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New worldwide web is on the cards – Print21 magazine feature

Monday, 26 March 2012
By Print21

Australia is not exactly flushed with success stories in the burgeoning web-to-print market but one exception is the Yellow Postie online cards business which is now poised to become a global phenomenon. Simon Enticknap caught up with Matt Sandford, the driving force behind the venture, to discuss the pitfalls and rewards of online print.

At a recent conference in Miami on the topic of web-to-print, Matt Sandford of Yellow Postie hadn’t even finished his presentation before the emails started arriving from people in the audience wanting to know how they could work with him. Afterwards, within minutes, local printers were expressing interest in licensing his web-to-print system for greeting cards in the US market. While the intensity and speed of the response might have taken him by surprise, Sandford already knew he was onto a good thing. After all, this was not his first taste of foreign markets having previously licensed the system for use in Scandinavia and the UK. The American market is different though, having progressed down the path towards web-to-print output earlier and faster than most other countries, so to get such a response from print professionals who know about such things was gratifying indeed.

More than anything though, it demon­strates how people in today’s industry are quick to recognise a better ‘mousetrap’ when they see one and consequently just as keen to capitalise on the opportunities it presents.

Pictured: The Yellow fellow – Matt Sandford (l) has turned Yellow Postie into an international success story
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For Sandford, the interest generated by Yellow Postie in the US—which will ultimately see the system being licensed there to two separate companies, one east coast, one west—is the reward for a more than two years of hard work getting the online system up and running. Today the locally-developed system, which caters specifically for the greetings cards and personalised postcards print market, is at the point where it can be relatively easily transferred to new markets as almost a turn-key system. People often joke about ‘world domination’ as a business goal but with Yellow Postie the potential is there, although Matt Sandford is certainly far from succumbing to any megalomaniac tendencies.

“To compete on an international level against the major players, I want to do this as a network,” he explains. “So we’re not trying to build an empire or a franchise model, we’re trying to build a collaboration of people right around the world with whom we can share content and marketing ideas.”
So what is Yellow Postie and what makes it one of the few examples of successful web-to-print innovation in the local market?

Your friendly Postie

Two years ago, when Print21 last spoke with Matt Sandford, Yellow Postie was still in the process of being born, initially as a local online outlet for greetings cards. Users could log-in and create their own cards for a range of occasions—Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day—using pre-designed cards or create their own using uploaded artwork. Yellow Postie took care not only of the printing of the cards but, importantly, the mailing as well so the whole process was seamless from sender to receiver.

Today, the local consumer market for Yellow Postie is doing well, generating consistent volumes and repeat business. Volumes trend up and down in sync with special occasions (Christmas and Mother’s Day are busy periods although, curiously, not Father’s Day –Dads are not big card people) and most users are women. As a result, much of the site’s marketing is targeted at women and timed to coincide with special events; Sandford says the repeat usage stats are encouraging and show that users like what the service offers.

This is all the more remarkable given that Yellow Postie is operating in a web-to-print sector which already has some big hitters with considerably more marketing muscle at their disposal (see box). To compete with them, Sandford says the focus at Yellow Postie has been on making the site as user friendly as possible by introducing more WYSIWYG features than the larger competitors as a key point of difference.

As an example of this, he points to the fact that Yellow Postie is the first site worldwide to allow users to upload entire databases of names and addresses rather than entering them one at a time to personalise and send out cards. Users can attach an Outlook address book or an Excel spreadsheet and the Yellow Postie front-end will transform it into usable names and addresses, highlighting where any of the information is incomplete. This makes the process of card sending much easier and more akin to electronic communication.

Early in 2012, the site will also introduce a Facebook app for closer integration with users’ accounts as well as versions for iPads and other mobile devices. This will help to tie the service ever closer to social networking, a vital requirement given the social nature of card sending.
At the same time, the site has expanded into offering additional services such as postcards and A5 calendars. The latter were launched towards the end of last year and, with only minimal marketing, are quickly racking up the orders.

Getting on with business

With the consumer side of the business now well-established, Matt Sandford is now busy exploring new avenues for applying the Yellow Postie technology. Part of this involves licensing the system overseas, as has happened so far in Europe. The first countries to take it on were Norway, Denmark and Sweden, quickly followed by the UK which is a prime market. The UK site launched late last year and within the first two weeks attracted over 1,000 new users. Imagine gaining 1,000 new customers in fortnight! True, the majority of these are only small print runs but the potential for repeat business is high and, with online card payments, there are no debtors.

Building on the success of the consumer market, Sandford is now planning to launch a business application of the system later this year called CR Cards. This will enable businesses, typically SMEs such as real estate agents and car dealers, to run their own direct mail print campaigns through a single site. For instance, a real estate agent will be able to upload their customer contact database to their own branded site, personalise cards or DL flyers for individual clients and send out marketing messages at key times, say, on the anniversary of a house purchase.

Of course, real estate agents and small businesses in other vertical markets already do this type of marketing via various types of mail merge applications; what CR Cards promises to do is make it easier, faster and more creative to implement.

“The best thing about this for a small business is that the person on the front desk can do it. So to do a one-to-one campaign with all the branding and a unique creative, you don’t need the backroom of a print shop or anything too elaborate. That’s what it’s been like up until now. Previously to do a personalised marketing campaign, you needed the database, the creative, the printing etc and then some propeller head to knock it into shape with PrintShop Mail or XMPie.

“What we’re proposing is one person doing it all online through the CRM to the card site, all personalised, all unique signatures, fully-branded, out in five minutes for the same cost. It’s a totally different concept of how you can communicate with people,” says Sandford.

Following on from the introduction of the business application, the next step in 2012 will be to launch a CRM plug-in, a project which is currently under development with a Dutch firm of systems integrators. Initially this will see the CR Card functionality integrated with an online CRM service with over 12,000 subscribers (a comparatively small CRM system). If that works, the next stage will be to offer it to a CRM service with twice as many subscribers and so on.

The potential for such a plug-in is huge, says Sandford, particularly given the number of CRM systems on the market, few of which currently offer an integrated direct mail component.

“Lots of CRM applications exist in the ‘cloud’ as a tool to manage customer contacts, quotes etc. They’ve all got nothing more in terms of communications, marketing or relationship-type collateral other than the ability to send a merged letter or email. So you’ve got all that data at your disposal and all you can do is send a letter.”

The main challenge with the plug-in is in ensuring there are sufficient service providers in each market so that no matter where the end users are located, the marketing campaign can be delivered locally. Sandford says he doesn’t envisage it will be a problem signing up new providers once the system has proved itself. The second challenge is to communicate with and educate the end users, which is why he has teamed up with a firm of systems integrators which has direct access to the subscriber list.

Once the plug-in has been shown to work with one CRM and deliver value, it will then be relatively simple to port it to different systems. Ultimately, Sandford says that while there is big potential on the consumer side of the business, it is a slow-moving market; the even greater potential however is with business customers and in offering something which has not been done before.

Keep your hands off

One of the interesting aspects of talking about Yellow Postie with Sandford is that the print part of the equation hardly gets a mention even though the end product is still very much a printed item. Locally, all the cards are produced on an iGen digital printer and Sandford says the system as it is now set up is a ‘lights out’ operation; the orders are entered, fed into separate workflows (for local or international mailing), imposed, printed and inserted into the envelopes ready for posting without any human intervention. The only exception to this is when a customer requests to do their own mail-out which requires packing the printed cards by hand.

It sounds like a simple process now—and one which Sandford says works fairly seamlessly—but there’s no doubt that getting to this point has required a lot of effort and skill. Nevertheless, a hands-free production system of this type is absolutely necessary; web-to-print, especially in the consumer market where the runs are typically frequent but short, only works if the level of automation is high. Human handling slows down the process and costs money.

One area which might have been expected to be a problem but which hasn’t turned out that way is colour management. Given the range and variety of images uploaded by users to create their cards, the task of matching colours accurately and making sure, for instance, that people’s faces are the right skin tone, sounds as if it might be fraught with risks. Not so, says Sandford, adding that the colour quality is good, thanks in part to the output of the iGen and by having the necessary quality checks in place. Using images from Facebook libraries, as Yellow Postie will be doing this year, may pose more of a problem as the files tend to be low-res but, even here, Sandford says there is smart software designed to help minimise the issue.

Patience and perseverance

Two years down the track and now internationally recognised, Matt Sandford is well-placed to offer a cool-headed perspective on the perils and pitfalls of web-to-print ventures. There’s no doubt that getting to this point has been a hard slog, perhaps more so than anticipated, with many hours spent under the bonnet of the XMPie software which powers the front-end. It’s clear that one of the main requirements for anybody contemplating a move into web-to-print is a sense of humour—and patience.

“You need to start with the end-user before you do anything else and elevate their need,” he comments. “In terms of building a web-to-print model, you need patience and perseverance. You also need to be creative. There are endless possibilities so you really need to think outside the square to see where it can take you because that’s what is going to drive you in the end.”

The other element that emerges in conversation with Sandford is the importance of face-to-face contact with end users. That might seem surprising to anybody envisaging a hands-off, anonymous customer relationship via the web but, particularly in the business sphere, nothing beats sitting down in front of a client and explaining how it all works.

“The systems integrator has this idea that everything will be online and there will be no human contact, and that’s where my 30 years of print says, no, there will be human contact and it will be an opportunity to have a relationship. Print can only go so far as an online thing.”

Sandford gives the impression of relishing this aspect of the business, drawing on his years of experience as one of the biggest franchise print operators in the country. In some respects, it is clear too that the more things change, the more print stays the same; it is still about selling something real and tangible to people.

And if the process of setting up a new venture based around internet sales sounds daunting, then certainly this is also part of what appeals to Sandford. As he points out, he could have stayed in the commercial print market, but web-to-print offers a fresh challenge, intellectually and commercially. As it happens, it also fits well with the print industry in terms of relationship marketing, and offers an opportunity to expand its marketplace.

Besides, creating your own greetings card portal has other advantages as well. Over the past two years, Sandford says he hasn’t missed a single anniversary or birthday; Yellow Postie offers a built-in reminder service to users, ensuring they don’t forget those ‘big’ days or leave it to the last minute. And while it might be too much to claim that he had to start a whole new business in order to remember his anniversary, it is, at the very least, one of the added benefits of running a successful online card outlet.

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