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Our company offers Web-to-print software. Click here to learn about it.

Web to print software
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Citation Software Inc.
 Specialists in variable-data publishing since 1986
 
www.CitationSoftware.com     info@CitationSoftware.com


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QUESTION: What is a Web-to-print system, and how does a Web-to-print system work?

ANSWER: A 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).


Thumbnails


 


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 PDF file.


Examples

Here are a few examples of situations in which a Web-to-print system might be used.
  • 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.
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.


Self-hosted system vs. ASP system

There are two broad categories of Web-to-print systems:
  1. Self-hosted system. This is a system that you license, and you run the software on your own server.

  2. ASP system. This is a system that you subscribe to, and it runs on another company's server.
ASP stands for "Application Service Provider." (The company that hosts the system is providing the application to you, so that company is the ASP.)

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:
  • 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.
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.


Branding

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 clients.

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 to handle 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 customization.
Versioned documents

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).

Variable-data documents

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 variable-data documents
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 address, etc.

    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.

Workflow description

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 the order.

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:
  • 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.
Some Web-to-print systems allow customers as well as administrators to monitor order status.

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.

 




    
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