The Art of Engaging Audiences Online & In Person with Bay View Printing Co.


Beyond the Cart Lightburn Podcast - Ecommerce

In this episode of Beyond the Cart, Nora is joined by Bay View Printing Co.'s Ashley Town to discuss the company's digital evolution from print to pixel.

Hear how this local business grew its market and transformed operations by focusing on customer service across multiple audiences. From its core design service through its ever-popular "Drink & Ink" events Ashley refined processes and leveraged technology to better support users online and offline. 

Today’s Topics:

  • History of Bay View Printing Co.
  • What is Bay View Printing Co. today?
  • Identifying different customer types
  • Investing in a service and ecommerce website
  • How to mirror offline service offerings online
  • Automating tasks without losing the personal touch
  • Integrating your website with other business tools
  • Creating cross-promotional opportunities
  • Meeting different audiences where they are


[AI transcribed]

Welcome to Beyond the Cart, presented by Lightburn. I'm Nora, and this is a podcast all about ecommerce and customer experience. In our last episode, we talked about how incremental improvements to your customer experience can make a big impact, and today's guest has some great examples of this in action. 

I'm joined by the owner of Bayview Printing Company, my good friend Ashley Town. Bayview Printing Company is a 107-year-old letterpress printshop and design studio. Ashley has a unique perspective on preserving traditional craftsmanship while adapting to the needs of today's customers. 

History of Bay View Printing Co

It’s a really long story, but I'll be brief. I went to MIAD, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design for Communication Design, and then that led to my job in advertising, where we [Nora and I] met. I will say I loved all of the humans that I met in that job. That job was not for me though, and I think to know that at that young of an age was like a gift. But I got really lucky in that one of my previous college professors reached out and asked if I had any interest in teaching, and I think the second day in the classroom I fell in love with teaching, which led to grad school because you need a graduate degree to teach at the college level. The college I was teaching at said you have to have a graduate degree. It doesn't necessarily have to be in design. So I thought what a great opportunity to explore something new. So I ended up going to the school of the Art Institute of Chicago for creative writing. Was kind of back and forth. I had left the agency at that point. Once I got into grad school, I left the agency, but I was teaching full-time at my ad, so I lived in Milwaukee, but I was like every other day I was in Chicago for classes. What a time. I'm way too old to do that now.

So the focus in grad school was creative writing and I ended up writing this book that was about, I don't think it's fair to say memoir because when you're 22 years old, that just can't be true. There is not much to say yet, but it was just about some childhood trauma, but mostly how you use truth and lies and memories to construct who you are. And every time I printed out a draft of the book, it was on a digital printer. That was the only thing I ever had access to. And so every time I printed out a proof of the book, it was glossy. It's not right. I want it to feel in the paper the way I feel in my head when I read it out loud. And one of my colleagues at MIAD said, oh, I think you're looking for letterpress printing. And there's this old guy in Bayview that's still doing that, and there was in fact an old guy in Bayview still doing that. I spent legitimately spent a fair amount of time walking around Bayview looking for an old man printing in a basement, and I think I didn't have a car. I think I sold my car when I was in grad school. I didn't want a car in Chicago. So I got off the bus and there's a bus stop right out front of our building. I happened to get off the bus there. I look over, he has this tiny little sign in the front window that we still have that says BVP print, and it has a phone number on it that's like SH and then four numbers, so that's how old that sign is. Wow. Yeah. But I look over and the basement was lit up and I was like, oh my gosh, this has to be the guy. And I walk over and creep in the basement windows, which people still do to us today. And that's how I met Jim essentially. I walk in, I'm so excited to meet him. I just immediately launch into like, oh, I'm working on this project. I wrote this book. Can you teach me how to letter press print so I can print this book? And he's like, no, it's 2013. No one is letterpress printing books. He kind of thinks I'm a little nutty. So, I was a little bummed, but also, I was like, well before I leave, can you just show me what I'm looking for? I hadn't seen letterpress type, I hadn't seen a press, nothing like that. He's like, yeah, of course. I think he lit up a little bit. Someone's interested in what he's doing. And so he takes me down to the basement, which is still our print studio, and I felt like I was walking back in time. It is a time capsule. It smells like your grandpa plus some oil and some ink and things like that. And the walls of the basement are lined with these wooden chests. Every chest you can open every single drawer, and it's a different typeface and a different size. He has this massive collection of wood and lead type and there are giant printing presses everywhere. It was walking into Newsies.

And so he kind of just blew my mind and he showed me a little bit that day and something in my brain clicked and I was like, Jim is my new best friend. And then I just sort of made him my best friend. So I kept going back almost every day and he could be bribed with sandwiches and coffee and donuts, and I spent probably months just watching him work. He would let me stand by the press and watch him run it and whatever set type and all of that. And I think I just eventually wormed my way in and he was like, she's legitimately interested. So he started teaching me how to set type and he'd let me print projects that didn't really matter or things he didn't really care about on the press.

So really a very organic apprenticeship happened. Yeah, that's fair. And at some point, I finished grad school. I wasn't going to get a job. I wasn't going to get the glossy professor job that I thought I was going to for lots of reasons. And I was at the shop kind of sulking about it and whining and he was like, that's just how things go. I really want to retire, but nobody wants all this junk. And I was like, what? Everything kind of clicked. I always tell people it felt like the stars aligned. I looked around and I was like, I can do everything I love here because now I'm obsessed with printing, so I can design, I can print, I could teach classes, I could do all the things. And so I said, I want to buy your junk, and that kind of started that whole process. So now you own all of Jim's junk? I do. Now it's my junk. Congratulations. And how long have you owned the shop? 

October of this year will be 10 years.

What is Bayview Printing Company today?

Yeah, okay, so we've shifted a fair amount. We wear a couple of hats. First and foremost, we are a design studio and letterpress print shop, so we do custom design work for all of our clients and then letterpress print production of that work. The bulk of that work is in the wedding industry, so we do a lot of wedding invitations and all of that, so that's one bucket. The other thing that we've done is to try to build a sense of community. So I very much believe that if you have a craft as old as letterpress printing, the way to make sure that that continues is to cultivate education. So we do a lot of workshops and classes and field trips and all of the tour groups and all of that good stuff.

Identifying different customer types 

You've also got an ecommerce component, so you're doing design services, you're doing in-person workshops. You are doing direct-to-consumer selling online, and you also do wholesale. That's a lot of different types of customers. How do you think about those customers differently?

It's interesting. I always thought that I needed to segment the business more like, oh, and at some point I thought, do we need two websites? There were two identities or two different socials for the class people, the workshop folks, then the wedding folks, do I need to keep that separate? Then retail happens like, okay, is that another thing? What I have learned is that it's absolutely not. It all falls under the umbrella of collaboration and community design first, all of that, and there's so much crossover that happens that I never could have anticipated, and so folks come in for a workshop on Thursday nights and they have no idea what the other things are that we do, but we take the first five minutes of class and that gives us an opportunity to say, oh, we also do custom design and create wedding invitations. And so there's quite a bit of crossover that I definitely didn't anticipate. I would say the retail audience is something that we're definitely still trying to grow. Having that new ecommerce platform has been huge. Prior to having that, we just had cards in the shop and we just sort of, I don't know, hoped that people would know that and come in and buy stuff.

It's not uncommon for that to happen though. I think a lot of people go into even online sales of saying, well, we'll put our shop up and then everyone will just flock in and it'll be easy and we'll start selling, and you got to be a little bit more, you got to meet people where they're at, right?

Yeah, and if you don't understand the marketing piece, it's like then you take it personally. You're like, okay, is the work not good enough? Maybe we just aren't good, but no, it's just that you're yelling into a vacuum where no one knows that you're there.

Investing in a service and ecommerce website

You made a pretty big investment comparatively for a company of your size. So tell me what made you realize that that was something that was worth investing in

So many things. From the very beginning when Bayview Printing was a glimmer in my eye. I made a website on Squarespace, and then once I bought the business, everything else grew so fast for me and I was just one person, and then eventually one person plus an intern, and so I was doing everything myself, but just figuring it out, okay, now we have these classes, how do I tell people about them? And everything was a weird sort of backward hack on Squarespace, and I felt like I would fall down this rabbit hole and figure out how to do it, and then I would come out the other side and be like, I could never change it. I can never do it again. Don't ever touch this again. It works. Yeah. Yeah.

We just rolled with that for six years. Then I think it was we had the wedding side of the business had grown so much. We had this beautiful, beautiful portfolio of work. Our social had grown enough that people were starting to find us on Instagram and things like that. It's like the local folks would come into the shop, look at the work and be sold, but anyone that was finding us in any other way would go to our website and it did not reflect what we were capable of. Every once in a while I get an email or a phone call and, oh, can you do such and such? And when I explained what we were capable of, they'd be like, oh, I didn't see that on the website. I was like, okay. So now we have this very public face out there that is not at all reflective of who we are. So that was a big like, all right, we got to fix that, and the timing could not have been better. I think we started working together in 2020. Sounds right. Everything kind of stopped and now so many people find us via social media. I think we do around 120 weddings a year, and I'm going to say half of those folks I never even meet in person anymore.

How to mirror offline service offerings online

So I wanted to ask you about that because when you were describing the way that you do your custom design work, you sit down with people and talk about what they want to do. I'm picturing sitting on a couch together, flipping through a book, which is sort of the traditional way I think of shopping for wedding invitations. 

Now you're working with people across the country, right? Yeah. So how are you transferring that in-person experience that sells you so well and immediately makes people connect and know that you're the right choice to an online experience so that they get that same feeling of connection?

That is where Lightburn took my nutty idea and knocked it out of the park. So I kept saying, okay, this portfolio book, it feels like magic. I sit down with someone for 20 minutes and we look at things, and I'm not trying to be a braggart, but it's like the work is definitely just different. It speaks for itself, right?

Yeah. It's like contemporary design meets old-school printing, and the results are totally unique. And so I kept, not kept, I said to the library team, I just wish there were a way for someone to feel like they were flipping through our portfolio book on the website, and that is essentially what they created. So there's a whole section of our website that's portfolio related, that's beautiful photography of our work and anyone that finds it can click through, get a really good sense of the range of design, the quality of the work, the materials, all of that. And the way that it was designed, actually, you're kind of flipping through a book, which I think is really beautiful because what we do is so tactile. I was really concerned that a lot of that would get lost online, and I think you gave the team a lot of trust there to take that input, that core problem to solve, and then use their expertise to solve it in a digital way that maybe you wouldn't have been able to think of by yourself. Oh, totally. Yeah. I think you don't know what you don't know, right? Yeah. So just trust people that know. Yes, tell your friends.

Automating tasks without losing a persona touch 

The other thing that I know was clunky for you before you came to us was the way that you registered for classes. Describe what that was like before we rebuilt the site. Yes. So I think it's important to know that we talked about this a little bit earlier about all those different audiences. So our classes are, I think I mentioned very casual, like three hours. We call it Drink and ink, like a B-Y-O-B situation. The point is to be really approachable. So it appeals to a big variety of people, and that's definitely the case. And what that does for us as a business is it gives us an opportunity to talk to from 10 to 40 new people a week. And also that's a beautiful sales opportunity. We have a studio full of people, we get to say a captive, a captive audience.

These are all the other things we do. So the classes are critical, I think, to business, to our business. And the way that signup was working before is that I had a class calendar posted on the website, but it didn't have any actual functionality. It was like taking a picture of a Google calendar and putting a Thursday night, six to nine on there so that people could see that it existed. And then to sign up, they would send me an email, which sounds insane to me now to even say that, but the number of back-and-forth emails I did all the time signing people up for classes and then I would just keep track of who was coming to what on our Google calendar, all of that, the amount of effort and work I probably spent, I don't even want to think about it, five hours a week taking care of that, which feels really insane right now. No one,

No one's going to put up with that. No one's to go through that process over and over again.

And so now it's a much smoother system. And we did set you up on Shopify. You had been on Squarespace, which does have ecommerce capabilities, didn't necessarily have that event signup built in. We used Shopify. That gives you that great traditional ecommerce experience. And then there are add-ons that we can do to do something like buying tickets or having an event calendar that seamlessly integrates. 

Integrating your website with other business tools 

What other technology are you using in here when you're working with clients? I think you have a CRM system that we're attached to. Yes. So, we do use a couple of the apps in the Shopify book. That app, I think is the one that we use specifically for the classes and workshops and our Google calendars, of which we have several classes, get auto-populated meetings, get auto-populated, and probably maybe most important, everything also corresponds with Dubsado, which is our project management system. Now that I talk about it, I'm like, I must have spent 40 hours a week emailing people and I was willing to do it for so long because it felt like such an important part of our business. Well, and it was important. I mean it was worth investing in, but I think you found a better way to handle it now.

Creating cross-promotional opportunities 

So now that everything is hosted on the ecommerce platform, I don't have to look at or manage a single thing. Anyone can go to our website, see the class calendar, click add to cart, sign up, and then auto-populate our registration on the calendar. They get an email reminder so that they don't forget to come. They actually get a follow-up email after class so that they can write a review or share with friends or go back to our website for 15% off retail. So it's just very seamless now. And so you're not touching that process and you're giving those folks a better experience because waiting for an email back and forth is not a pleasant experience for a customer. We know this, and it isn't approachable, like you were saying when you started framing out the importance of the workshops is being approachable. It's not approachable to ask someone to send you an email, go away from my website, open your Gmail or whatever, and type out a message. That's a lot of work to put on your customer and you're probably losing them. I don't think that we had, especially now, I can't imagine if we were still doing that's not, no one wants to do that. And I think the timing was perfect because if you hadn't been ready already to get started, you would've been that much further behind deciding to get started on it, and then you would've lost opportunities and the time spent that now you can spend not emailing back and forth. So it's nice to see an improvement like that was, maybe it started as an improvement for your internal process mostly, but it also impacted your customer's experience so much. It's so much smoother now, and I love hearing the, I'd forgotten about the follow-up email. That's such a classic ecommerce tactic, and we're applying traditional ecommerce approach to that workshop signup. So the cart experience and the follow-up email is very, very traditional for ecommerce and then the 15% off too. That's one of our go-to get that person back to the shop and keep shopping. And convert them to be a customer in a different way. Exactly. Yeah. So I think about all the ways that the next time we're doing this podcast, I'm talking to somebody who owns a very large company in a manufacturing space, but they have the same challenges of your customer knows you in the way that they came to you the first time, and then it's about reminding them of all the other things that you do. And so it really applies on a small scale, a large scale in different industries. 

Meeting different audiences where they are 

That is a challenge no matter how big or small you are or what you're selling, especially if you are, I think selling a service and then also a product that can be challenging.

Yeah, I think that's always been a challenge for us. It's like, oh, not only are they different audiences, but they're different. One is service-based, one is product-based. Just a totally different way of thinking. We even see that when people come in for workshops, you have to walk into and then stand in our retail space for a little bit and people don't buy things when they're there. I just thought, oh, it will be there. The people, the things, they'll buy the things while they wait. Nope, there's a one track. I'm here to take a class sort of mindset. Interesting. But we send the follow-up email that's like, thanks for coming. Feel free to leave a review. And then they will buy something online. They need a little

Time when they leave, do they have an opportunity to buy too when they're walking out?

Sometimes it's a little bit different. So classes downstairs in the print studio. So upstairs. Yeah. So if there's no one there and there isn't, there's one person there. They're teaching the class.

Yeah. The reason I ask, and this is totally a tangent, but I was at a pasta-making class at Semolina a few weeks ago in our neighborhood, and we did the class and then they had all of the things that we had worked with out ready for us to shop for, and they were open for shopping after, and I wonder if getting to pick something up after, I dunno. Total tangent. So we've talked a lot about how you got to where you're at today with your digital presence. The way that you're interacting with your customers has changed since Jim owned the shop and didn't even want customers to come in. What are you looking forward to? What's coming next?

I don't know. In looking forward, I don't see this big, glossy future where we have five locations or where we do 600 weddings a year. That's just not who you want to be.

That doesn't appeal to me. What I do think I see is new and interesting collaborations. We've done some pretty cool projects over the years. We had the opportunity to redesign the entryway at 88 9, which is our Milwaukee public radio station. We pulled prints of a bunch of our wood-type collection and blew it up, and it fills the inside of their space. It was very cool. What else has been really fun? We collaborated with the St. Kate, the Arts Hotel downtown and made the lampshades and all the guest rooms. Those are kind of the things that are firing me up right now, so I'm like, I don't.

So quality over quantity. You really want to be doing the work that you love, that your team loves, and connecting with your customers and doing something really great for them. I can really identify with that. 

That's our show for today. Thanks to Ashley for joining us, and thank you to you for listening Beyond the Cart is produced by Lightburn. Our episode today was produced and edited by our very own Stacey Tischer and recorded at Independent Studios. Our music is the song, Let's Go, go, go by Tiger Blood Jewel. Be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you like to listen. 

You can always learn more about CX and ecommerce at I'm Nora Lahl and I hope you'll join me next time for Beyond the Cart.