by Heidi Tolliver-Nigro Even from an early start, there was a market for this technology. But the question remained: Would the commercial printing industry be the one to serve it? July 6, 2004 -- It's been a long wait, but variable data printing is finally growing up. After a decade of waiting, we are seeing mature workflows and successful, long-term applications in the real world. Variable data is finally working. This is quite a relief because, in the early years, there were many in the commercial printing industry who wondered whether variable data printing would ever take off. I'm not talking about the people with a vested interest in selling the technology (for whom variable data printing arrived the moment it was introduced). I'm talking about industry observers who eyed these claims skeptically based on market realities. For these folks (of which I am one), the chances of an industry as entrenched in traditional manufacturing as commercial printing embracing the IT-intensive, marketing-centric variable data printing model -- a model that demanded customers with deep pockets, long-term marketing goals, and preferably, a customer relationship management (CRM) business philosophy -- seemed less than a slam dunk. Not that it wasn't possible, but the slow-to-react printing industry has a history of sleeping through opportunities until someone else steps into to serve that niche and the opportunity passes them by. That opportunity came early. Within a few years, success stories began to arise from the VDP marketplace. Then just as quickly, those success stories faded as savvy marketers recognized the slowness of the rest of the market to seize this opportunity and therefore the benefits of hiding their methods from their competition. Who's Serving It Up? So even from an early start, there was a market for this technology. But the question remained: Would the commercial printing industry be the one to serve it? Even as the variable data printing market began to take hold in markets outside commercial printing, digital press manufacturers continued to insist that, yes, variable data printing was a technology that could be effectively utilized and marketed by all digital printers. At the same time, the case studies that made their way into public view didn't look like they came from the commercial printing industry at all. First, they typically involved the kinds of customers that most commercial printers do not have -- utility companies, financial services companies, auto makers, and Fortune 500 companies with their own in-house data processing operations that were already handling millions of variable information documents like invoices and statements per month. At least one pundit began to speculate that perhaps VDP was not going to succeed in the commercial printing marketplace at all. Second, in many cases -- a fact not publicized by digital press manufacturers -- these companies were doing this printing themselves. They already had the databases, the IT-savvy staff, and the graphics capabilities, so for them to add PostScript-based color printing for variable data was not exactly a stretch. If the printing was outsourced, it was outsourced to the company already producing their transactional documents. Through these years, we skeptics wondered, "Where were the examples from regular commercial printers? Working with regular commercial print customers?" There were a few one-off experiments here and there, but long-term successful programs were hard-pressed to be found. At least one pundit began to speculate that perhaps VDP was not going to succeed in the commercial printing marketplace at all. If VDP were going to succeed, he suggested, it would succeed outside the commercial printing industry, among in-plants and data processing plants. Therefore, if printers wanted to get into variable data, they would have to get out of the commercial printing business and into the data processing business like their customers. They would have to get into the database and IT world, where the heart and soul of variable data printing beat. Marketplace Gradually Taking Shape Selling variable data printing isn't about selling print. It's about selling solutions that only coincidentally involve print. Over the years, the technology has evolved, the market has evolved, and ultimately, some kind of coherent picture of the future of this marketplace is forming. While much of the variable data is, in fact, being produced in-house at customer locations or by their data processing (and printing) vendors, there are a growing number of commercial printers in this business. While it is not proving true that, in order to be successful with variable data, printers have to get out of the commercial printing business entirely, the successful ones are unlike any other type of printer we've seen in the industry to date. They are not traditional commercial printers. But they are not data processing and IT firms either. They are splitting the difference between the two. This new type of company is a smart, lithe company immersed in software development, Internet development, and printing technology with a new management style that is focused on marketing, problem-solving and long-term customer relationship development. It's a company that understands that selling variable data printing isn't about selling print. It's about selling solutions that only coincidentally involve print. They may involve email. They may involve Web development solutions, mailing and fulfillment, and design. It's about understanding the customer first, then developing a solution around the specific needs of each customer. It's not a manufacturing solution. It's a custom consulting solution…and yet, coming from what -- at least on the shop floor -- looks like a traditional printing operation. It's a strange and fascinating breed of printer that, while being the exception in the marketplace today, may tell us a lot about where this industry is heading.