Commentary & Analysis
VDP Snafus: Be Glad They Didn't Happen to You
by Heidi Tolliver-
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: October 27, 2005
by Heidi Tolliver-Nigro October 27, 2005 -- At Print 05, I attended a seminar on variable data printing produced by industry consultant Jim Olsen and industry analyst Richard Romano. At the seminar, the pair gave six examples of recent VDP campaigns, including ROI and response rates. What was particularly interesting about these examples is that, in addition to discussing the positive aspects of the campaign, the pair also discussed their problems and snafus. This will give you some idea of the oddball twists and turns a VDP campaign can face. It's rare that marketers are willing to discuss the real-life challenges they experience when doing VDP jobs, so I thought I'd pass them along here. Most of us, especially in this venue, are aware of the "usual suspects," but this will give you some idea of the oddball twists and turns a VDP campaign can face. The first of the two examples I'll cover this month involved a four-page brochure for PIA affiliates that promoted a 29-city seminar called "Changing Profit Centers." The brochures were created in two steps. First, they were versioned to reflect the geographic location, seminar date, and PIA affiliate. Then, each version was personalized by recipient name, with a map based on how far each recipient lived from the seminar. Give Your Bindery the Whole Story For one affiliate, the print shop Olsen chose to produce the brochures didn't have the finishing facilities necessary to cut or fold them, so he contacted a trade bindery, as well. But while Olsen accurately described the piece itself, he forgot to tell the bindery that it was a VDP job. After the job was delivered and the bindery realized it was variable, the price went up dramatically. After the job was delivered and the bindery realized it was variable, the price went up dramatically. Why? When VDP jobs come off the press, they come off in ZIP code order. If the bindery drops a stack or otherwise gets the job out of order, they have to resort them. Voila -- price hike. All was not lost, however. Instead of using Standard Mail, Olsen switched to First Class, where ZIP code order is irrelevant. This allowed the bindery to reduce its price, offsetting the increase in postage. Not an inexpensive solution, but the best one under the circumstances, since the additional bindery cost was more than the First-Class premium. The moral of the story? When outsourcing binding and finishing for a VDP job, always let the bindery know upfront that it's a VDP job! Software Snafus on the Back End Occasionally, PDFs aren't always WYSIWYG. In another instance, Olsen experienced a nasty post-mail surprise. Although the file had been proofed extensively, one version ended up with missing type and changed letters. Turns out, there was an incompatibility between the font Olsen and Romano were using in the supplied PDF and the software that was driving the printer's digital press. Occasionally, PDFs aren't always WYSIWYG. This incompatibility caused the dropped type and changed letters seen in the print version. The problem was rare, and was the responsibility of the printer, so the file was converted to PostScript and reprinted free of charge. Lost in the Mail House In yet another example, because the job was VDP, it was smaller than many traditional direct mail campaigns--a mere 700 pieces--and disappeared into the bowels of the mailing house. The end result? Four PIA affiliates had to rescheduled their seminars. This had ripple effects on sponsors and speakers, with all of their associated hotel and plane reservations, as well as causing headaches for attendees. The next time, Olsen did not work with a presort house, but put the pieces directly into the local USPS. The 700 piece VDP job vanished into the bowels of the mailing house and had a ripple effect on sponsors, speakers and attendees. This discussion brought protests from the audience, however, one of which insisted that this is highly unusual for a presort house and that small jobs are more likely to be lost by the USPS than by a professional mailing operation. This aside, the point is that it was one of those weird things that can happen when doing VDP jobs. Software Snafus on the Front End The second case study presented by Olsen and Romano came from Phoenix Magazine, which offers "Best Of" awards throughout the region. Understandably, many of the winners want additional copies of their certificates, or poster-sized or wall-mounted versions for display, and keeping up with fulfilling requests from 300 or so winners every year had become a real pain for the magazine. To alleviate this headache, the magazine's printer set up a Web-to-print portal, where "Best Of" winners could log in, view PDF proofs of whatever version they wanted (wall mount, poster, and so forth), and place orders. In setting up the application, the printer ran into a problem in that the software it chose to design the application, iWay, is not easy to access using the Mac, so it created a workaround -- an interface that overlays the software -- using XMPie software so that it doesn't matter what platform the winner uses to access the portal. The printer also experienced limitations in the ability to customize iWay because of incompatibilities between XMPie and the HP Indigo 5000. This a problem that is actively being addressed by HP Indigo. I expect this to be a short-lived snafu, and in the meantime, one customer is reportedly solving the problem by outputting PDF files. Great Maturity Debate Redux This brings up an issue I raised some months ago, an issue that has generated a certain amount of controversy. I said that the technology and the software for creating VDP jobs is mature. I've gotten a certain amount of flack for this, and in light of the snafus presented here, it might seem that I should be eating crow, right? These challenges shouldn't scare them away from using VDP or embarking upon VDP campaigns. The point I was trying to make, however, wasn't that there are no problems to be solved or improvements yet to be made. It's that nothing yet needs to be developed or improved in order to create profitable VDP jobs. It's kind of like the way we describe our children. When they hit a certain age -- 18 years old? 21 years old? Thirty? -- we say they are "mature." It doesn't mean that they aren't going to continue to learn and grow, but they are old enough to stand on their own two feet and live independently. So it is with VDP. Sure, the software can be improved, and we will still run into little problems along the way, but these things are not impeding the growth of VDP as a whole. They create headaches, and sometimes require workarounds, but the market is chugging along just fine in spite of them. They are minor glitches in a marketing environment that is growing steadily and healthily. That's what I mean by "maturity." Lessons for VDP Speaking of snafus not impeding progress, that is a message that ought to be taken from this column. That marketers will face unexpected challenges and obstacles is a given. But these challenges shouldn't scare them away from using VDP or embarking upon VDP campaigns. That's why these "pains in the butt" need to be discussed. If you expect them, they become that much less scary and perceived impediments. It reminds me of one of the best pieces of advice I received while planning my wedding. Craig Kevghas of CPR Marketing told me that, no matter how much I plan, something will go wrong. So instead of sweating and worrying about it, I should just expect it. Then, when it happens, don't get stressed out over it. Say, "Whew! There it is!" and move on. So it is with VDP. More snafus next time.