E-business print eco-system: online print is no one-way ticket


In an era characterized by online print giants, “just” operating an online print store is hardly going to help online print novices make their first million – only once you have understood the system can you, as a smaller player, exploit your opportunities. I call it the e-business print eco-system.

The “online print” sector would seem to have been all stitched up, you might think. That is at least the impression that you, as an aspiring online print provider, might get if you have paid careful attention to what the Top 5 online print providers have been saying and doing. Together the Top 5 in Germany – Cewe, Cimpress, Flyeralarm, Onlineprinters and Unitedprint – generate sales of more than 1.23 billion Euros in the D/A/CH region. That’s pretty impressive. And the Top 5 market continues to grow – by nearly 22% in 2016, according to our estimates. So you as an online-print-provider-to-be might definitely be tempted to throw in the towel. And exactly that course of action would play into the hands of the major providers – that’s precisely why the Top 5 never tire of emphasizing how large they are. Their strategy is to keep the competition at bay. On the other hand the major players need those small niche providers that “also” operate online. That’s because plenty of what comes naturally to small specialists is not feasible in a large, standardized online production facility

And if you take a close look, you soon realize what I mean by “niche”. For example this would include the booming packaging segment. Here there is still plenty of space in the market and plenty of providers are already active in this segment. However there aren’t yet any really sexy solutions out there in the market. While the major providers like Flyeralarm or Unitedprint are content with offering standard boxes, there is already the odd provider out there that delivers flexible solutions. Here the client can configure “their” packaging themselves. Indeed, but these solutions are still a long way off from being “ingenious e-commerce offerings“. There is still room for improvement here.

Another niche, even if it does not feel like one, is services. Obviously Flyeralarm provides all the services you could think of. But, given its size, the industry’s top dog definitely cannot serve every client equally well. So a smaller provider offering special services in vertical markets, for example in the hospitality, travel or other industries, can definitely still get established. These providers just need to go about things the right way. Not all opportunities have yet been exploited by market players, especially in terms of local or regional provision – but I recently reported on this topic.

But what does a smaller online player need to do to survive – or even grow – in the face of competition from the omnipresent online giants? Unfortunately I need to digress here somewhat… While the major providers have taken a relatively mass-marketing approach from the start, the smaller providers have either grown because they “coincidentally” found their fan communities at exactly the right time, successfully converted existing analog print company customers or because they infused their online stores with the right “spirit”. Any newcomers either have to wait for that spirit of the “Almighty” to manifest itself or invest some serious brainpower in their offerings.


“Smaller providers offering special services in vertical markets, for example in the hospitality, travel or other industries, can definitely still get established- they just have to go about it in the right way.” – Bernd Zipper

But what – just to overdo the reference to the Almighty again – in God’s name  does “brainpower“ mean? Very simply, anybody who wants to engage in e-commerce or e-business activities, should also really be serious about it and perhaps learn its fundamentals first of all. ?

E-commerce always goes hand in hand with the successful use and enhancement of proven mechanisms:

a) “Sexy presentation” – nobody wants to shop at insipid, boring online stores or portals for any length of time. And if the presentation, i.e. the design, is boring and does not appeal to the USER, then such stores simply fail to make the online selection grade

b) “Sexy offerings” – customers love it when offerings cater to them, their industry or their preferences. It doesn’t always have to be the best price, sometimes really fast delivery, smaller production quantities or similar can help. Nevertheless the price always has to be in line with the market.

c) “Sexy personalization” – mass customization (yes, I know, it’s this season’s buzzword) already begins in-store. Thus, for example, the right user data can be matched directly to product samples – that is also helpful in respect of Item A above.

d) “Sexy user guidance” – most stores, yes even those operated by the major providers, urgently need to be enhanced, as far as the “customer journey” is concerned. In this respect other stores in the “user’s normal life” tend to set the benchmark. The customer wants to be guided to their target – in a charming and discreet manner.

e) “Sexy information” – a common-or-garden store text is not going to get anybody to buy, here the customer wants a blend of “animation” and “information”.

f) “Sexy marketing” – advertising is allowed to be fun and to be more than just the usual Google AdWords campaign. If your marketing works, then you will acquire that …

g) “Sexy reputation” – customers like buying, if they buy from a “cool” company. Here it is important to tell a great story; for example, you can advertise on Instagram using a photo of a great product, on Facebook by telling the story of how the product was created and the product is highlighted per se via Xing and LinkedIn. This in combination with a decent e-mail newsletter and a target-audience-specific (in each case!) pitch is practically a recipe for success – if you have a little stamina.

h) “Sexy privacy” – customers, no matter whether business or consumer, love receiving personalized offers. This is reverting back to mass customization. If you already work with stores and databases, you should use these resources to make personal offers or portals a reality. And if – at a private level – a personal contact (who doesn’t change every month) is then waiting in the wings, the customer feels comfortable and has no real reason to buy from the competition.

Fig.: moo.com online store – a great example of a “customer journey” that works
Fig.: moo.com online store – a great example of a “customer journey” that works

…and so we’re back to Item A – the right presentation. And that’s exactly what’s constantly lacking. That’s because stores get spruced up (dare I say pimped) only occasionally, rarely or even not at all. There are stores in the German market that have never (!) been redesigned since they were created and went live. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise if customers migrate – or the competition has a more appealing offering.

My Take: And there you have it, the e-business eco-system (i.e. Items A to H) – because the above-mentioned points work, particularly if you apply them consistently. In other words don’t just install and see what happens – but rather keep on working at it. Unfortunately print providers in particular avoid continuously reworking and developing their offerings – because not all of them understand how important it is to apply the above-mentioned points every single day. Otherwise a price will have to be paid one day. Well, maybe not, since customers have gone elsewhere.

Founder and CEO of zipcon consulting GmbH, one of the leading consulting companies for the print and media industry in Central Europe. The technology and strategy consultant and his team actively support practical implementation in a wide variety of customer projects. His work involves developing visions, concepts and strategies for the players active in the print production process across a wide range of industries. His areas of expertise include online print, mass customization, strategy and technological assessment for print, and the development of new strategies in the print and media environment. Bernd Zipper is the creator and chairman of Initiative Online Print e.V. and, in addition to his consulting activities, is an author, lecturer and sought-after speaker, orator and moderator. His visionary lectures are regarded worldwide as trend-setting management recommendations for the print and media industry. (Profiles also in Xing, LinkedIn).

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