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Making Your Mark Online

How a strong Web presence can give print providers a competitive edge.

At last count, Google listed more than a trillion – that’s a one with 12 zeros after it – URLs in its index. That’s a lot of competition for shops to differentiate themselves amid a sea of virtual competitors. Add to the mix a difficult economy that has customers feeling a bit gun shy when it comes to investing in print campaigns, as well as the pressure for companies to “see and be seen” brought about with the emergence of social-network websites such as LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook, and it’s easy for print providers to feel overwhelmed by the challenges of carving out an effective niche in cyber space.

Within the challenge, however, lies a huge opportunity. A solid, professional website design doesn’t cost a lot of money and is an excellent forum for showcasing a company’s work. The Internet has opened the door for smaller print providers to position themselves as on-par with their large counterparts with an investment in a professional-looking website. What’s more, print shops that devote the time and forethought into developing a social-media marketing strategy, and who maintain a consistent and professional appearance on the popular networking sites, can build a low-cost, word-of-mouth marketing campaign with relative ease.

Here at The Big Picture, we haven’t yet found the time to visit all trillion sites on Google, of course. But we have taken the time to comb through websites of quite a few shops and have compiled a list of 10 print-shop sites with some specific features we think you may want to emulate in your own online presence.

Keep in mind that we’re spotlighting various features and individual online pages, not highlighting any company’s entire website for the purposes of this article. Nor are we focusing on e-commerce or directly deriving commerce via websites (we’ll focus on this in an upcoming article). In addition, note that our editorial team looks at dozens of print providers’ websites each week throughout the course of a year, but we know there are many more out there. If you feel your shop’s website has a unique feature or is tackling an online challenge in an interesting way, please drop us a note with your URL and we’ll follow up.

Shock and awe
The old adage, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression” applies in the digital world, too. Not unlike the sign that hangs in front of your brick-and-mortar location, the landing page for your website is the gateway to your business and, in many cases, may be the first time a prospective client sees your work. Just as you wouldn’t invite clients into a facility that is dilapidated or unorganized, a visually engaging home page free of clutter and unnecessary information grabs the attention of visitors and draws them in to look at the rest of your site.

A good example of a clean home page design is Kubin-Nicholson (kubin.com). Viewers are drawn in by a large logo and somewhat-kitschy slogan (“Printers of the Humongous”), and, below, a horizontal scrolling bar of colorful images showcases crisp examples of the company’s current projects. Its top navigation bar links visitors to the site’s other pages, including “Why K-N,” “Request a Quote,” and
“Specifications” (the latter provides not only file/mechanical specs but also specs on various Kubin-Nicholson equipment). Below the project gallery, the large-format print specialist, with locations in both Milwaukee and Dallas, divides its key home-page data into three categories: “large format commercial,” “everything outdoor,” and “K-N events.” Readers are linked via clearly labeled subheads within each category, guiding them directly to the page of information in which they’re interested. After clicking on a product category, you’re prompted to enlarge each sample image with the phrase, “Click to make humongous,” echoing the shop’s slogan.

Oshkosh, Wisconsin-based OEC Display (oecdisplay.com) also incorporates a scrolling gallery of images on its home page, though with a completely different look and feel. Rather than placing emphasis on its own projects, OEC utilizes common stock-like images that highlight the quality of its work and the shop’s attention to detail. Each color graphic is matched up with a concise phrase in bold type – “exceptional,” “grand format,” “qualified team,” “precise detail,” “quick turnarounds,” “worry free,” “dynamic color,” “ultra-high resolutions” – each descriptive of OEC’s core-value proposition.

Lower on the OEC home page, readers find graphical links to six distinct areas of the website, each
dedicated to a specific print specialization the company offers (P-O-P and Retail, Liquid Element Vehicle Graphics, Outdoor Advertising, Event and Exhibit, Tradeshow, and Custom Printed Solutions). The crisp, colorful design is easily navigable and presents the company’s services, along with the less tangible qualities that differentiate it from its competitor, in a visually appealing style.

Being the social butterfly
With the proliferation of online social networks – LinkedIn, Twitter, You-Tube, Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, and so forth – a print provider has seemingly unlimited options to connect with its customers on a more personal level. Used properly, your company’s website is your entry ticket to these virtual networking forums. A well designed website will make it easy for visitors to your page to link out to the social-networking sites. And it’s a two-way street; as you build a following on sites such as Facebook or Twitter, your “fans” will be pushed back to your home page to learn more about you.

One company that has embraced social media and, in turn, branded itself as a serious print provider – with a seriously funny side – is Akron, Ohio-based Dr. Wraps (drwraps.com). Specializing in vehicle wraps, the company clearly enjoys its work, and wants its customers to enjoy it as well. Case in point: its spoofs of the famous TV host and painter Bob Ross as well as the Gilligan’s Island cast, plus an “Accepting New Patients” icon – all of which figure prominently on their home page.

But, it’s not all just fun and games for the Dr. Wraps team. The company maximizes Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace as a means to connect with its customers, with links to each of its social networking sites clearly visible in the bottom left of the home page as well as each site page. Dr. Wraps “Tweets” links to its project gallery and keeps its Facebook content current by posting images of recent jobs. Also of note: The company has links to its radio commercials directly on the home page.

Zentx Media Group (zentx.com) of Freeland, Michigan, takes a more sedate approach to its personal branding, while still capitalizing on the interactivity of popular social networks to position itself as a market leader. From its home page, users can link to the company’s YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook pages. It also hosts a separate blog (zentx.wordpress.com) that serves as a repository of information for current and potential customers. From company news and advice on topics such as creating effective tradeshow graphics, to feedback on frequently asked car-wrap questions, how to care for your vinyl banners, and much more, Zentx delivers useful content while branding itself as an expert in the wide-format digital printing field (read more about using your website as an education tool below). Supplementing the blog is the company’s YouTube channel, which allows viewers to put a face with the name of members of the Zentx team, while they watch videos on myriad topics, including a four-minute clip, “All About Substrates.”

Go the extra mile
Your company’s website is first and foremost a sales and marketing tool, but that does not mean it can’t also be a source of information for your customers. By supplementing self-promotional content with general insight into topics such as the print-production process, tips for developing marketing strategies, how-to images, and videos of graphic installations, you not only educate visitors about how their design concept becomes a tangible banner, sign, or vehicle wrap, you also position your company as an expert in digitally produced graphics.

The folks at Cranky Creative (crankycreative.com) finesse quite a bit of useful data into the “Products” section of their website, while still promoting their production capabilities. For example, under the “Vehicle Wraps” tab, the reader learns, naturally, that this is just one of many services the company offers. What’s more, the shop underscores the value of a vehicle wrap as a marketing tool by providing statistics from the Outdoor Advertising Association, such as, “One vehicle wrap can generate between 30,000 - 70,000 impressions daily.”

Where hard data is unavailable, Cranky Creative offers tips to help its customers get their creative juices flowing. Its “Out of the Box” section, for instance, features a variety of unique graphics campaigns – some created by the company, and others sourced from other companies to serve as case studies. Accompanying each distinct project are notes about how and why it was effective. It’s important to note that the company is up front in telling visitors that, in this section, “Cranky Creative did not execute all of the campaigns above. These are used for example only to assist in the generation of creative advertising ideas.”

Consider also Think Big Solutions (thinkbigsolutions.com), the Denver-area print provider whose blog (thinkbigsolutionsblog.com) has been providing customers with information on wide-format printing, social-media marketing, “green” print technologies, and insight into cross-marketing programs since 2008. Supplemented by a frequently updated Twitter feed and Facebook page, Think Big uses its online presence to inform customers about printing and various other strategies and tactics for marketing.

Say it in pictures
The old cliché, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” couldn’t be more true than when it comes to marketing your print services online. You are in the business of creating stunning visuals – use them generously and with abandon in promoting your company to potential customers on the Internet. Avoid the temptation to tell prospects how creative and thorough your design and printing skills are. Too much text and not enough images will surely turn them away from your site. Instead, show them what you can do. Post images of your work – from output and installation to final product – and update the photos frequently, so your customers can see the depth and breadth of your expertise. Note: It’s a good idea to get clients’ permission in all cases before posting their images.

One company that has seamlessly integrated images of its work into its site is Fusion Imaging in northern Utah (fusion-imaging.com). From the home page, visitors can access a portfolio of 14 projects. Each project gallery consists of 10 or more images, as well as a unique description of what the job entailed from a design, printing, and installation standpoint. For example, the gallery for the company’s work with the Clinton Global Initiative includes 10 unique photos of wall graphics, indoor and outdoor banners, signage, and banners implemented by Fusion, as well as a concise written description of the job. Visitors to the image gallery can see the quality of the finished work and can read concise details of the project background.

For Canada’s International Name Plate Supplies (inps.on.ca), large-format printing is just one of several areas of specialization. Potential customers can click through photo galleries in 10 distinct print categories – fl oor graphics, supplied products, wall graphics, vehicle graphics, sign faces, point-of-purchase, menu boards, reflective, banners, and lightbox signs – to see samples of the company’s work. A sidebar button allows visitors to link directly to the company’s online store.

Merritt Graphics (merrittgraphics.com) takes the concept of proffering strong visuals even a step further, by incorporating sound and voiceovers to its project gallery. Its Case Study Portfolio integrates flash animation and audio descriptions to showcase such projects as the “Rolling Nature Center” bus wrap the company created for the Connecticut Audubon Society. The narrator walks customers through six colorful images of the exterior and interior of the bus, explaining details of the project – including the purpose of the campaign, insight into the design process and specs such as the media on which it was printed. A non-audio option is also available, sans-narrator, of course, with written descriptions of the project.

Give them something different
Websites are a dime a dozen and it can be difficult for users to distinguish between them when they all follow a staid formula for design and content. For bold print providers, integrating a unique functionality or design element can be the most effective means of differentiating themselves from their competitors.

With just a glance at Xtreme Performance Wraps’ website (xpwraps.com), it’s clear the company is in the business of wrapping cars. The design uses crisp, colorful visuals to engage the reader and to relay a simple message: We wrap cars, and we’re good at it. In a regular browser, the Orlando-based XP Wraps website is predominantly pictures; were it a newspaper, the above-the-fold front page would be almost exclusively dedicated to colorful flashing images of its best vehicle wraps. Just below that, visitors can “like” the company on Facebook, read about vehicle wraps, and view a video of its latest wrap – at press time, a Spider Bike wrap of a three-wheeled motorcycle.

But what makes this site stand out is a unique “Design Your Own Wrap” tool built into the site, just beneath the large graphics on the home page. There, visitors can click through any number of late model cars, trucks, boats, and box trucks from a dropdown menu, and a picture of their chosen vehicle appears on a virtual drawing board. The interactive program, billed on the site as a “vehicle wrap design studio,” allows users to browse thousands of high-resolution graphics and design elements and, with the click of a mouse, create a mock up of their own vehicle-wrap template. Happy with the design? Simply click the “Submit for a Quote” button below your image, complete the intake form, and wait for XP Wraps to call with a price.
 

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