In the late 1990s, the term “Web to Print” sprouted up. Like any new buzzword, it meant different things to different people.
The most basic interpretation was that you could order print processes using a web interface. This meant needing to upload a print-ready file, like a PDF, through a browser, specify the quantity, paper type, and other elements, see a price, then click “buy…”

Perhaps before you clicked “buy,” you’d see a preview of expected output.

A Step Forward in Technology

This represented a serious step forward in technology. But more advanced systems would even let you create or edit the document via an online interface.

You might do something simple, like enter a name and address into fields to produce your own postcard. Or, at the other extreme, you could edit a “data-driven” document template, and manage the flow of data through it. This template type would ingest a database of recipients, and magically produce personalized content.

Pioneers in this field, such as Modern Postcard, would let users choose a template, edit it, and upload a data source (containing perhaps 100,000 targeted postcard recipients), then proof the dynamically-generated, template-driven output. This final step involved ordering a large print/mail job targeted to thousands, or even millions, of recipients.

For the average printer, “Web to Print” was at the base level. In other words, it was just a matter of ordering the printing of “ready-to-print” files that were uploaded and emailed. It wasn’t necessarily purely web-based. Phone calls might also be required. And the next step—online editing—generally involved just one version of a single document. There were (and still are) a number of businesses that thrived on early flavors of Web to Print. VistaPrint, Shutterfly, Modern Postcard, and MagnetStreet (now known as “Truly Engaging”) all represent home run success with early Web to Print.

Eventually, the industry converged on a typical workflow with two initial paths.

Either you would:

  • Upload a print-ready file and order print and fulfillment, or:
  • Edit a document from a template, then have it printed and fulfilled.
In the most sophisticated offerings, document editing would be tailored to specific use cases, or the template might include variable data. Variable data printing (or VDP) has revolutionized the world of direct marketing. VDP systems from XMPie and other developers can provide intense personalization, where nearly every dimension of a document can be data-driven. Data on age or gender could alter the text or color scheme of each recipient’s copy of the document. Layers in the document template can be turned on or off based on the data.

If you played roulette, loved steak, and liked jazz music, the targeted, one-to-one postcard you received would show exactly that…..

Response rates to such personalized content could be stunning—if everything aligned.

Companies like Chili Publish, Santa Cruz Software, and Silicon Publishing offer end-to-end document editing workflows. These enable non-designers to create documents from templates with web-based editing features rivaling desktop tools.

Web-to-print continues to evolve to this day, with the “web” side changing more than the print side. “Multi-channel” publishing was envisioned early on, but only now do we see solutions such as Canva and Figma that span both web and print output. Recent technological advances such as robust visualization of 3D products and publishing into Augmented and Virtual Reality are just a few of the exciting new frontiers.

Web To Print is likely to extend along with the advance of fundamental technologies….

Where is it all headed? Only time will tell, but the “web” side of web to print is likely to extend along with the advance of fundamental technologies such as web services and browsers, as well as cutting-edge technologies like extended reality and artificial intelligence. These are exciting times.
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