QUESTION: What is a Web-to-print system, and how does a Web-to-print system work?
Web-to-print system is a computer-based system
that allows people to go to a Web site and place orders for
printed documents. Usually, but not always, the documents are
printed on demand. Often, but not always, the documents
can be customized in some way by the people that are placing the orders.
Web-to-print systems are also known as "Web2Print" systems,
"W2P" systems, or "remote-publishing" systems.
In most cases, the people that use Web-to-print systems to place orders for documents
do not have graphic-design skills and are not trained in printing technology. In
contrast, the people that manage and maintain Web-to-print systems
do have such training and knowledge. For example, many printing companies
manage and maintain Web-to-print systems and offer them for use to their customers.
Most Web-to-print systems have an on-line catalog of documents
from which to choose. The documents can be static, or they can
be designed in a way that allows for customization.
Normally, the on-line catalog consists of a collection of miniature representations
of documents. The miniature representations are sometimes called
"thumbnails" or "thumbnail representations." Usually, a thumbnail
shows only one page of the document (typically the first page).
Most Web-to-print systems have a built-in ordering process, often
with e-commerce capabilities so that customers can pay for their
orders with credit cards and debit cards.
Usually, but not always, the end product for an order is hard-copy
output (printed documents).
Usually, but not always, the hard-copy output is produced by
digital printing equipment.
Sometimes the end product for an
order is an electronic file — for example, a
Here are a few examples of situations in which a Web-to-print
system might be used.
In all of these situations, the fact that the documents
are professionally designed and are branded for a particular organization
is a big benefit to all the parties involved.
For example, in the case of the corporation that manufactures the security devices,
the channel partners are assured that they'll be able to make use of
nicely designed documents that are customized for them, and the corporation
is assured that all the documents conform to the corporation's branding standards.
- A printing company makes a Web-to-print system available to its
customers so that it's easy for the customers to order customized company
collateral such as business cards and letterhead.
- A bank makes a Web-to-print system available to its branches
to make it easy for employees to order customized bank collateral
such as business cards and letterhead.
- A corporation that manufactures security devices for computers
makes a Web-to-print system available to its channel partners (resellers)
to make it easy for the channel partners to create customized
versions of postcards that can be used in direct-mail campaigns.
- A corporation with a chain of restaurants makes a
Web-to-print system available to the restaurants so that each
restaurant can order various kinds of documents. For example,
the system could be set up for ordering placemats, menus,
napkins, and coupons that are tailored a particular restaurant.
Self-hosted system vs. ASP system
There are two broad categories of Web-to-print systems:
ASP stands for "Application Service Provider." (The company that hosts the system
is providing the application to you, so that company is the ASP.)
- Self-hosted system. This is a system that you license, and you run the software
on your own server.
- ASP system. This is a system that you subscribe to, and it runs on another
In general, self-hosted systems are more expensive than ASP systems.
And, the work required to maintain a self-hosted system is usually more demanding
and more complicated than the work required to maintain an ASP system to which you subscribe.
An ASP system is set up so that many companies subscribe to the system
and can utilize the system
concurrently. However — when you subscribe to an ASP system, your company's part of the system is segregated from
the parts of the system that are related to other companies that subscribe — so the
other companies will never see your company's documents
(templates), will never see the details related
to your company's orders, will not be able to log into your company's administrative
area on the server, and so forth.
For several reasons, ASP systems are by far more popular than self-hosted systems.
Two of the main reasons are:
There are other important reasons, too.
If you're considering the idea of licensing a self-hosted Web-to-print system, be sure to read
Seven Common Web-to-print Mistakes.
- Subscribing to an
ASP system usually costs less than licensing a self-hosted system.
- Proper maintenance of a self-hosted system requires skills
that some companies don't have in-house.
A well-designed Web-to-print system will allow you to customize the appearance
of the Web pages with which your customers interact. For example, the Web pages for the
system can have your company's
logo; your company's name, address, and phone number; your company's colors, etc.
Some Web-to-print systems allow you to have several brandings, or
many brandings, on the same system. For example, if your company is a printing
company, you might want to have a Web-to-print system that can
be branded for each of your major clients. A well-designed
Web-to-print system will allow you to set things up so that
each of your clients will see only the documents (templates) that
are intended for use by that client — they will not be
able to see document templates that are intended for use by other
The degree to which you can customize the
appearance of the Web pages varies among different systems. For some
systems, it is even possible to lay out the pages on the Web-to-print
site in a way that is very similar to the layout
of the pages on your own company's Web site
(or the pages on your client's Web site).
Static, versioned, and variable-data documents
Most Web-to-print systems can be set up
static documents and versioned documents.
Some Web-to-print systems can also handle
variable-data documents, in addition to handling
static documents and versioned documents.
What are static documents?
A static document is a document that always looks exactly the same when printed.
A static document is not designed with customization in mind — so
when somebody uses a Web-to-print system to order (for example)
500 copies of a static document, all 500 will be identical, and
each one will look just like its thumbnail representation in the
Web-to-print system's on-line catalog. (Of course, the printed document will
be bigger than the thumbnail representation and will have more detail than
the thumbnail representation.)
What are versioned documents and variable-data documents?
The printing & publishing industry has coined the terms "versioned documents"
and "variable-data documents." These terms denote different kinds of document
If somebody uses a Web-to-print system to order a batch of
versioned documents, that person is ordering a batch of documents that are customized
in some way, but all the documents in the batch are identical.
For example, if the person orders 500 business cards,
the Web-to-print system will probably allow the person to type in his name, job title,
phone number, email address, etc. The person will receive 500 business cards that are
identical to each other but are NOT identical to the thumbnail representation in the
on-line catalog (because the thumbnail representation would not include the name, job title,
phone number, email address, etc. of the particular person that placed the order).
If somebody uses a Web-to-print system to order a batch of
variable-data documents, each document
in the batch is different. The Web-to-print system will allow
the user to upload a data file (typically a list of
names and addresses), and the system will use
information in the data file to customize each document.
The system will generate as many documents as there are
records in the data file that's uploaded — if the
data file contains 312 records, the system will create
312 postcards, and each postcard will be different than
the others in the batch.
For example, if the template being used is a postcard for
a direct-mail promotion, each individual postcard will be
different than the others in the batch of postcards that
are printed. At a minimum, each postcard will have a different name and
address on it so that it can be mailed to the recipient.
In addition, each postcard might be customized in other ways
that depend upon information in the data file that the user
uploads. For example, some of the text on the card might include
the recipient's name:
"Dear Jane. Don't miss our semi-annual
shoe sale next week!"
And/or, different images (graphics) could be printed on the various cards,
depending upon information in the database. For example, if
in addition to names and addresses the data file contains
a field that indicates a person's gender, the postcards to
be mailed to men could have photos of mens' shoes, and the
cards for the women could have photos of women's shoes.
Sometimes, but not always, variable-data documents are also versioned. Here is an
example of a batch of versioned, variable-data documents.
An employee of a chain restaurant might use a Web-to-print system to order a batch of
versioned, variable-data coupons. In this case, the Web-to-print system might
allow the restaurant's employee to type in the address and phone number of the
particular restaurant so that the system can print the restaurant's address and phone number
on each coupon,
and the Web-to-print system might also allow the restaurant employee to upload a file
than contains names and address of customers or potential customers so that the system
can print a bar code on each coupon. (The bar code would represent a particular
name and address in the file that was uploaded. When one of the coupon recipients
brings his or her coupon to the restaurant, the restaurant could use a scanning
wand to capture the name and address for each coupon. The restaurant would thus
know who has used the coupons and who has not and could plan additional marketing
activities based on this information.)
In this situation, the versioning part is the address and phone number of the
restaurant, and the variable-data part is the bar code that represents the name and
address of a particular customer or a particular potential customer. All of the coupons that are
printed for this order will have the same restaurant address and phone number, but each
individual coupon will have a different bar code.
Recap of the differences between static, versioned, and
When somebody uses a Web-to-print system to order a batch of STATIC documents,
the person receives a batch of documents that are all identical to each other, and
each document in the batch is identical to its
thumbnail representation on the on-line catalog for the Web-to-print system.
When somebody uses a Web-to-print system to order a batch of VERSIONED documents,
the person receives a batch of documents that are all identical to each other, but
each document is NOT identical to its thumbnail representation in the on-line
catalog for the Web-to-print system, because the Web-to-print
system has allowed the person placing the order to customize the document in some way.
When somebody uses a Web-to-print system to order a batch of of
VARIABLE-DATA documents, the person receives a batch of document that are NOT
all identical to each other; and, of course, each document is NOT identical to its
thumbnail representation in the on-line catalog for the Web-to-print system.
Often, but not always, VARIABLE-DATA documents are also VERSIONED.
How does the customization process work?
Web-to-print systems typically allow users to customize documents in some or
all of the following ways:
- A person that's placing an order can type text into an on-line form. For example, a user that is
ordering business cards would type in his or her name, job title, phone number, email
For most Web-to-print systems, the on-line form is shown on the screen separate
from the representation of the document itself.
For some Web-to-print systems, the on-line form is
laid out on the screen so that the person placing the order can, in effect, type information right
onto the document. (Generally, Web-to-print systems with this capability cost more than
Web-to-print systems that display the data-entry forms separate from the documents.
That's because these systems are more difficult to create.)
- A user can choose from an on-line library of graphics or can upload graphics.
For example, a user might upload a TIFF file or JPEG file that contains
his company logo — or instead or in addition, the Web-to-print system might allow
the user to choose his logo from an on-line library of logos that has
been uploaded to the system by a system administrator.
- A person that's placing an order can upload a data file containing name-and-address information (and/or
perhaps other information as well); the information in the data file could be
used throughout the documents in various ways. For example, if a restaurant
is ordering coupons, name-and-address information might be encoded in a
bar code on each coupon. When a particular individual brings the coupon to the
restaurant, the restaurant could use a scanning wand to capture the name-and-address
information that's represented in the bar code. This captured information could be
entered into a database, thus allowing the restaurant to know who is and who is not
using the coupons. The restaurant could then implement additional promotional campaigns
that are based on this information.
- Some Web-to-print systems are set up so that the person that is placing an order
is not allowed to choose
fonts, font sizes, colors for text, etc., whereas other Web-to-print systems do
allow the person to make those choices.
The workflow for most Web-to-print systems is set up something like this:
- When somebody wants to place an order, he or she uses a Web browser
to go to a particular Web URL and uses a username and password
to log into the system.
- The person browses the system's on-line catalog and chooses
the document (template) that he or she wants
by clicking on a thumbnail representation of the document.
- The person follows step-by-step instructions on the screen that explain
what to type and what files to upload (if any). Often, there is also on-screen information
that explains how the information that's provided by the user will be used
— where it will be printed on the documents, etc. In some cases,
such on-screen information isn't required because it is obvious how the
information will be used.
- After the person has entered and/or uploaded the required information,
the system displays an on-screen proof. With most systems, the proof is
displayed as a
JPEG image or as a
PDF file. Some systems display
only the JPEG image, some systems display only the PDF file,
and some systems
display the JPEG image first and allow the user the option of seeing the
proof in the form of a PDF file. The PDF format provides a better view
of the document, because text is usually crisper than it would be
in a JPEG image and also because the document can viewed with clarity
at several zoom levels.
- The person that's placing the order either approves the proof by clicking a button, or he/she
can go back and make changes and then see a new proof.
- When the person is satisfied with the proof, he or she follows more
on-screen instructions to complete the on-line order process. This process might
or might not include a procedure for paying with a credit card or debit card.
- The system automatically generates a file that will be used to print the
documents, and the system makes that file available to the appropriate person or company.
That person or company then arranges for the printing to be done.
In most cases, the company that manages the system does the printing.
For example, if your company is a printing company, and if you manage
a Web-to-print system that's used by your customers, you'd probably
want to do the printing at your company.
In some cases, it makes sense for the person that's placing the order
to be able to print the documents himself or herself. Some Web-to-print
systems can accommodate this kind of workflow; others cannot.
Oftentimes the file that's used for printing is a PDF file, but depending upon the capabilities of
the Web-to-print system and depending upon the type of printing equipment
that is to be used, the file might be in a different format, such as
PPML or VPS.
- The order is fulfilled by the designated person or company. The term
"fulfilled" might mean different things in different sets of circumstances,
depending upon the requirements of the person that's placing the order and depending upon the
capabilities of the particular Web-to-print system that's being used. For
example, in some situations, delivery of the file to be used for printing
constitutes fulfillment. In other situations, the fulfillment process consists
of printing a batch of documents and shipping them to the person that placed
the order. In other
situations, fulfillment might mean mailing the printed documents to a set of
names and addresses in a file that was uploaded by the person that placed
Creating document templates for a Web-to-print system
Some Web-to-print systems come with software that makes it easy for
a non-programmer to create document templates. In this context,
a "document template" is an electronic file that contains
text & graphics, contains information about how the
document is to be customized, contains information that's used
by the system to build Web pages dynamically (the person
that's placing the order interacts
with these Web pages as he/she goes through the on-line-ordering
process), and might also contain other kinds of
information (for example, validation rules for data that's entered by a
person placing an order).
In general, it is a good idea to stay away from a Web-to-print system that
requires a programmer for designing document templates. (See
Seven Common Web-to-print mistakes.)
For many companies it's a good idea to go with a
Web-to-print system that does not require the skills for creating
templates — even if those skills are not programming skills.
In other words: even if you're using a Web-to-print system
that does not require programming skills for template creation,
you might want to rely on another company to create the templates
if the people on your staff don't have the proper training.
As a general rule, document templates are not interchangeable among different
Web-to-print systems. In other words, a document template that was
created for a particular Web-to-print system probably cannot be used
with a different Web-to-print system.
Managing a Web-to-print system (administration)
A well-designed Web-to-print system will have a Web-based graphical user interface
that allows a non-programmer to handle administrative tasks such as:
Some Web-to-print systems allow customers
as well as administrators to monitor order status.
- deploying document templates into the Web-to-print system
- testing each deployed template without
making it available to customers until it's been fully tested
- managing the on-line
catalog by creating categories and subcategories within it, by enabling and disabling
deployed templates, etc.
- monitoring the status of orders that have been placed.
For a self-hosted system, management responsibilities also include:
- making sure that operating-system updates are applied in a timely fashion
- dealing with security issues
- ensuring that the system's Internet connection is intact at all times
- attending to the general health of the server that runs the Web-to-print system and
the environment in which that server is located.
Let us help you identify the right Web-to-print system!
We invite you to take advantage of our free consulting service! We offer
Web-to-print systems from leading solution providers. We'll help you to choose the right
system for your technical requirements and budget. Give us a call at 888-260-7316.