By Carro Ford Weston Start with simple jobs, then grow into more complex projects. Learn as you go April 14, 2005 -- If you 're in the digital printing business, it 's hard to avoid the pull of variable data printing. You may feel vague pangs of guilt that you haven 't put together your own strategy for offering this service. Maybe you 're interested, but just don 't know where to start. Well, relax. Experts agree you don 't need to be an expert. Don 't assume you need to provide ultra-sophisticated campaigns that customize every possible element on the page. In fact, some would argue that the best variable data work is uncomplicated, making it easier to get started. The impetus to launch a variable data service often starts with a request from a customer. When a reputation is on the line, many businesses find the motivation to try and succeed at new things. "Start with current customers and work together on brainstorming one-to-one ideas, " suggests Harry Raaphorst. Raaphorst is General Manager of Atlas Software (www.printshopmail.com), source of the very popular and very easy PrintShop Mail personalization software. He 's got a lot of advice for variable data novices to help them become variable data experts. "Start with simple jobs, then grow into more complex projects. Learn as you go," he says. Just because you 're just beginning doesn 't mean there isn 't a lot to work with. You may be surprised at the options available to novices. "Mailers, tickets, personalized brochures, bar-coded reply cards, and greeting cards are great starters as they prove to create fast ROI, " he notes. It's All About the Data Data is the critical ingredient of personalization, but it 's not always something you are able to control. You may already have some of the resources you 'll need for a variable data operation, like a digital print engine. What you will probably need to check out are software products for variable data publishing. Raaphorst notes that PrintShop Mail is recognized as one of the best basic packages for variable data, because of its ease of use and efficient support for a wide range of print technologies. And whether you 're a beginner or an expert, you will need clean, reliable data. The data is a critical ingredient of personalization, and it 's not always something you are able to control. "Go to the source to find the data, " says Raaphorst. "There are several things to keep in mind. Determine whether the customer will use an existing database, build one, or purchase a list. How accurate is the data? Are there privacy concerns that must be accommodated? Data should be in trusted hands." Careless use of personal information can backfire and blow your variable data business goals right out of the water, so it's important to pay attention to these details. Of course, you will need "humanware " to drive the hardware and software. "Choose the most digitally savvy and enthusiastic employees and train them, " says Raaphorst. "An in-depth training session to get the best out of a basic product will take half-a-day, max. " Don 't Go It Alone Web-based pull marketing is growing, and now is a great time to jump in while everyone else is learning, too. You don 't have to do this all by yourself. "Form strong partnerships, especially with creatives, and outsource with experts, " says Raaphorst. "You should also reach out to the owners of the content. Go to the source. Identify the document owners, creatives and database managers--they own the process. " Partner wisely, and your vendors can become resources to help you launch your variable data platform. "During training and on their web sites, most vendors provide success stories and examples to support the sales channel. Some variable data publishing (VDP) solutions like PrintShop Mail are free as software tools to be handed out to the printshop's customers so they can compose their own VDP jobs. " Learn as You Earn "Knowledge and experience will grow steadily, so the complexity of the jobs can increase, " he notes. "As long as the sales team is updated, and management supports this process, maturity will come fast. Creativity is the key. As users grow into more complex jobs, they are typically not as difficult and utilize fewer fields than expected. " And once you get your confidence up, take a look at web-related opportunities. "Find out what customers are doing with data from the web and offer to build personalized web fulfillment programs, " Raaphorst suggests. Web-based pull marketing is growing, and now is a great time to jump in while everyone else is learning, too. Return on Investment What benefits can you expect if you are successful? Becoming a resource for personalization and variable data campaigns can boost your value in the eyes of your customers, and establish a launching pad for new business. Adds Raaphorst, " Experience in VDP jobs makes you an expert in digital printing. Becoming familiar with new tools and automation will highly improve efficiency in both design, print and delivery that could carry over into other projects. " Experience in VDP jobs makes you an expert in digital printing. It 's not just the opportunity to add a service that clients increasingly want and will pay for. According to Raaphorst, variable data capabilities can also force automation to the forefront as the most relevant option to improve your business efficiency and profit. You don 't have to be a large operation to successful handle variable data projects. "About 90 percent of the VDP jobs are easy to create and manage. When you grow with your customer's growth, then your business expands naturally, " he says. One, Two, Three, Jump! Selling this new VDP service successfully is as important as being able to provide it. It 's not business as usual in the on-demand marketplace. "Rethink how you market and sell your services to customers, " he urges. Marketing variable data services requires a "consult, then sell " approach that will benefit you in the long run. "Position your company and sales reps as valued resources on one-to-one marketing and digital printing. If your advice helps your customer further his business, he 'll be loyal to you. " A VDP plan also needs to define a sales plan and commitment, says Raaphorst. It should provide a clear boundary of what the engine can provide technically. There are many resources that can help you and your team become more informed. Quite a few free e-newsletters offer near-daily tips on working with personalization campaigns, both print and electronic. Subscribe at MarketingSherpa.com and MarketingVox.com. Take advantage of these and other freebies that are delivered to your desktop. The Direct Marketing Association can also be a source of knowledge, along with www.1to1.com and www.podi.org. Remember that you are not selling printed pieces or impressions, but rather a process for improving loyalty and retention, increasing response rates, and positively impacting the bottom line. And interestingly, everything you 're pitching to customers can also be used to deliver the same benefits to your business, so don't only talk the talk: walk the walk as well.