by George J. Whalen August 2, 2004 -- The most important aspect of variable data printing is really not the press, but the data driving the variable content. Building accurate databases with the necessary fields and appropriately tagged relationships is a vital part of the process. Next comes converting that data--both text and graphics--for use in variable data documents. This has given rise to companies that can prepare the data, software that makes using it relatively straightforward, and also "enablers," companies that lead the way in creating and producing an array of customized printed materials. Database Conversion Technology Behind VDP A range of software is now available for converting database records into customized marketing materials for a variety of digital printing systems. Offerings range from simple plug-ins to systems for automating the publishing process of an entire corporation. They can be broadly split into three categories: printer-language programs working with post-RIP data; plug-ins and XTensions, and standalone applications that generate PostScript or portable document format (PDF) files. One example of a printer-language solution is Canon's imageWARE Publishing Manager, which drives Canon's output devices by means of PCL drivers. A range of variable data XTensions for Quark XPress and plug-ins for Adobe InDesign and FrameMaker are available. Some work with any digital press, while a new Quark Xtension called Xclusive is presently intended for use with HP-Indigo digital presses. These programs all work with external data, but frequently lack the data-sorting functions available in more fully-featured variable data printing programs. They are, however, easy to use and inexpensive. Standalone applications represent the biggest category of variable data solutions, ranging from single-user packages to enterprise solutions. They generally offer PostScript output and the ability to accept input documents from a variety of sources. Of course, if you are a businessperson who did not understand a word of what you just read, you can still make use of the power of database marketing and VDP, working with a special, new breed of consulting firm discussed next. The Rise of "Enablers." It's a big world, and outside the graphic arts industry there are a great many needs for solutions to problems of marketing data-gathering and targeted document creation in which VDP seems, instinctively, to figure. Yet, clients who could benefit most from VDP may scarcely be able to articulate their needs in terms sufficiently clear to tempt a digital printer to tackle their job. And so, multi-discipline solution specialists-- "enablers"--are emerging as knowledge businesses, able to create and implement solutions that clients need, often on a massive scale. An enabler is a company like no other. It may combine such diverse specialties, capabilities, resources and services as marketing, writing, graphics, technology, internet, database, programming, on-demand digital printing, VDP, and traditional print, bind, mail and fulfillment capabilities. Enablers help clients envision and define their desired outcomes. (What do they want to see happen?) Then, they create a marketing strategy. (What do they want to sell, and to who?) This typically leads to erecting a special world wide web site in the client's name, with relational database capabilities to gather marketing information from the client's customers. Next, the enabler develops graphic and copy content, either tagged to the bits of collected information (or to what can be logically deduced about a customer's interests and needs from related bits of information he or she enters). Then, the enabler provides the means to custom-assemble the client's content "on-the-fly" to create individualized literature that is VDP personalized, printed on-demand and mailed. Enablers thus provide the broad, one-stop marketing and services capability that businesses and institutions require. The scale of business services provided by the enablers is significantly larger than just the VDP component alone, and the overall functionality they provide is what drives use of VDP technology. PODi, the Print-on-Demand Initiative, has conducted extensive "Best Practices" that show the success of digital print applications using the world wide web. The web is a low-cost method of interacting with individuals, and when combined with database-driven variable data digital printing, can produce excellent, custom-document results. Added benefit is the elimination of the client's need to warehouse literature, and to discard and replace stock as it becomes obsolete. Successful enabler-devised digital print operations have been found to offer more-effective documents and more cost-efficient processes through use of database-driven VDP automation. Web-and-VDP print applications are now available from various companies in many different vertical markets, such as financial, investment services and college marketing. The success of these system applications comes from their combined ability to read and automatically compile input from the client's customers; then, to select, manipulate, modify and output variable data as automated customized content. Who's Doing What With VDP? Some selected examples demonstrate how various components among VDP users in the market are using it to serve customers. The variety ranges from doing VDP work commercially, to "enabler" solutions implementing full, world wide web-based custom VDP document production and fulfillment. These cases demonstrate how VDP is taking on a life of its own as a "system level" application. The "mass customization" concept is blossoming as a form of printing totally separate and distinct from traditional "reproduction printing." Driven by information and intelligence VDP has moved out of the print shop and into the marketing department. Clearly, VDP has a life of its own and it will grow as more bright people take hold of it and use its strengths to create new and never-before-seen businesses. Royal Impressions (headquartered in New York City) is an integrated, all-in-one enabler. The firm offers integrated one-to-one marketing across print, email and the world wide web, with a service menu of everything the customer could possibly need, all owned, controlled and operated as a single business entity. This integration, according to company spokesman Bob Estrada, leads to the highest level of service and quality, since single culture and uniform standards apply across the board. This promotes excellent inter-group teamwork on which project success so often depends. Royal Impressions provides enabler services to a number of very large enterprises, notably in financial services, insurance and pharmaceuticals. OppenheimerFunds wanted to increase effectiveness of its complex proposals to prospective customers with potential investment capital of $100,000 or more. In the past, the firm had to tie-up a team of analysts in a time-consuming, labor-intensive, costly operation. The firm knew that prospects want a proposal that is personalized just for them -- something customized to their individual needs and situations. The company decided to intelligently automate its proposal operations give its financial advisors maximum flexibility to create highly personalized proposals to meet the needs of investors -- and to do this quickly and securely, online. To do this, Royal Impressions implemented a version of its web-based MCOM (Marketing Collateral Order Management) system. It allows OppenheimerFunds financial advisors to create, manage, and place orders for VDP-customized proposals online, including the ability to add content for projections and other calculations generated by third-party software. To create a full-color, customized proposal, the financial advisor logs into the OppenheimerFunds web site, accesses the proposal system and inputs the prospect's financial information, interests, and goals. Next, MCOM moves the advisor to InvestmentView, a web-based application from Thomson Financial that generates key calculations in the proposal. The advisor inputs specifics about a hypothetical investment, and based on historical fund data and other algorithms, the system generates a PDF document that shows the investor different ways to invest. The hypothetical projection is then sent to the MCOM system, where it is integrated with the rest of the proposal for VDP production. The proposal is further customized by including selected marketing materials highlighting other funds or financial products that fall within the prospect's interest range. Once the proposal is complete, MCOM automatically generates a soft proof that can be reviewed online by the financial advisor. Changes, if required, are made and the job is instantly re-proofed. Upon approval, MCOM creates a high-res PDF suitable for quality digital color print production. The printed document is then spiral-bound and sent to the customer by overnight courier. Today, MCOM automates the process, reducing the effort from days to minutes and from a team of staffers to a single advisor. Scope 1 Marketing in Kalamazoo, Michigan basically describes itself as a "marketing consultant and enabler," using world wide web-based technology that connects printers with customers in wholly new ways. This aptly describes Scope 1 Marketing's business, which is to provide the "front-end services" and to act as a distributor for digital and traditional printers who outsource jobs for the firm's clients. Scope 1 grew out of the desire of a long-established forms printer, Superior Business Solutions, to launch new businesses with high growth potential. Scope 1 supplies the in-depth know-how to clients that enables employees or prospective customers of these firms and institutions do things never dreamt-of back in the era of traditional print. For example, using a system designed by Scope 1 to replace dusty shelves full of printed goods inventory with materials freshly produced by print-on-demand, and using VDP, as well. "These materials can therefore be different-- both customized and personalized-- to match the individual interest-profile of each of the individuals requesting them," according to Jim Richardson, chief knowledge officer and VP of sales, He shares two examples A Leading National Financial Services Firm. "For years, Richardson says, "one of our best clients, a leading national financial services marketer of a variety of insurance and financial products, had provided printed sales brochures to its agents. Life and disability insurance, individual annuities, and retirement products and services product groups all had their own collateral materials, printed at an in-plant in the basement of the company's headquarters. It soon found it was having to print brochures in "customized" lots, each imprinted with an agent's contact information. The traditional in-plant was swamped with work and couldn't keep up. To make matters worse, the financial products were ever-changing, as were governmental regulations. Traditional printing methods were no match for the problem. Scope 1's solution was to create a private website offering a library of four-color marketing materials for online customization. There are brochures on generic annuities, business 401(k) plans, term insurance, whole life insurance, other products, as well as postcards on variable annuities, disability, and retirement plans. Agents simply log-in and select the brochures they want, customize them with their own return addresses, select from quantity options, and place their orders. Once an agent has entered and checked his information, he can view a PDF proof generated on-the-fly. The personalized materials arrive within a week of ordering--at an extremely good price. The very fact that reps can order quickly and easily encourages their use of direct-mail, which means increased sales for everyone" Manchester College: Another fast-growing VDP application area is into: college "viewbook" brochures. These are a sales pitch for a college, designed to hook the interest of a prospective student. A typical viewbook may recount the history of the college; tout its various academic programs; explain the kind of career resources it provides; wax eloquent about the quality of student life, athletics, the campus, and the community; outline costs and financing options; and end up with instructions on applying for admission. The problem is that prospective students have very different interests. So, most traditional viewbooks tend to be crammed with information; a little that's useful in interesting a particular student--and a lot that's irrelevant to that student. Because students have different wants, needs, desires and goals, one viewbook can't be made in which all students will find exactly what they're looking for. Richardson says the practical answer is to custom-create the viewbook online for each student, then, print it. "The first law of sales," he says, "whether you're selling a car or an education--is that the more personalized your appeal on an emotional level, the better your chance of success." Scope 1's answer for Manchester College provided a web site that captures responses from a student about his or her interests, then, uses these to program selection of content and custom-assembly into a print-on-demand, four-color, six-panel brochure, also including a substantial amount of variable data. For example, the prospective student's name appears on the front cover, above the graphics and views of the college. Inside pages, focus on the student's selected field of study in which the student has expressed an interest…and eliminate the other 33! Too, the personalized viewbook doesn't have to cover 13 areas of athletic interest…only one. The viewbook closes with a personalized letter--replete with photo--from the geographically assigned admissions counselor. The result is that Manchester now has a web-based viewbook that's precision-targeted to the prospect; that takes into account his or her likes, dislikes, goals, affiliations, and so on, making a more effective sales pitch. This clearly figures as a reason underlying Manchester's 34% jump in admissions. Also, the fact that these personalized brochures are VDP-printed one at a time, as needed, means absolutely no printed inventory is lying on a shelf somewhere, so there's no obsolescence and no waste. " In Conclusion VDP is growing. It is further along in some areas than in others. In some industry segments, it is still being used experimentally. But, where it has "hit," the results have been big and impressive. The world wide web and the new breed of enabler businesses have been indispensable in showing leading corporations, schools and other institutions how to use variable data digital printing to move closer in their relationships, while doing a better job of communicating, and saving money, to boot. The overwhelming story behind "who's now doing what" with VDP is that this has never been a technology capable of "selling itself" to customers. To move it to this stage of acceptance and utilization has taken a decade or more, plus the application of intelligence, multi-disciplinary know-how and skill to build wholly new kinds of "business service systems," in which VDP is the jewel-like component. The lesson is that where entrepreneurs have invented such new businesses, VDP has found plenty of business and succeeded mightily. Where "business as usual" has prevailed and few have seen a need to change how they do business, VDP has languished. Perhaps the successes taking place in the areas where VDP is growing will inspire new, creative business thinking in other areas, to upset the status quo--and increase the ROI.