It used to be that if you wanted to have something printed, you would either have to go to a commercial printer, who would print it on a 4-color press, or you’d go to Kinko’s and have it copied. This worked well for large companies with big budgets, or for community groups who didn’t have a need for an upscale brand, but where did the small business owners fit in?
Two major changes have occurred in the printing industry that have suddenly given small business owners the tools to create marketing materials that are comparable to expensive commercial printing: digital printing and online printers.
First is the development of digital printing. This process doesn’t require the creation of printing plates and multiple runs through a press, greatly reducing staff time and resources to print. Instead, much like a desktop printer, the digital file is received by the machine, which then churns out the printed piece. Digital printers either use ink or toner that forms a thin layer on the surface of the paper (unlike lithographic inks, which absorb into the substrate). More advanced digital machines closely mimic the look of a press-printed piece, using four color dot patterns. And more and more digital printers are accommodating larger sheet sizes, to allow for printing of longer brochures and folded pieces. Unlike commercial presses, they are great for low quantities—which can mean significantly lower prices for small business owners. These are a great option for small businesses printing less than 1000 of business cards, brochures, or postcards, for example. And because every printed impression comes from a file, and not a plate, digital printing can accommodate variable data, allowing for customization.
A few years back, online printers became another huge asset to small business owners. Many use digital printing to keep prices down. Others specialize in certain products, which allow them to keep standard die cuts (ex. for folder printing) on hand, eliminating the need for custom plates to be created. Other online printers use gang runs, combining multiple print jobs of small quantities on the same press to pass along savings to everyone. All of this means savings, smaller quantities, and more choices for small business owners.
All printers are not created equal, however. One client discovered that VistaPrint.com business cards are a fraction of an inch smaller on each side than standard business cards. His cards were lost in card holders among his competitors!
Ask for samples of digital printing from commercial printers before you buy. Many will even run a proof of your piece for you to approve before you print. Call ahead to make sure a commercial printer offers digital printing. Many are beginning to specialize.
For online printers, it’s much the same. Request samples from the printer by mail before you use them. Or, order a small quantity the first time and see if you like it. Check their customer satisfaction policy and make sure they’ll reprint if you’re not satisfied with the outcome. Pay attention to paper weight, coatings, and sizes. Use the templates they provide and request a digital proof.
Here is a brief list of online printers I’ve used and recommend:
www.printz.com (business cards, postcards, and brochures)
www.overnightprints.com (love their business cards)
www.48hourprint.com (great for folders!)
www.cedarhousemedia.com (upscale busines cards).
For large runs, special finishes, and unusually-shaped pieces, the commercial printing press is still the best choice for quality and economy. Think about your audience when deciding how to print, and plan for the printing budget at the start of the project. Your designer can help you weigh the different options, provide the print-ready files, and facilitate communication with your printer.