Commentary & Analysis
Getting Personal... Variable Communications and Digital Printing
by Mike Chiricuzio Blue Moon Solutions,
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: August 11, 2003
by Mike Chiricuzio Blue Moon Solutions, Inc. August 11, 2003 -- Mass marketing is somewhat akin to shouting at a crowd of disinterested spectators, hoping that a few will hear, and listen, and respond. Personalized communication, on the other hand, is more like sitting down with a potential client for lunch, communicating one to one, and speaking to their real interests. Throughout the history of printed communications, we have tried to become more and more effective at mass production, producing the most pieces for the lowest cost per page. Faster offset, and even faster web and gravure presses, to the extent that millions of pieces can now be produced at a very low cost per piece. Necessarily so, because the messages contained within theses pieces are, by nature, generic. By the time we have tamed the message so that it carries some message for everyone, yet doesn't offend or omit anyone, we are left with a message so diluted that it goes almost unnoticed. All potential readers of a document are not the same, yet the message is, so the response or interest rating of these pieces is low. If you're selling widgets, and you have 500 to sell, you may need to print 50,000 brochures to reach enough people to sell them, because you are limited to a marketing approach that demands you send only one message. The economics of our industry have always pushed us to mass deliver a message to as many people as possible, hoping that somewhere in that group will be enough readers to sell our widgets, or communicate our message. Eliminating Guesswork Also of significance is the guesswork factor. Guess how many brochures you will need to sell the 500 widgets this year? Don't know? Well, then, guess high. Why? Because, if you buy more pieces up front, you keep the unit cost down. And if you buy more, then no one will be in trouble for running out and having to print more later at a higher cost per piece. No one yells when the excess gets thrown away. And it will get thrown away, as up to 35% of all printed material is discarded without even being distributed. That's right, it never even leaves the warehouse, never has a chance to be glanced at… and then be thrown out. It's gone before it even begins. Even worse, companies continue to distribute material that is obsolete and therefore less effective, because it's already paid for it, and they are trying to throw away as few as possible. But what if you could print the correct quantity, only what you know you need? What if you could tailor the message to fit the reader? What if you could do many different versions of the message or even a different version for every reader? How much more effective would the level of communication be? Reason, logic and research all tell us that the response rate of the message goes up significantly if the information is properly targeted to the reader. Historically, it has not been feasible to do much in the way of personalizing the message due to the large up-front costs of design and production. What has changed significantly in the recent past is the enabling hardware and software technologies of digital printing, hybrid digital printing, and imprinting. Heidelberg/NexPress, HP/Indigo, Océ, Scitex Digital Printing, Xeikon, Xerox and others now have presses that can change the message with every impression, whether it just be addressing, text changes, image changes, or changing every pixel of every page, without changing printing speed. The software of these companies and third party providers allows for a stream of information, provided by the sender of the message, to flow into the printed document. Now Sue in Iowa who works as a lab researcher doesn't have to read the same message as Bob in Florida who works at Wal-Mart. You can tell them both about the widget that's right for each of them, in their price range, in their favorite colors, narrowing the focus of the message to suit their likes and dislikes, their buying habits, their budgets. Significantly, you can also eliminate Bob from your target list if he doesn't buy widgets. Or only target him in the fall when he does. Targeting the customers with the most potential reduces the quantity of pieces produced. The size and scope of the printed piece can also be reduced by printing in each piece only that information that is pertinent to that particular recipient, thereby eliminating the text and graphics that have no interest to the reader. Not only does this reduce the amount of printing required; it automatically makes the communication piece more interesting by focusing the reader's attention on items of interest, without getting lost in a wealth of generic information. The Most Accurate Measure In business, in one form or another, we all work towards the best return on our investment. If we buy a piece of equipment, a building, or hire an employee, will our investment pay off? If so, how much, and when? This is crucial information for anyone making a purchase decision. Certainly, it's not the only factor, but from a pure business standpoint ROI is the most accurate measure of whether a purchase decision is wise for the company. When purchasing print communications, the logic of return on investment has become so lost that generally the only economic factor applied is the cost per piece. Of course there are many other cost factors to consider besides the actual cost of print. Design, writing, illustration and photography and project management contribute to the final cost, but it is the printing cost itself that is generally beaten to a pulp. The print buyer is charged only with finding a printer that can successfully produce the piece at the lowest cost. Does this really suit the goal of the company who buys the printing? Shouldn't they really look for effective communication? The bottom line is performance. Historically, the effective response rate for generic communication pieces tends to be in the 1% to 3% range. When customized versions are introduced, the response rate increases to 4% to 7%. And when personalized variable data printing is incorporated, the response rate jumps to as high as 25% and, in some cases, even more. That's performance. That's return on investment. That's effective communication. If variable printing is so good, how come everyone isn't doing it? Until recently, the technology of both the hardware and software has not been robust enough to handle the work. And now that the technology works, there is a steep learning curve for users, on both the production and design sides of the equation. As they say, if it was easy… Rethinking the Process For effective variable data communication, all the "players" have to organize and coordinate their efforts early in the process. Data must be gathered and sorted to provide the information to drive the software and hardware that will produce the document. The client has to provide accurate data in a usable form, whether it is merely mailing and addressing information, buying habits of the potential customer or categorization of the tastes of the potential customer that relate to aspects of the product or message to be communicated. The designer has to re-think the communication process. Decisions must be made as to what portions (if any) of the document will remain "static" or unchanged, and which portions will be "dynamic" or change with every copy or group of copies. Since the dynamic areas of the document may not all be the same size, or contain the same amount of text, allowances must be made to accommodate both ends of the spectrum. Design for variable data communications has its challenges. The production staff of the printing company then has its work cut out to put it all together so that the final piece actually works. Variances in databases, issues with naming conventions, text reflow and data verification are but a few of the challenges faced when producing these documents. Once all the above aspects are working, there is still the issue of "cost per piece." Until you can convince the print buyer, or more often, the marketing manager or principle of the company, of the effectiveness of personalized printing and the value of the return on their investment, the work is not finished. This, now, more than the difficulties of the technology, is the obstacle in the road.