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Making the Most of the Internet
for Graphic Arts Firms

By Jack Powers

Published: June 1, 1999 | Revised September 1, 2001

The Internet Revolution has not been good news for the prepress and printing industries.

Since the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1994, more than three billion pages of type and art have been published online – without film, without plates, without stripping. Every single day, the top five Web sites distribute more than 1 billion pages around the world, most of them customized, to more than 400 million readers – without ink, without paper, without postage.

Advertising messages that used to be printed are going digital. In 1998, the Internet Advertising Bureau reported that $1.92 billion was spent on ads on the Web, making U.S. Web advertising bigger than outdoor advertising in dollar volume. A Direct Marketing Association survey shows that 95% of DMA firms use the Internet for sales and marketing. More than 750 North American daily newspapers have launched Web sites to retain online readers, and the New York Times reports that 60% of the Times on the Web users have never been readers of the printed newspaper.

Commerce is also migrating online. IBM and Intel each sell $1 billion of hardware and software per month online. Dell and Cisco sell more than $10 million per day over the Web. And in the six months ending in March, U.S. households made 56 million purchases electronically.

Clearly the Internet is a major new competitive alternative to print for people who advertise and sell things. But the Net can also be an important competitive edge for prepress companies that want to expand their markets, lock in their relationships with customers, streamline work flow and develop new products and services beyond flats and plates.

First Step: A Good, and Fast, Web Site

Just as you can't do business without a business card, a fax machine and a toll-free number, every company today needs a Web site. In its simplest form, a Web site is a combination brochure, Yellow Pages ad, price list and phone directory. It shows your logo, explains the products and services you sell, and makes it easy for a prospect to contact you.

The Web is a very competitive marketing medium. More than 5.4 million Web sites serving up billions of Web pages are vying for the attention of your audience. Every competitor is just a click away, and nobody wants to stare at a blank page while a 100K logo dribbles slowly in over the modem.

Every Web site should follow Powers' 30 second rule: In the first thirty seconds after a reader clicks on your URL – using the slowest modem and the cheesiest PC – your home page should deliver three things the reader needs to stay with your site: Identity, Benefits, Navigation.

  • Identity – the name of your company and what it does – must download in the first 10 seconds.

  • Benefits – why anyone should continue reading this Web page – should follow in the next 10 seconds.

  • Navigation – where do we go from here – should reach the reader in the last 10 seconds.

(You can test how many people leave your site in frustration by adding a small image file at the bottom of the page. Check your Web server log and compare the number of downloads of your home page HTML file with the number of downloads of the last GIF or JPG on the page. If 1,000 people got the HTML but only 10 people waited around until that final GIF, you know you have a lot of lost prospects.)

Prepress companies love images, and many prepress Web sites are almost completely made up of slow-loading eye-candy artwork instead of fast-loading informative text. As a recovering typographer, I know how limited browser fonts can be, but there's no time online for GIF-ed text on the Web or full-screen "splash" pages that deliver no benefits. And while complicated Java animations and multimedia plug-ins may win some artsy design awards, they usually just make your customers mad. Search the term "site optimization" on developers' Web sites like or to see what it takes to deliver the goods on time online.

Customer Service on the Web

An under-reported but very successful use of the Web in business is to deliver customer service 24/7/365. Price lists, products and service specifications, delivery options, procurement guidelines and many other kinds of customer information have moved online rapidly in the last three years. Intranets and extranets, private Internet connections between companies and their customers and suppliers, have displaced boxcars-worth of inplant printing with cheaper, faster and more easy-to-find Web publications.

But once a company goes online, it can do a lot better than just shipping pages over the wire; it can link customers and suppliers into its live production control systems. One of the earliest examples of live online customer service was Federal Express' pioneering package tracking application on the Web. Within two years of its introduction, about two-thirds of the people calling FedEx to track a shipment did so online, and today more than a million FedEx customers are linked electronically to the shipper's tracking, pricing and billing systems in real-time.

Forward-looking prepress and printing firms have also begun using the Web to enhance service. Preflighting tips and techniques and Requests for Proposal forms are delivered online. Customers access easy-to-use step-by-step downloading instructions to ship their files electronically over the Net. Online forms prompt users for all of the fonts and graphics and related items needed for a job, and email confirmations and queries take the guesswork out of sending a job to film.

One of the most interesting customer service features for graphic arts firms is a job tracking feature similar to the FedEx application. Imation's PrintersWeb software suite for graphic arts Web sites provides standard functions like online estimating and job submission, but it also lets customers follow their own jobs through a prep shop's production control system. This may bring the customer a little too close for comfort for some shops, but it will probably become an important competitive edge once most customers have made the move to the Web.

Electronic Commerce

If customers are using the Web to shop for a prepress house, to submit their RFPs and estimate forms, and to download jobs and track them through production, the obvious next step is the introduction of online billing and payment. Jobs go out and money comes in untouched by human hands – in theory. This kind of people-free commerce is already standard with companies like and Cisco systems that sell hundreds of millions on dollars-worth of products per month on the Web, but once the people are taken out of the process the profit often disappears, as well.

In graphic arts applications, dozens of business cards and forms printers are already doing substantial electronic commerce in commodity printing jobs over the Web. Users shop around online for the best deal and follow the digital instructions to get good-enough results at low cost. But in the high service, high touch world of sophisticated prepress services, where every job depends on the talent, ingenuity and craftsmanship of skilled imaging experts, electronic commerce can lead to a dangerous set of customer expectations, price wars and a brutal race to the bottom where nobody wins.

Customers can come to believe that they're doing all the work and that the prep shop is simply a black box, a timesharing house that just processes their files and delivers the results that they coded. Without a human customer service touch, without a face and a name behind the Web page, there's no stopping Worldwide Web price shopping for the quickest and the cheapest shops – wherever they may be in the world.

In many ways the challenge of doing business on the Internet is to use the tools of computing and communication to streamline the prepress process while at the same time enhancing customer service and providing more opportunities to sell talent and craftsmanship. It's a balance that only the smart shops with the clearest visions and the best customer relationships will be able to strike.

Offering Web Services

At the dawn of the Internet Age in 1994 and 1995, I thought that prepress and printing firms would be the natural beneficiaries of the move to the Web. Most companies doing business on the Internet still do substantial work in print, most of the customers responsible for buying print services are also buying Web services, and most of the tools for making Web pages are the same or quite similar to the tools for making print pages. Selling digital electronic media services seemed a natural migration path for firms selling digital print services.

For the most part, it hasn't happened that way. An army of Web designers, developers and electronic commerce consultants has sprung up to design and produce Web sites, and the biggest buyers of print in the world usually go outside of the graphic arts industry to buy their Web sites. At the high end, high flying  Web firms like Agency.con, Razorfish and Organic produce multimillion dollar Web sites for the Fortune 500 while at the low end every art director with a Macintosh, a modem and a spare bedroom competes for Web work around town. While some prepress firms offer some online services, only the biggest, the richest or the most forward-looking produce significant revenues from the Internet.

Given that the explosive new growth in pages of type and art in the U.S. is coming from Web publishers rather than print publishers, prepress firms can position themselves to take advantage of the digital revolution.

  • Sell to your current print customers

Don't bother trying to justify high quality imaging services to people who are happy just having a 72 dpi Web site. Focus on the customers who understand what you do and why it's worth the cost.

  • Sell what you do best

Unless you've built a strong in-house programming team or developed a leading edge design group, look for jobs that leverage your composition, image scanning, retouching and file management skills. Hire Web freelances or partner with bright young Web development firms for programming smarts and design talent.

  • Focus on the image

As more companies sell online, they need craftsmen who can make the colors in their catalog match the colors on screen, and they really need production crews who know how to handle thousands of digital images and get them on the page on time and on budget. Don't underestimate the advantage of a great production manager; many Web-only firms can design nice pages but can't get the work out the door on schedule.

  • Avoid PDF except for proofing

Adobe Acrobat files may be convenient for preflighting and proofing, but they are poor substitutes for properly-coded HTML pages. Think of Acrobat files as online microfilm – dead representations of paper pages – not living Web documents.

  • Be skeptical about media asset management

For years systems vendors have been touting database management for graphic arts firms who'll be able to hold onto customers by managing their page and image files. But prep shops only see the text work after it's finished, and they only scan the images that make it to final film. Most of the "media assets" are created and managed in electronic form on the customer's own network, and they have little need or inclination to outsource what is basically a straightforward computer task.

  • Learn all about electronic commerce

Most prepress houses do their work for customers who are trying to sell things, and those customers will be selling things on the Web in increasing numbers. The greatest opportunities are not in online advertising but in online sales, and the field is wide open for now.

  • Use the Web, but keep the relationships

Take advantage of the Internet for marketing, customer service and communications, but remember that the profit in a graphic arts service business comes from selling talent, insight, experience and craftsmanship to people who need it. Never replace real people with machines that pretend to be people.\\




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