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Use the Internet Effectively

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Jun. 29, 2009 — These days, it’s inescapable. The Internet. Everyone from young children to great grandmothers has access to a computer, and while the levels of engagement might vary, the fact that it is part of everyone’s lives now is permanent.

“If printers are going to offer multi-channel communications as part of their business—how can they not use the Internet channel as a way to grow their business?” asked John Foley, president and CEO at interlinkONE Inc.

For printers, there are several ways to make use of the Internet and all it has to offer to grow the business and expand your reach. The possibilities are almost limitless with a bit of creativity, but there are several broad categories that the Internet falls into when it comes to running a business.

Web Sites Galore
The first, and most obvious, is to simply have a Web site for your business. Many printers have taken this first step already, but if you haven’t, this needs to be your top priority.

If you can afford it, the best option for creating a Web site is to hire an expert. You might think it’s money you can’t afford to spend, but this is, in many cases, your only chance to make an impression and win a client. Even if you’ve put in a bid on a contract, odds are good whomever is making the decision is going to visit each site to get a feel for the company, its capabilities, and customer service.

If you aren’t ready yet to take that plunge, then it’s time to build your own site. If you use Adobe’s Creative Suite software, odds are good you probably already own Dreamweaver, a Web site design and management program. Full disclosure here: This is my personal program of choice, as I maintain my own personal Web site. The program is easy to use and comes pre-built with templates to get you started.

One of the first things a good Web site will have is a way to contact you, displayed prominently. It can be under a “Contact Us” button, or something similar, but don’t hide that information. That’s one of the first mistakes many shops make. If they can’t find a way to get in touch with you in the first minute or so on your site, odds are good they’ll move on to someone who makes it easy.

On the same note, have more than one way to contact your shop. A phone number should be included, and a fax number if you would like, but an e-mail address should be a top priority. There just isn’t any excuse today not to have at the very least an e-mail account for your business. There are many free options online, and many Web site hosting companies offer free e-mail addresses as part of a package.

Whichever route you take, don’t skimp on the e-mail. Your clients today are probably connected to their Blackberries or iPhones most hours of the day, and are probably multi-tasking as corporations try to squeeze more work out of fewer bodies. By offering a way for buyers to choose how they want to communicate with you, you’re making it that much easier to do business with you.

Once the contact information is taken care of, it’s time to decide what else to list on your site. When the Internet was still fairly new, simply putting up an equipment list was probably enough. However, unfortunately, many buyers today know next to nothing about how print works. They don’t necessarily care what machines you own, or how many of them. What they care about are applications.

Instead of, or in addition to, an equipment list—which, it should be noted, should always be completely up-to-date if you do list one—offer a variety of case studies and capabilities. Get quotes from clients who loved your work, and get their permission to have pictures of the job along with it. Talk in a generic way about the types of projects you can do, from direct mail to variable data, to large-format signs and billboards.

Buyers today are looking for solutions to problems. By demonstrating that you have the knowledge and expertise to help them, they will be more likely to gravitate to your shop over any other alternative.

Finally, your Web site doesn’t have to be static blocks of text. This is your chance to show potential customers your shop’s personality and expertise. Things like Flash videos, or using YouTube, give your site more visual interest, and give buyers a reason to keep coming back.

“On May 20, we launched the Keiger Direct Web site (www.keigerdirect.com) which incorporates several YouTube videos on the demos page to show how mail goes through the United States Postal Service system,” said Leslie Berry, variable information project manager, Keiger Direct, a division of Keiger Printing Co. Inc. “We also utilize YouTube by linking to videos of interest on Keiger Printing Co.’s Web site, www.keiger.com.”

Web-to-Print
So, now you have a Web site, and it’s live for all to see. What’s next?

For printers, the next step is to implement some kind of Web-to-print solution. “Web-to-print is NOT a competitive advantage—it is expected. Customers are very comfortable shopping on the Web and it only makes sense that they expect to be able to order print jobs as well,” said Stephen McWilliam, executive vice president, avanti.

“Printers need to create personalized Web experiences for their customers within their Web-to-print initiatives in order to differentiate themselves from their competition. The customer is fully engaged in their experience because personalization equals ownership, and ownership, with a real-time proof increases value,” said Ed Ickowski, director of business development & sales, DirectSmile.com.

There are a plethora of options on the market today, so the first place to start is to make a list of exactly what you need. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this part of a workflow overhaul, or just an additional way for clients to order print?
  • Is the online system going to be uni- or bi-directional? i.e., will clients only be placing orders, or will you give them the ability to check the status of orders as well?
  • Do you want a system that will automatically preflight and either accept or reject orders?
  • Do you want a system capable of automatically routing jobs to machines in the shop, or would you prefer to do that manually?
  • Do you want the system to tie into other parts of the shop, such as billing and customer service?

These are basic questions, but they will give you a starting point when it comes to choosing the Web-to-print solution that’s best for your business. If you can, attend trade shows such as the upcoming Print 09 that will be held in Chicago in September. This will give you the chance to go actually talk to manufacturers and get hands-on demonstrations from vendors who’s products you are considering.

“As a connectivity and workflow innovator who continues to bring the widest portfolio of Web-to-print options to the printing industry, EFI is actively engaged in integrating all aspects of collaborative online tools,” said Dan Crnarich, director product marketing, APPS, EFI. “Our…solution’s seamless workflow integration with our Print MIS portfolio allows many providers, from commercial printers to enterprise to CRDs, to expand service levels to their existing clients and reach new clients with maximum efficiency and without expanding their payroll. ”

“Web-to-print solutions offer commercial printers a new and exciting way to grow their businesses to provide full-fledged marketing solutions from material creation, to approval, to fulfillment, all their fingertips,” said Jon Bracken, vice president, Enterprise Solutions, Kodak.

And optimizing your workflow with Web-to-print has another advantage—more profit on the bottom line.

“The reality today is that print runs are getting shorter and customers are demanding faster turnaround time on their jobs. Print shops have to realize you can’t touch a $500 digital job 10 times and expect to make money,” said McWilliam. “Shops need to automate as many steps as possible in the workflow. Web-to-print represents a great way to get your customer to do, what I call ‘the heavy lifting’—without them even realizing it, when a customer submits a job across the Web, they are effectively creating the complete job ticket by entering all the information the shop requires to produce, finish and ship the job.

“Another key benefit is that it represents a great way for a commercial print shop to show off its capabilities. Many of our customers comment on how they have seen business increase just because customers now realize the scope of products that they offer.”

Social Networking
“I reviewed a listserve recently that had questions and answers on printers, fulfillment and mailers that had a mixed reaction to social media,” noted Foley. “Some even scoffed that it is dead. I said to the folks in the listserve, ‘If you believe there are buyers interested in your products or services using these medias (social networks), how can you not be using these medias to grow your business?’”

Once you’ve gotten your Web site up and running, and you’ve implemented some kind of Web-to-print solution, now it’s time to tell people about it. And one of the best ways to do that in today’s world is through social networks.

Social networks come in a variety of flavors, from basic to fairly complex. Here are a few of the tools you should be thinking about using on a regular basis.

Twitter: Originally billed as the network to tell people “What are you doing right now?” Twitter has evolved into a powerful communication tool for businesses. This is a way to talk directly with hundreds, if not thousands, of potential buyers, give them information about your business, and even create a dialog that will make them want to do business with you.

You can use it to answer questions, share links to articles you think others in the industry might find interesting, and establish yourself as a go-to person when someone needs information. Or you could offer special deals only to Twitter followers, to help drum up a specific type of business.

However, you will have to be careful about Twitter spam. Don’t post things you don’t think your clients would want to hear about. If you’re in doubt, start out by following a few people and getting a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and what you’d like your feed, ultimately, to be.

LinkedIn: This particular site is as close to face-to-face business networking online as I’ve been able to find to date. Much as you would exchange business cards with information, you add people to your network on the site, where you can then post questions to them, update them on your status — such as promotions, new machines you’re installing, etc.—and even join discussion groups about topics of interest to you. (Printing News even has one! We’d love to have everyone reading this come join the dialogue!)

One of the nice things about LinkedIn over the traditional method of enhancing business cards is that the information is never out-of-date. If someone leaves a company, gets a promotion, or changes their phone number, they can update it in their profile, and that information is instantly available to you.

And LinkedIn does not — and should not — exist outside of traditional networking methods. Of all the online networking tools, this one works best when used hand-in-hand with good old face-to-face meetings. LinkedIn is just a great way to keep the dialogue open after you’ve met someone, and then expand it to other areas as time goes on.

Facebook: This was originally a closed site aimed at students in high school or college. But in recent years it was opened up to everyone, and seemed to explode overnight.

It has become a great way for people to stay in touch with each other, and have more casual conversations than the ones in LinkedIn, but longer than what’s possible in Twitter.

“Facebook was the only way for Keiger Direct to have a Web presence and promote our business in the beginning,” noted Berry. “We announced the unveiling of our page on Keiger Printing’s Web site and sent out a news blast letting everyone know about the page. We also have the constant push from our e-mail footers. We aren’t really tracking sales off of our Facebook pages, but our IT administrator set it up so we can track how many people go to our Facebook pages from our Web site, as well as from our e-mail signatures. The links are also trackable from the backs of our business cards. We can’t tell who the people are that are hitting the page but we can at least gauge traffic and see the source of their visit.”

In addition to simply posting updates about what the company is doing, those who are brave—or who have a tech person on staff—can set up RSS Feeds to go directly to the page, allowing fans to be up to date with all the latest company news. It’s also a place where, like on Twitter, you can create specific promotions, or share information and links to sites so people will come to you first as the expert in your given field.

“When it comes to social media, we currently have two Facebook pages: one for Keiger Printing and one for Keiger Direct,” said Berry. “This has caused many of our employees to discover Facebook. I think this has created a closer bond between employees because we communicate with each other outside of work. We have also delved into the LinkedIn world and have company profiles for both Keiger Printing and Keiger Direct. Our Keiger Direct contact us page even links to our individual profiles. We’ve also noticed that a lot of our vendors have LinkedIn accounts.”

There are as many social networking sites online now as there are raindrops, and more are always coming. These are only the three biggest, and at the moment most popular, of what’s out there, but don’t be afraid to poke around the Internet, and join the networks that appeal to you. At the end of the day, getting your business’ name out, and interacting with more people is the best way to grow your business.

“The Internet is here to stay and electronic media is part of marketing’s multi-channel communications,” said Foley. “Ignore it and you have immediately minimized your chances for survival.”

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