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Grow Your Business Sales & Marketing

The Small Business Owner's Guide to Online Printing

The Small Business Owner's Guide to Online Printing
Credit: Pixtural/Shutterstock

Whether it's brochures, business cards, menus or letterhead, your small business just can't quit paper. And there are plenty of services online ready to take your business. The print-on-demand industry offers tons of options. And like so many industries, printing has gone digital. This is a stark difference from years ago when offset printing – the traditional printing standard – was generally the go-to method for businesses.

Offset printing takes ink from plates, transfers it (or offsets it) to a rubber roller or blanket and then places it on paper. This method of printing tends to offer greater control over everything from materials to ink colors and customizations, which is ideal for high volume print runs and brand-critical pieces.

However, digital printing has come a long way, and for many designers and small businesses, it's the predominant method for print runs of all kinds. And the reasons for this are tough to challenge: Digital is fast, it's cheap, and it gets the job done. For most businesses, these three reasons alone justify why so many click the Submit button online and place a printing order.

Before you place that big order from an unknown vendor, take a moment to educate yourself on the many facets of online printing. Read on to learn more about the benefits online printing offers and what you can do to protect product quality as you navigate the world of online printing services.

Price. Price carries a lot of weight in choosing a digital printer versus a local vendor, especially for small quantity jobs such as invitations, fliers and business cards.

"I always get quotes for both – local vendors and online printers – for every single job," says Jill Grangers, owner of Page + Parcel, a graphic design shop based in Scottsdale, Arizona. "Online printers tend to price very competitively. Because they are online, they have a huge reach and tend to do a lot of volume, reducing the prices."

Printing carries with it a variety of customizations, from quantity to paper type to shipping. These variables affect price, and it's tough to say that online printing always offers X discount. It simply cannot be generalized. However, Jill notes that keeping your print pieces a standard size keeps the prices down.

"Anything standard will be very competitive and fast. For example, 5 x 7 inches. That's a very standard paper size. If you want anything customized, that's what will add cost and time to an online printing project."

Convenience. Online printing gives you instant, anytime access that draws most people to online. Create an account, upload your artwork, customize your print job and get it rolling – from the convenience of your laptop. And, as far as design, online printing can help in that area, too. Premade templates shepherd you through the process of, say, creating a business card.

But beware of going too generic: "I'm not a fan of the premade templates that many services offer, so I always recommend creating a unique design with a professional first," says Rebecca Pollock, a Brooklyn-based graphic designer. "People see mass-printed things every day, so it's easy to ignore cookie-cutter layouts. Since most online services use common papers, it's especially important to set yourself apart with interesting graphic design and strong messaging."

As far as customer service and communication goes, nothing can beat the personalized touch a local vendor provides. However, as Granger noted, "I was surprised at the level of customer service offered by online printers. I send an email, and I have a response within an hour. That's pretty good."  

Speed. Online printers are fast. You can typically receive a printed job in a week or two. Remember to build that time into your production schedule. And it's nice to plan a few extra days for proofs, should you require one.

"I've sent some projects to a printer in China and still received them a week later," Granger said. This is the beauty of online automation – submitting your art files online, if they are in a standard size, allows your project to just flow into a printer's humming schedule. "It's like printing something at home, from your computer. Only much better quality and on a much larger scale."

So far, online printing may seem like a breeze. And, for the most part, it is – that is, if you perform some due diligence up front. Getting to know a vendor and researching the way they operate pays off in the end with projects that meet your expectations.

With an online vendor, you can't feel the paper quality, and you can't attend a press check to see how the color looks as it rolls off the printer. To compensate for these losses, ask for samples before you order.

"White to one printer is not the same white to another printer," Granger said. "So, I ask for samples of everything. That way I know what I'm getting." Granger goes so far as to place small quantity test orders with printers before she buys. This allows her to experience the printer's customer service and check quality at no risk.

For some, customer service can be another pain point. Hallie Bolonkin, production manager at The James Agency in Scottsdale, Arizona, notes that small businesses should be prepared for a different customer service experience: "Customer service can present a challenge, because you may speak with a different representative each time you call, and the individual may not be highly knowledgeable about the printing process."

Online printing makes printers around the globe available to you, but which one do you trust and how do you choose? For Granger, the only limit is Google's search results – literally. She is game to try vendors from Massachusetts to China, and she's had luck with both big names and obscure shops.

Bolonkin said her company usually turns to 4Over. "We've had great success. They offer a wide variety of products and only accept orders from businesses."

And for Pollock, she loves "Moo for personal branded pieces, like business cards and notecards. They have a range of custom paper and finishing options that can elevate the piece and make it feel premium. I especially like their luxe line because the thick paper really stands out in a stack of other cards. Some other good, less expensive options are Greenerprinter, GotPrint and Vistaprint. Custom Ink is great for T-shirt and apparel printing."

Joanna Furlong

Joanna Furlong is a freelance writer and content strategist based in Southern California. Her background is in digital marketing, but she’s been writing professionally for more than 10 years. She loves to report on the intersection where business, management and technology collide.