Marketing Direct-to-Substrate Services

Don Copeland is digital products manager for SWF East, Tampa. He has been in the digital-graphics end of the screen-printing and sign industries for the past 17 years. To make contact, or visit the website at

As a decorator, you’re already well aware of the numerous capabilities that direct-to-substrate technology offers your shop. For starters, you can quickly print full-color images directly to T-shirts, caps, and other substrates, without hassling with emulsions, screens and other tasks associated with traditional screen printing. But those advantages don’t necessarily translate into anything meaningful to most of your customers. In other words, they don’t care whether you have to burn screens, they just want their orders quickly and affordably.

That said, how should you market your shop’s direct-to-substrate services? How can you turn the technology’s numerous decorating advantages into profits? The key—as with all successful marketing efforts—is building the message around the customer’s needs and concerns, and showing how the technology addresses those issues.

Key benefits to convey

When crafting your marketing message, consider the following benefits of direct-to-substrate technology, most if not all of which are highly likely to resonate with your customers. . . .

Environmental friendliness: Lately it seems everyone has “green” on the brain, with Americans increasingly focused on reducing their carbon footprints and being kind to Mother Nature. With that in mind, pitching your direct-to-substrate services as a green alternative to screen printing could be a successful marketing effort. Inform customers that the process is a water-based one and, since you’re not building screens, there’s minimal waste associated with the technology.

No set-up charges: This point is a bit tricky to convey, as you’re most likely going to charge more for direct-to-substrate printing, on a per-garment basis, than for screen printing. You can’t simply say, “This process is cheaper,” because it’s not. But you can emphasize that the customer is paying for fast turn-around and the ability to get small, customized orders—and that he’s able to do so at a reasonable price because you’ve eliminated the set-up fees.

You can also let customers know they’re not just eliminating set-up charges for one set of screens; they’re doing so for men’s large and women’s small shirts, youth and infant sizes, and oversized garments. There’s no need to expose additional screens for different-size garments and, even if customers don’t quite know what a screen is, they should be made to understand that this translates into savings for them.

No minimums: Customers are familiar with—and, often, frustrated by—the minimum order sizes associated with screen printing. Your marketing effort should convey that you can offer orders with no minimums, thanks to direct-to-substrate technology.

Unlimited design colors: Customers also are familiar with—and, perhaps, confused by—the costs associated with each additional color added to a screen-printing job. Let them know that the cost of their job is the same, whether they’re design is of one or 100 colors.

Turn-around time: We’re a nation of procrastinators, and customers for T-shirts are no exception. Appeal to their sense of urgency by making fast turn-around time a big part of your marketing efforts. Let customers know that, even if they’re ordering at the last minute, you can still provide them exactly what they need. Need it tomorrow? No problem!

Multi-media possibilities: This point may only appeal to a select group but, for customers who want the increasingly popular multi-media look (rhinestones with embroidery and printing, for instance), it’s important to point out this feature in your marketing materials.

For you, multi-media represents a great way to offer a high-margin service; for customers, it means a great way to get that retail-ready look.

Markets to pursue

Which customer groups should you be reaching out to with your marketing messages? A rifle is more specifically effective than a shotgun, so think narrowly; look for clusters of people with similar interests. It’s what I call the “loony collection”—a group of people who are a bit loony in their shared love of a subject, whether it’s horses, dogs or classic cars. These types of groups are highly likely to purchase T-shirts emblazoned with artwork referring to the subject about which they’re so passionate.

There are so many niche markets you shouldn’t don’t try to go after all of them. Pick a few niches and become expert in them. Discover what types of artwork works best for them, what events they attend and so on.

Also, look for channels where people make impulse purchases. For instance, people don’t generally wake up and say, “I’m going to get a T-shirt today that has a picture of me and my dog.” But if they’re at a dog show and you’re offering the service, they’re apt to make such an impulse purchase.

You’ll also want to give serious thought to setting up a virtual shop online, as direct-to-substrate’s ability to quickly crank out onesies and twosies makes it a perfect fit for Internet shoppers. Consider tying together your online effort with one or two of your chosen niche markets. For instance, you might set up an online store for antique lovers or art aficionados.

The author cites a phenomenon he calls the "loony collection" --a group of people who are a bit loony in their shared love of a particular subject. Wouldn't you agree the average cheer or automotive enthusiast is just loony enough to go for shirts such as these?

Many of the time-tested ideas for marketing a business in general also apply to marketing your direct-to-substrate services; and, in some cases, make even more sense, given the technique’s unique benefits.

Wear it: Whenever you’re out in public, wear garments that feature direct-to-substrate printing and tell anyone who’ll listen about your services.

Show it: If you have a store front, put samples of your work in prominent areas. This also lets customers feel the soft hand of direct-to-substrate printing, which customers find appealing. Consider doing direct-to-substrate production right in front of customers so they can see it, which may prompt them to inquire about it.

Give it away: Print samples of your work and share them with local businesses, charities and so on. It’s a simple but effective way to generate positive buzz.

Plan ahead: Develop an annual marketing calendar that spells out what messages you’ll send, via which media, and during which time periods. This way, you’ll be sure to send the right campaign at the right time. For instance, if the classic-car-show season starts in May, your calendar will remind you in March and April to start preparing fliers advertising your services.

Make time for it: Carve out a percentage of your business day to focus on marketing; it’s not a one-time activity but an ongoing, critical part of your business on which you must focus steadily and relentlessly. On a related note, you should also set aside part of your business budget for marketing expenses.

Be patient: Marketing isn’t an overnight process. It takes a while to build momentum, so stay focused on hitting singles, not home runs. Eventually, your marketing efforts will start to pay off.

Building excitement

Following these guidelines for marketing your direct-to-substrate services is a great way to ensure that customers are as excited about the technology’s benefits as you are—and a great way to make sure your shop is profitable.