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The plunging price of printers and other equipment has made it more viable than ever to move some of your business printing needs in-house. What software and hardware do you need? What benefits can you expect to gain? And how can you combine print and online marketing strategies? Angus Kidman reports.

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When Phoenix Freight, based in Sydney's Botany, recently decided to upgrade its printer, operations manager Matt Vella was keen to purchase a colour model. In part, that decision was driven by basic economics for the privately owned international freight company, founded in 1988, and now with 12 permanent staff.

"This is our second Lanier multi-function machine," Vella says. "The first was just a black and white unit. As it drew closer to the unit requiring replacement, we looked at the colour option and there really wasn't a lot of difference in price. It was a no-brainer to go for the colour unit. There really wasn't much difference in cost per month."

An equally important incentive, however, was the ability to move much of the company's promotional printing needs away from professional printers. "We looked at the opportunity for us as a small-to-medium sized company to do a lot of our printing in- house," Vella says. "Like any other company, we've looked to printing companies for printing our business cards, letterheads, company profiles, flyers and brochures, which of course can cost a lot of money."

A particular concern is the minimum order requirements that apply at most commercial printing establishments. "Generally speaking, you can't do them in small quantities.”

Shifting to an in-house colour machine—in this case, a Lanier D335c printer, copier and fax—makes it possible to produce small or single-run items on the premises at a cost comparable to that charged by a printer. While falling colour ink prices have played a role in this kind of transition, Vella argues that it's the advances in quality that have been the most critical factor. "The print quality is absolutely exceptional. It really looks as though what we've printed has a professional finish."

Phoenix Freight prints most of its documents using standard A4 photocopy paper, which Vella says brings huge cost advantages. "From a sales and marketing point of view, you want to keep all your costs within reason. To achieve that, you really need to look at standard size paper."

Most printers currently sold for business use in Australia are multi-function devices, like that used by Phoenix Freight, which combine printing, scanning (and hence photocopying), and faxing. These are ideal for companies considering producing their own material, since the scanner can be used for acquiring images while the printer is used for the eventual output.

Entry-level machines generally use inkjet technology, while more expensive models utilise laser, which is cheaper for large print runs and produces faster results. However, higher-end inkjet systems can still produce very acceptable results.

Beyond the ability to provide high quality output in colour, the most important consideration in pure printing terms is paper-handling ability. The cheapest systems may only be capable of holding a couple of dozen sheets of paper, while pricier printers can automatically collate and (at the very high end) even staple documents. Such an approach might be overkill if your main marketing output is single-page A4 flyers.

For businesses with particularly volatile pricing or constantly changing product lines, being able to reprint brochures on demand enables information to always be up-to-date without risking incorrect details being distributed. However, for Phoenix that's a secondary consideration.

"We do have the odd special–we might whip up a flyer and send it out to the clients," Vella says. "But generally speaking, our flyers and brochures and our company profile don't really change."

Nonetheless, the space savings can be considerable. "For us the advantage of doing a small print run or doing one print when a client walks in off the street is huge. We don't have to have a special room where we store thousands of documents."

Design Issues

Phoenix Freight has used external designers, particularly for business cards and letterheads. Both are also good examples of materials that few companies would bother to print themselves, since they require specialised paper stock. While it is possible to purchase business card packs for printing cards, these are normally separated via perforations, which can create an unprofessional impression.

However, other design tasks have remained in-house. "The design aspect is actually done by me," Vella says. “The latest version of Microsoft Publisher is very good; you can create a lot of effective material in it. Adobe PhotoShop is also very useful."

For basic flyer production, a word processing program such as Microsoft Word may prove sufficient for your needs, and is likely to be a requirement for other aspects of the business anyway. Make use of the built-in templates in any such program as the basis for your design. These have been created by professional designers, so you're effectively able to take advantage of them at no cost.

The cost of full-blown specialist design software can be surprisingly high. Adobe's Creative Suite, for instance, sells for more than $2,000 for new users. While this appears a hefty investment, if you're confident in your basic design skills it will quickly prove cheaper than paying an external designer $100 an hour.

If you plan to frequently produce catalogues and have a constantly changing range of stock, then a digital camera may also be a useful addition to your in-house marketing kit. For effective printing, aim for the highest resolution available (at least four megapixels). To get the best results, make sure you take pictures in a well-lit environment, and take advantage of image editing software to fix up any problems and crop out unwanted details.

A fundamental decision when examining in-house printing and marketing productions is whether to purchase the equipment outright. Printer prices have dropped dramatically in recent years. The most basic entry-level colour printers cost well under $100, and even high-performing business grade colour lasers can be had for less than $1,000.

However, such comparisons are a little deceptive. Consumable costs for printers remain much higher than their initial installation costs (and most printer companies make far more money from selling cartridges than from selling machines). To effectively judge the cost of a printer, you need to combine initial hardware with the likely volume of printing you'll do, converted into cartridge use.

Increasingly, printer companies now sell printers on a service model–for a fixed monthly fee, a printer and its associated consumables are provided, along with servicing. Rates are pegged to the number of pages printed per month, but can be adjusted if needs differ dramatically over time.

Providing you're happy with the basic costs associated with the model, this can be much simpler than trying to assess for yourself how many ink cartridges you'll consume.

Vella is a firm advocate of a combined leasing arrangement, with Phoenix Freight's latest system leased over a three-year period. "We've got one fixed
monthly cost which is fully inclusive of all toner and servicing."

The Online Element

While many businesses still rely heavily on traditional print marketing, internet activity such as website development and online advertising is now playing an increasingly important role. While that can require some different skills, in many respects the two approaches are complimentary.

At the most basic level, graphics such as company logos can be readily redeployed for use on your website. Make sure that the logo is resized to an appropriate scale for the internet, as a print-quality graphic will contain detail that isn't visible on a typical PC monitor but will take extra time to download. Many graphics programs can perform this task for you automatically.

Ensure a consistency in design between your site and other promotional items. It's disorienting for customers to visit your website (which should, of course, be referred to in any marketing material) and then encounter something which looks so radically different it could be a different firm. One approach is to employ a professional designer to create basic templates for your site and marketing material, and then update them yourself as circumstances dictate.

Also make sure that your site is up-to-date and contains references to any current marketing campaigns, to avoid the risk of looking disorganised. (There will be occasions when this isn't appropriate; for example, if you're running a campaign offering discounts to loyal customers, then offering the same discounts online to anyone who happens by the site will undermine the credibility of the offer).

Just as you can run a traditional marketing campaign by sending printed brochures to customers and tracking response rates, you can also send out email brochures. While it's possible to manage this process entirely yourself, you may need specialised software, and possibly the consent of your internet service provider. Many ISPs automatically block large groups of email sent from a single email address in order to discourage spam. To ensure you comply with Australia's anti-spam laws, get explicit permission from your customers before using their email addresses in this way.

Finally, while you can fairly easily design your own site, for most small businesses it doesn't make sense to actually host it yourself. Using an external hosting provider will usually be cheaper and more secure, an area where the DIY ethos has some obvious boundaries.

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