How to Guides

How to find your niche and compete with web-to-print

by FESPA | 24/01/2022
How to find your niche and compete with web-to-print

All printers recognise the power of web-to-print businesses and must reflect on them in order to identify and own their niche, says Graeme Richardson-Locke, Technical Lead at FESPA.

Tipping points don’t happen overnight, but one day you wake up realising the world you thought you knew has significnantly shifted.  
 
Competing on price and matching the efficiency offered by web-to-print (W2P) forces local printers to ask themselves: who do we wish to serve? How are we going to get there? And what are we going to do to make sure that we succeed?

There are many options for printers finding themselves under pressure. One is – if you're not considering W2P – how do you deal with it as a competitor? How do you differentiate yourself? How do you promote yourself online so that when someone searches for a particular printed product you rank high in search engines? Another possibility is to participate in a distributed network such as Gelato.com, or you could enlarge product range with limited involvement with an existing W2P business – or be really brave and build your own W2P store. 

Creative value in local

The value of being near your customers is that there are less transportation of goods required and therefore fewer carbon emissions. This also provides the opportunity for personal contact – but I believe that personal connections are no longer prioritised unless you print bespoke products. Local printers can definitely differentiate themselves from W2P by expanding their creative choice of materials and finishes to provide unique, beautiful and compelling products.

Currently, there is a critical convergence of less well-trained print buyers, who don’t understand the fine detail of the technical requirements of art working or production leading to the significant growth of W2P. Buyers lacking technical confidence are encouraged by predefined menu-driven ordering whose final result is uploading artwork. This is certainly reducing creative possibilities. 

Don’t compete on price for the wrong customer, but on refinement, creativity and differentiation

This creates opportunities for creative printers, but it’s getting harder for them to be seen. And if they’re relying on word of mouth alone, success may be elusive. They must learn to forge better connections with customers and understand their marketing preferences. Don’t compete on price for the wrong customer, but on refinement, creativity and differentiation. 

If all a customer wants is flyers for a pizza delivery service, W2P will always win that battle. Printers should not even consider this as a viable direction of travel. They should instead be looking at repositioning themselves and adding value to their offering that will justify customers spending two or three times the amount they would spend online. This entails finding customers who protect the value their identity and want to create points of differentiation. There are an abundance of products that are not W2P-compatible such as fluorescent fifth colours, haptics, all kinds of different textures, substrates, sculptured special effects and technical refinements. 

The best way to do this is to find your niche and own it. The days of the generic printer competing only on price has resulted in unsustainable margins and poor return on investment. Printers should know their value and not waste energy trying to entice low-value customers who will only support low profit margins. Printers should be selling products, not the features of their own printing machine. 

Setting up a strong and stable integrated workflow is crucial to prevent it collapsing under the weight of orders

Finding the more affluent, technologically aware customer, or a promising niche of themed or bespoke products, may require a complete overhaul of a printer’s marketing strategy. They should re-examine their website, and think about removing those products that will never be able to compete against W2P. 

Know your audience intimately and adopt a laser-like focus on those segments you want to market to. It is important to ask the following questions: What is our marketing strategy? 

  • Who are we targeting? 

  • What are our most the profitable products?


Have a clear understanding of this customer group’s needs – enticing them in and upselling to them. Select your product group and then package it in an appealing way. Don’t lose sight of the value of high-quality printed direct mail, but do ensure that you collaborate with a creative designer capable of meeting the needs of the task. This will advertise your knowledge of your chosen customer group and will bring sales opportunities. 

Exploring W2P and distributed networks

The second option is to develop W2P for your own products – either by setting up a W2P storefront, possibly alongside your existing business to start with, or becoming involved in distributed networks. After identifying your niche, ensure you have a clear sense of the volume potential, the frequency, and the buying habits of that customer group. At that point, build a custom W2P workflow to satisfy your customer need. 

Or you can invest in a MIS [management information system] with a W2P storefront. There are opportunities to make good money from W2P, but setting up a strong and stable integrated workflow is crucial to prevent it collapsing under the weight of orders (if your marketing strategy is successful of course). 

Decide whether you're going to custom code or buy a pre-packaged template. Pre-built applications are often built for business cards, brochures, posters, and other commercial print products, and can sometimes be inflexible.

Or consider applying to be a part of a distributed network, in which you can become a local provider, fulfilling orders for an international platform, through Gelato for example. If a printer can achieve the quality and there isn't a distributor in their network area, they can benefit without having to build their own platform. 

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