We talk with zipcon partner John Parsons and take a closer look at the US online print market. John is a partner to and colleague of zipcon consulting, working from the zipcon office in Seattle, and one of the leading print industry consultants in the US. I have also shared a past with John. Back then as Editorial Director of the Seybold Report, he supported my first attempts to get a foothold Stateside.
Bernd Zipper: You have a long history with online print technology. When did you start, and where do you think it’s going in the USA?
John Parsons: When I started with Seybold—at drupa 2000, in fact—it was called print ecommerce, and later Web-to-print. Everyone was either thrilled or afraid that the Internet was going to change printing forever. Before the dot-com crash, I was tracking well over 100 companies who thought they had all the answers in E-Business print.
Bernd Zipper: What happened?
John Parsons: In some cases, the technology just didn’t match expectations—or the developers tried to do too much all at once. Also, many of the early players didn’t really understand the printing business. They underestimated the resistance to technology—to anything that would take control out of skilled print providers’ hands, and especially to anything that would make printing just a commodity.
Bernd Zipper: But technology is always supposed to lower costs and make things more efficient. What’s wrong with using the Internet to put more control in the hands of print designers and buyers?
John Parsons: Nothing at all. Online print technology is doing what desktop publishing technology did in the 1980s—shortening the time it takes to go from design to output, reducing the number of tasks involved, and moving more tasks “upstream,” to the person who wants to use print as a communication channel. Yes, it changes things for those doing the printing, but that’s the reality of all media technology. It’s just as disruptive now as it was then.
Bernd Zipper: So, what is the state of online printing in North America now? Is it significantly different from Europe?
John Parsons: In many ways it’s the same, especially on the B2B side. There, it is increasing in volume and complexity. Corporations everywhere are looking to control their marketing communications channel—preserving their brand identity while reducing costs and turnaround time for all sorts of media, not just print. For them, online print is very focused on creating and managing templates, customizing them on demand, and producing things like collateral or variable data printed mail in a more targeted, cost effective way. They also need a robust asset management system, not only for customizing print, but also for digital output like email and social campaigns, landing pages, and mobile microsites.
Bernd Zipper: What about the consumer and small business side? There is certainly a high demand for all kinds of printed products.
John Parsons: Online print is very relevant for B2C and small business in North America. There is an increasing number of different types of print jobs—all different, and typically made up of small press runs. Almost all of these are printed on digital presses. There is usually a strong demand for creative control by the print buyer. They also want it delivered immediately, and at extremely low cost. For many commercial printers, online print or Web-to-Print is the only way they can satisfy these demands and still stay in business.
Bernd Zipper: What does this mean for online editing? Does the online print system have to offer the equivalent of InDesign in a browser?
John Parsons: Usually no, but the editing does have to be flexible. Templates can be fine for predictable jobs like business cards, but often there needs to be more room for creativity. Editing has to be a natural extension of what the print buyer is used to. If it’s InDesign or Illustrator, or even Microsoft Publisher, then the online print system has to make sense to the way a designer already works.
Bernd Zipper: What about proofing and approval?
John Parsons: That’s the same in North America as it is in Europe. People want to see what they are getting on the screen—the more accurate the better—before they place the order. For B2C that means moving away from Flash and towards HTML5 and CSS3. People want to preview a job on their mobile devices, not just the desktop. For B2B, you also need multiple levels of review and approval.
Bernd Zipper: So, what are the opportunities for printers in all this? Is online print a threat or an opportunity for print providers in North America?
John Parsons: Based on the increased adoption rates, I’d say it’s an opportunity—but mostly for printers who are open to changing their business model. Creating a digital storefront, and selling print to a wider audience is always a good idea, but online print can be so much more. Print buyers have always looked for partnerships in the printing world, and printers have historically responded by adding services that make the most sense—like inventory management, fulfillment and mailing, and design services. Online print gives printers more opportunities to add value—not just cut time and costs.
Disruption is usually a threat to businesses unwilling to change. Online print does take away many of the steps that used to be profit centers, but it also gives printers new capabilities. It’s up to them to take the risk, and reinvent their business.
Bernd Zipper: John, thank you for this interview and the insights into the US online print market.