How to Choose the Right Printer for High-Impact Marketing Communications

Learn the essential questions to ask printers prior to hiring them. Learn what to look for, what to expect, what to ask your designer, and how to get the maximum return on investment.

I get sample packets all the time from printers wanting to become a primary supplier. They generally send their very best work, all contained in a sleek package. If the work is impressive, I keep the samples, file the card, and give the printer a shot on some quote requests. However, if the samples are lackluster, they make their way swiftly to the round file, and I remember them only for their poor quality.

Online printers don’t get it
I recently received a packet from a large online printer. I requested samples of postcards, business cards, brochures, and other identity materials. The packet I received contained only a few business cards, one of which had an ink smudge across the logo, and three identical postcards. All of the samples were poorly printed. The packet also included a form letter with a typo and two sentences that failed to make any sense whatsoever. One of those sentences happens to also be their tag line. The printer did not even bother to enclose their own business card. This company claimed to be able to help me with my marketing. As if!

The cheapest printing is often the most expensive
Another well-known online printer is staffed by customer service reps who know nothing about printing. They are nothing more than human, script-reading order takers. They cannot answer any questions about printing, nor can they offer meaningful advice about utilizing their own processes. I recently got a shipping quote from them that was less than one-third of the correct shipping cost. While submitting the order, I discovered their error, called them, sat on hold for 15 minutes, and was finally told, “Oh, sorry we got that wrong, but there is nothing we can do about that.” After 45 minutes of discussion with a manager, they decided that they would eat the difference, but only if I chose a slower shipping method. Net savings by trying the online printer: $186, a loss of three days, and an apology to our client (even though the client insisted on that printer).

Be sure to consider all factors
Large and small clients alike are telling us with increasing frequency that they want the cheapest printing available. They usually do not take into account that online printers charge for shipping. When you consider the lower quality, shipping costs, and poor service, it is usually better to stick with a local printer and pay a little more. The difference in quality will often be paid for by the first resulting sale.

There is no better way to ensure that the good money you just spent on developing a handsome brochure, or a striking identity is wasted than by hiring the cheapest printer. There are literally dozens of factors to consider when choosing a printer. Pricing generally slots in about four rungs down the ladder, after experience, quality, and service.

Budget for success
If you put off setting a budget until you are ready to go to press, you are sure to have a giant headache looming. If you set your budget before the project gets started, you will have a final design that will meet both your budgetary needs and printing requirements.

Use your designer to order your printing
Leave it to your graphic designer to choose the right printing source for the project. An experienced designer who has purchased printing for many years will know the right printers for each type of job. Designers are experienced with proofing stages, and they can catch common printer errors that clients often miss. While it may seem easy to write those things off, keep in mind that the little details that designers obsess over are the very things that make your marketing communications more effective. If you let details slip through the cracks, your marketing will be less effective. Also, while special cuts such as rounded corners may look cool, aesthetic decisions are best implemented as part of a design. Gratuitous effects rarely improve the effectiveness of marketing materials.

Here’s a quick checklist that will help you get the printing you need every time. This checklist will help you understand what is involved in good printing and why it is so critical to the success of your marketing communications.

10.5 Things to Check Before Hiring a Printer

1. Budget: Set a reasonable and realistic printing budget that fits with your goals before your piece is designed.

2. Print Quality: Ask printers for a sample packet. If the samples contain obvious mistakes such as ink smudges, or if the colors are not properly registered, or the color is inconsistent, find another printer.

3. Service: Make sure there is a high level of service. A printer who has low or no service doesn’t understand that printing is a service industry. Online printers are especially guilty of this. If you have to spend fifteen minutes on hold to get an answer to a one-minute question, that’s a waste of your time, and ultimately, your money. The more time the printer wastes, the less actual value their low prices offer. Use local printers whenever possible.

4. Price: Make sure that you get the best quality for your money. Upon receiving the quote, make sure that the printer has followed your specifications correctly. They sometimes miss small details that can make large differences in quotes. Keep in mind that printing specifications are sometimes quite complex, and the best estimators are human. Keep your cool when asking for corrections.

5. Quantity, part 1: Always get quotes from at least three different printers. The quotes you get may surprise you. Since different print jobs fit best on different types of presses, you may find that the prices are all over the board. If a printer really wants your business, they will sometimes price the first job very low. If the quote is too low in comparison to the rest of the quotes, that is often a red flag. If a high-end printer’s quote is way out of your budget, the job is probably not a good fit for that printer. If the prices are consistent across the board, pick the one from the rep that gives you the best service.

5.5. Quantity, part 2: The unit cost on most printed pieces will go dramatically down as the quantity goes up. If you have more and you paid less, you are more likely to hand out your communications more liberally. For obvious reasons, this is a good thing. If you can afford more, get more, but do not sacrifice quality for a higher quantity. Avoid going one step up and two steps back.

6. Delivery: Does the printer deliver? What is the cost of delivery? Local delivery is sometimes free. Online printers charge what UPS charges, plus a markup. Printed goods are heavy, so count on adding a significant shipping charge to your online price. If you need it online and fast, you need it expensive.

Additional checklist for designers:

7. Planning: Allow enough time to make sure that you can do all of these things without jeopardizing your deadline, and without making impossible demands of your printer. To borrow a saying from one of my best printers: Want it bad? Get it bad.(TM) (Of course, they always deliver excellent quality.) Local printers can sometimes move your job up in the schedule, but be aware that there is sometimes a charge for that service.

8. Stick to Your Guns: If a printer tells you that your design is too difficult, find another printer. Not every job is a good fit for every printer. Printers are generally hungry by nature, and they hate turning away work. They will often try to get designers to change a design to better fit their press. Do not give in to that pressure. Stick to your guns. A knowledgeable printer is qualified to make good suggestions for improving a piece, but they sometimes overstep their territory to the detriment of the marketing piece. If you know your stuff, you will know the difference between a good and bad suggestion. If they go too far, hold firm or find another printer. I can’t stress enough the importance of this. It truly can make the difference between a poor or great piece and an upset or happy customer.

9. Double-Check Your Art: If you are getting spot color printing, make sure you have used spot colors. If, on the other hand, you have used CMYK builds, make sure that you have used proper builds, not spot colors, or worse, RGB screen values. This may seem like an overly basic suggestion, but it is astoundingly common for printers to receive art from design firms or ad agencies who simply do not know how to properly set up their art. If the printer has to make corrections, that extra service will increase the cost of the print job, and it will often delay delivery by a day or more. If your online printer has supplied you with art templates, be sure to precisely measure their templates because they are often inaccurate. If the template is off by even a little bit, it can throw the design off balance and reduce the effectiveness of the piece.

10. Review Specifications: Review colors and papers with your client. Choose a stock that makes a strong impact and meets the budget. Good designers know which papers to specify for meeting goals and price points. If the client specifies an online printer for their business cards, make sure to tell your client that they cannot have the higher quality uncoated stocks that make the most impact because online printers do not offer them. Also, be sure to explain the extreme difference in brightness between many spot and process colors (oranges and blues, for example), and that spot and process colors will most often not precisely match. If you are using metallic inks, be absolutely certain to show your client a swatch prior to printing, as they are often unaware of the muted nature of metallics. If you are using any special printing effects, show an example.

A few words about cheap business cards
Avoid using online business card template designs and printers who offer free cards that fail to include your logo. Using cards such as these to make a first impression is detrimental to your business every single time. A generic card will not set you apart in any way. You don’t need to spend a fortune on your printing if you don’t have the budget, but if you haven’t got $200 to spend on your business cards, you may want to rethink your marketing strategy anyway. Even if your business is an online business, and you rarely hand out cards, spring for a good design and some decent printing, and you will find it to be worth its weight in gold. It can take months to build your credibility, but it takes only one cheap business card to undermine that credibility in the eyes of a prospective client. Are you a fly-by-night company or an established professional? Your business card will succinctly answer that question.

Make your printing a strong link
High quality printing defines an important part in the difference between acceptable and high-impact, memorable corporate identity, branding, and marketing communications. If you consider your printing to be a critical link in the chain, you will help ensure that your marketing communications will get the maximum return on investment.

Kelly Hobkirk - teaching marketers how to harness strategy, goals, reality, and purpose to connect and do better work.


Kelly Hobkirk has been helping companies succeed in creative ways for nearly 25 years. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, and books by Rockport and Rotovision. Get exclusive articles when you sign up for his monthly newsletter.

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