By Noel Ward, Executive Editor July 26, 2004 -- I was bored the other day, wishing I was doing something other than staring down my PowerBook and wound up doing an online survey that had arrived in the daily email barrage. Some company apparently figured out we have a couple of dogs so they wanted to get some opinions. I'm not really sure my input on my dogs' preferences in treats means much, especially since my guys will eat about anything, but like I said, I was bored. Having spent too many years doing quantitative market research, I have a professional curiosity when being market researched. It's fun trying to figure out whom the client is, what they are trying to learn, and seeing just how badly designed some questionnaires can be. Some things never change. Creatives and ad agencies have long shied away from having prove their ads actually help sell products--because they had no way of really knowing and were afraid of the truth. Anyway, near the end of this particular survey, there was a series of Agree/Disagree questions, one of which was particularly interesting. It read: "Most companies today want to know about the individual interests and lifestyle of their customers so they can tailor their information services and products to each customer's personal preferences. In general, do you see such personalization as a good thing?" "Strongly Agree," I clicked, doing my bit to encourage marketers to get their databases in order so they can do more and better direct marketing and hopefully more variable data printing. I think it's fascinating this question was part of the survey, which was conducted by one of the big consumer research firms. They are apparently assessing consumers' tolerance regarding companies' use of individual interests and lifestyles for targeted marketing purposes. The answers to this question may or may not influence they way products are marketed and how much variable data printing is done, but it indicates that some consumer products marketers are thinking more about how they reach people other than via mass media. As George Whalen notes this week in the second installment of his three-part series on VDP, creatives and marketers are beginning to see the potential of ROI-based programs. This can be a very good thing, regardless of the media used. Creatives and ad agencies have long shied away from having prove their ads actually help sell products--because they had no way of really knowing and were afraid of the truth. Direct marketers have been always been more accountable, but could hide behind the abysmal 0.5% to 1% response rates that were the industry norm. Whalen notes, " The data components within a VDP project usually make it much easier to directly track sales resulting from a VDP program, and hence to calculate its ROI. As a result, when budgets are tight, those who must justify outlays find it easier to OK a program with a provable ROI, rather than one whose ROI cannot be proven." ROI of course, is somewhat relative. Like Heidi Tolliver-Nigro noted last week, it can be related to a specific campaign or part of a longer-term customer relationship. Either way, there should to be some metrics in place for measuring the return on developing the more costly customized communications with a customer or prospect. Used correctly, those metrics can indicate what can be done better. Put into the context of the question in the survey I took, the better the data can be individualized, the more likely a positive response, at least theoretically. But interestingly, the data doesn't necessarily even have to be perfectly targeted. In her column this month, Barb Pellow relates how a company got an 8 percent response using less than accurate data, and for low-value products. It is a strange new world as VDP begins to have more than isolated examples. It is important to recognize, as Harvey Hirsch points out this week, "most design firms and ad agencies need to be educated as to the proper mix of variable data digital and offset materials, and that can be your opportunity." And then you can grow from there.