By Noel Ward, Executive Editor December 8, 2003 -- I've been on the road a lot lately, seen and heard some interesting things, and even had some time to think about the basics essential to digital printing, especially with color and variable data. No epiphanies, just a couple points to pass along as we head into winter and begin our efforts anew in 2004. The messages aren't all that new, but sitting in too many coach-class seats and sleeping in some decidedly strange hotels makes me a little cranky. So please forgive any overly obnoxious comments. (Sometimes I get a little Grinchy this time of year.) Price is NOT the issue Well, it is AN issue, but not THE issue. Price is only an issue if you are selling a commodity. Which can be all too easy to do if you're selling short-run color from a digital press. I've heard plenty of tales this year of how print providers have acquired upper-end digital presses (the brands are irrelevant) and promptly treated them like color copiers and sold pages based on price. Then they complain the can't make enough money with their new toy. This is a bit like the boneheads who buy Hummers and complain about the gas mileage. Hello? You have to add something beyond putting toner on a page and offering free delivery. Increase the range of services you offer so that what you sell is not so easily duplicated and commoditized. As has been said before, you have to add value to your services. The better you are able to do that, the more effectively you can compete. What is value? Glad you asked. Value IS the Issue The unique selling proposition for digital printing is (arguably) variable data. I know this remains a vision for many digital color press owners, and that it continues to be a tough sell. But that is changing and the print providers who have discovered how to sell it are successfully making the value VDP represents their primary differentiator. See Carole Alexander's column this week for some examples. I'll give you more detail on the following application in a few weeks, but here's the high-level view: DST Output acquired Securian as a customer based on the value of the solution they provided. The took multi-page monochrome 401K statements and generic pre-printed newsletters--a package consisting of 9 pages on average--and turned it into a highly customized, full-color, 4-page document that cut postage costs by 50 percent and increased customer usage of the self-service section of Securian's web site from 5 to 30 percent, which reduced call center costs. The color pages, run on a Xerox iGen3, cost much more than the original monochrome pages, but the value was so much greater, and the postage decrease so dramatic, that the cost of color was a non-issue. Value is what made it work--for DST and Securian. That's a complex example, but there are a growing number of less involved, value-driven solutions out there, such as those I recounted from the GATF Variable Data Conference last month. But in addition to delivering value they share another, much simpler trait. They are Relevant At the VDP Conference, Mike Wesner of Digital Solutions in Anderson, South Carolina said effective marketing programs don't have to be complex. They just have to be relevant to the targeted consumer. He related how Lowe's home centers discovered that within about 90 days of buying hardwood flooring, the average homeowner also buys an area rug. And what does it take to get them back to Lowe's for that rug? A fancy, highly targeted direct mailer with lavish shots of Persian rugs on gleaming flooring? Nope. A postcard. With some kind of incentive for buying the area rug at Lowe's. Simple. Inexpensive. Almost low tech. But relevant. By the way, Mike Wesner is joining us as a new columnist here at ODJ, so be sure to check out his first article, which is running this week. What Bugs Me In talking with a wide assortment of print providers I find there are basically four main groups. •  There are the relatively small cadre of people who see that digital printing, with some level of relevant personalization and customization, and that delivers measurable value is key to success, and that solutions incorporating both print and electronic media are significant opportunities. They partner with other business to compliment each others' skills and build solutions that win for all involved. These are the guys to watch. •  The next group are those with a general vision of digital printing and who realize they need help to get beyond the mundane. They hire the kind of people they need and may even develop partnerships with database companies and marketing firms. Some of these guys transition quickly to the small group at the top of the pyramid. •  Then there are the ones who know they have to offer digital color (maybe because a competitor does) and are trying to find their way through a maze of technology and climbing learning curves. Members of this fairly large group range from those who proudly commoditize their color pages to those who insist on handling all the database work and marketing and design themselves--and complain because it doesn't work they way they expected. Very often, they like to blame vendors, customers, employees, the economy, and any other convenient scapegoat, for their lack of success. •  Finally there are the dinosaurs who refuse to admit the world is changing. They see digital printing as a passing fad, rather than as the technology that's going to eat their lunch--or at least leave them with half a sandwich and a couple of broken chips. I know it is hard to change the way one thinks, and I understand the risks involved, but it bugs me that so many print providers won't think even a little outside the box. Digital printing isn't new anymore. Customers come in asking for it. There are ads for it on prime time TV and national magazines. But change is hard and not everyone is willing to take the risks (and make the investments) digital printing entails. Happily, though, I find a growing number of print providers--in service bureaus, commercial shops, in digital printers disguised as mar-comm firms--who see the future as being very different than the past. They are changing the way printing is done, and what being a "printer" means. These leaders are redefining the industry, even as they reinvent their own businesses. There's a new year coming. The economy is lumbering toward a new version of normal. Business in many sectors is picking up. And the time is right to make your own moves to add value and relevancy to what you offer your customers. Let us hear how you do. And don't forget, we're pulling for you.