by Heidi Tolliver-Nigro The driving force behind the success of VDP is not the technology: It's the concept of increased relevance to the recipient. August 16, 2004 -- What is variable data printing? The term used to refer exclusively to one-to-one print marketing based on information provided on each recipient in a database. But as variable data has become more of a marketing strategy than a production strategy, the definition of "variable data printing" in the marketplace is broadening. In its strictest sense, variable data printing refers to database-driven print pieces that are personalized to each individual recipient, on a one-to-one basis, with the text and graphics in the piece generated based on previously established rules. For example, if the customer has a financial portfolio within a certain range, then include this article, this graph, and this image. If the customer has a financial portfolio within a different range, include a different article, graph, or image. Each printed piece is generated from scratch, one at a time, on a toner-based digital press. However, as VDP has popularized the concept of relevance-based marketing, the traditional definition has become limiting. This is because the driving force behind the success of VDP is not the technology. It's the concept of increased relevance to the recipient, thereby increasing response rates and achieving a whole host of other benefits. The technology we know of as VDP is simply the vehicle. There are many ways to increase relevance of the documents to recipients without a large database and complex sets of rules. Take, for example, two of the fastest growing VDP applications: Decentralized customization: This is a fancy name for a company creating templates for brochures, advertisements, or other printed products, then allowing their branches, distributors, or other affiliates to upload their own personal information, such as head shots, digital signatures, company addresses and logos, and in some cases even customize the content, and download the finished file for output on a digital, direct imaging, or offset press at a local commercial print shop, on their desktop printer, or to other media, such as email. This allows the local affiliates to create a greater sense of relevance to their clientele without the per-piece expenses of fully customized VDP. At the end of the day, the piece appears to come from the recipient's local office or branch, from the recipient's personal contact person, and the recipient is provided with information of immediate, local interest. If this achieves the desired result, what does it matter if it's not one-to-one? To clients looking for results, not buzz words, that's all that matters. One-off personalization: Another application growing in popularity is one-off personalization. This technique has been used by companies ranging from home appliance manufacturers to family resorts to automotive dealers to following up on customer inquiries and closing the sale. Sometimes VDP isn't sexy. Sometimes it's merely functional. In these applications, information is input one print piece at a time. At the end of the day or work week, all of the documents are downloaded to the client's print vendor, printed, and mailed. The end result looks like a VDP job, since it is a variable-length run of 100% personalized pieces, but it's really a serial production of one-off jobs. One-off product brochures created by consumers themselves, such as personalized auto brochures created on manufacturers' web sites, also fall under this category, although the purpose is slightly different. The point is not to follow up and close a sale, but rather to create a sense of vested interest in the product on the part of the recipient. Functional VDP: Sometimes VDP isn't sexy. Sometimes it's merely functional. For example, when it's more cost-effective to print addresses on mailers in a one-step process than to print and apply inkjet labels off-line. There are digital printers making money from these applications all the time. It's not sexy, but it's profitable. Success in this market is about creating printed pieces that have an immediate personal relevance to the person receiving it. Another example of "functional" VDP is pre-filled reply cards. By pre-filling reply cards with the recipients' personal information, so all the recipient has to do is tear out the card and mail it in, this boosts response rates significantly -- not based on relevance, but on convenience. The more effort the recipient has to put into something, the more likely it is they'll forget to do it. But if all they have to do is rip out a card and send it in, response rates jump significantly. Okay, what's the point? The point is that variable data -- the technology -- has finally become subject to the larger strategy of relevance. Smart marketers (and their print vendors) understand that success in this market is about creating printed pieces that have an immediate personal relevance to the person receiving it. Whether that is a decentralized customization project, a one-off personalized document, or a VDP document produced based on a set of rules, the effect is the same. The game is to achieve that effect in the fastest, most cost-effective manner. Next month, I'll take a more detailed look at these types of VDP, with real-life case studies of those who have been successful with them.