of the material can be customized according to the interest level of the prospective client, which is determined by NEC sales associates. Brandon Brown, NEC marketing research specialist, says that the company will soon launch an interactive CD to complement its suite of promotional materials.

Whelan believes that a direct-mail campaign is one of the most effective ways to create strong awareness of the site. "Direct mail reminds customers and prospects of the site, and it encourages them to visit it at their leisure. It is also a good way to regularly reinforce the shop's services, as opposed to only hearing that message when a salesperson shows up."

Funk has also seen the benefit of direct mail on print buyers. One of his clients, a $1.5 million shop, has broadened its geographical reach through postcard mailings to prospective clients throughout the country who can easily log on to the site and find out detailed information about its services.

"One thing this printer does well is provide a capabilities list, not an equipment list. There are many desktop publishers with no graphic experience, so informing these designers and buyers that a printer has a four-color Heidelberg means nothing. But posting samples of previous jobs or describing job parameters - such as a four-color brochure that is a particular size - communicates exactly what a company can do." The consultant says the resulting business has kept the printer busy in slower months.

French Bray executive Webb believes that at the very minimum, printers should promote their websites by including the site address on every piece of company material that the public sees - from business cards, to stationery, to fax cover sheets and marketing brochures.

Brennan Printing lists its website address on every appropriate company document - and also incorporates direct mailings into its marketing strategy. The printer offers online quoting for both established customers and prospective clients, and believes it has been successful in creating awareness of the feature - and the company itself - through the mailing pieces.

"Potential customers feel comfortable getting a quote from us, without having our sales staff attach themselves to them," comments O'Neil.

ALWAYS NEW INFO

Another way to drive clients to your website - or, more specifically, to return to it regularly - is with constantly updated information.

Starr of Premierprinter.com says that many negative remarks about printers' sites are based on the stagnant nature of the content. The consultant asserts that printers who regularly update textual offerings can become a valuable resource for buyers and designers - and subsequently, improve credibility for the company.

Starr advises printers to provide news items or educational information on the website - anything that is valuable and appropriate for the industry, as long as it is updated regularly.

Funk agrees that changing site content heightens buyers' perceptions as well as interest in the site. "If a site has content that is going to change or be added to on a regular basis, then I'll go more often," he states.

White & Associates' Whelan acknowledges the potential difficulty of consistently installing fresh information. "Keeping content up to date is the hardest challenge for a printer when it comes to the website," he insists. "They don't always have the resources to do that."

And that's where White & Associates comes in. The company sells custom-designed newsletters to printers, who in turn distribute them to clients. The documents are available in standard hard copy, or in a digital format for distribution via e-mail or for download from a printer's website.

"The big advantage of educating clients with such resources is that it positions the company well in its level of expertise. The mentality of clients is then, `You can teach it to me; therefore, you must really know it,'" says Whelan.

LABOR OF TIME - AND FUNDS

Of course, designing, maintaining and updating websites requires a significant investment of time - and often, funds. Some printers have staff who are experienced in website maintenance; others must seek outside talent.

Either way, a company should develop a website maintenance plan that includes budgeting for labor and financial expenditures, and whether to expect a return on investment (ROI).

Great Lakes uses outside vendors and graphic arts contacts to keep the website's design and content fresh. Costs incurred for the company's deluxe site are paid for out of an annual marketing communications budget, which falls in line with the site's central function as a promotional tool.

Banta takes care of its website work internally. "There is great emphasis on keeping it up to date," says Wiggins. "Whether it's posting news releases or adding updated newsletters to the site, changes are made several times a week. There is no point in going to a site that has the same information as six months ago."

Banta measures its sizable fiscal investment in the site carefully. The number of leads for new business is precisely tracked and data reports from servers indicate the number of hits the site receives. All of this information is compiled to measure the ROI.

The staff at Brennan Printing, on the other hand, believes that it will see financial return from its website in future years. "The only measured `return' we've had has been from announcing the installment of our new imagesetter," says O'Neil. "The overall benefit of the site comes from using technology to make it easier for customers to work with us."

The following are top causes of frustration for website surfers, according to Jay Wilkinson, president of Internet agency Level 100 Communications:

- Poor site organization

- Error messages

- Long-winded copy

- Unnecessary graphics, flash and sizzle

- Poor grammar and misspellings

- Stagnant content.

Of course, even the freshest, best-organized website won't do much if nobody knows it is out there. Direct mail is an excellent vehicle for promoting your site. But don't forget internal promotion, too. One industry pundit recently phoned some printers at random. "Do you have a website?" he asked. "I don't know," was the frequent response. Make sure all employees have your company's URL and are familiar with the site.