by Heidi Tolliver-Nigro An increasing number of companies are aware of the value of their data and are paying more attention to it. June 30, 2005 -- On the last day of AIIM/On Demand, Extream scheduled a VDP seminar entitled, "Succeeding with Variable Data Printing," moderated by industry consultant Cary Sherburne, of Sherburne Associates, with presentations by Extream and two of its key users, APT Digital and DataMax. Although there were half a dozen columns that could be taken from this session, this month, I want to focus on the comments made by Cary Sherburne, since she really encapsulated the larger VDP environment into which all other VDP presentations, at the Extream event and otherwise, fit. It's a VDP environment that Sherburne succinctly described as "the perfect storm." If you've seen the movie The Perfect Storm, it's about the captain of a boat, the Andrea Gail, and his crew who are caught in what might be seen as the trifecta of bad weather. Three violent storms converge to create the ultimate, inescapable weather event. According to Sherburne, VDP is undergoing a trifecta of its own. Only in this case, the elements are converging to create an environment that is stimulating and creative rather than destructive. That is, if you know how to drive the boat. Let's look at each of these elements individually. 1. The database environment has changed. Data used to be almost exclusively the property of utility companies and the IRS. Other companies had data, sure, but it may as well have been locked up in Fort Knox. Today, an increasing number of companies are aware of the value of their data and are paying more attention to it. They are storing it, managing it, adding to it -- even (gasp) using it -- with the help of software developers who are making it increasingly flexible and accessible. All helped along by more database technology and design programs for the desktop. We're living in an age when marketing has become personal. This awareness is translating into more and more companies adopting formal Customer Relationship Management (CRM) programs. Currently, CRM programs are focused more on sales programs and customer call centers, but as I've discussed here before, smart companies will expand (and are expanding) these programs out to include other areas of customer contact, including print. We are even seeing VDP printers talking more about CRM and hiring CRM managers to forge the relationships with these companies that have the potential to be extremely lucrative for both parties. 2. We're starting to see a convergence between transactional documents and the marketing message. It used to be that bills were bills and advertisements were advertisements. Today, as we see on the backs of our credit card statements, even the most mundane transactional document has the potential to become a marketing vehicle. It just makes sense. These documents are already 100% variable. Your phone bill is different from my phone bill. Your credit card statement is different from my credit card statement. As long as you, the printer, are producing 100% variable documents anyway, why not put marketing messages on them? This increases the vehicle for VDP messaging multi-fold. Beyond this, it increases the widespread acceptance of variable data marketing. The days when the idea of communicating with print customers in a 1:1 fashion was a radical idea are quickly fading. What used to be radical is becoming incredibly, well, normal. And why not? We're living in an age when marketing has become personal. When each of Amazon.com's millions of customers logs in, they see books, movies, and other "recommended" products selected just for them based on past purchases. Consumers can go home from work, put up their feet, and instead of watching what's available, surf through the TiVo guide and launch their favorite programs on demand. Marketing on statements drives a culture of expectation of personalized print that benefits all of the players in this space, whether transactional or not. Why should print be any different? Customers have come to expect personal service. Those coupons on the back of your American Express statement, selected based on the types of purchases you made on your credit card that month, are just the beginning of the targeted marketing that is possible. This marketing is not only good for the marketer and the printer running its program, but it drives a culture of expectation of personalized print that benefits all of the players in this space, whether transactional or not. 3. Marketers are much closer to being able to address the "Holy Grail" of the multi-channel customer. Not only are customers getting used to personalized marketing, but they are also becoming used to being interacted with on multiple levels. Smart marketers have more than one customer touch point. They might use print, email, the Internet, and broadcast. And technology increasingly allows marketers to re-use their content more easily so they aren't spending money reformatting and re-using the same content all the time. This has multiple consequences for variable data print. First, if customers become accustomed to receiving personalized communications over the Internet, they'll expect to see personalized communications in printed documents, too. They aren't going to stand for having their log-in to the company site personalized to their preferences and needs and then receive the same print communications as a million other people. If you are handling the variable print, why not handle the company's newsletters and email marketing, too? Second, this not only drives more personalization of print, but it opens the door for VDP printers to capture more of the marketer's revenue stream. If you are handling the variable print, why not handle the company's newsletters and email marketing, too? This opens the door to consultative relationships in creative, project development, project management, and fulfillment. Steaming for the Center Print is such a small portion of the overall marketing message. This is an important consideration for printers looking for diversification in their revenue base. The more of these services printers can capture, and the more they can begin to charge for project development and management, rather than just output, the better position they are in to improve their bottom lines. Variable data print puts printers in the position to do this. As print providers, this is the door they can use to gain entry into these other services. And it's still early enough that, while the technology and applications are mature, there is still plenty of room for new players. So unlike the ill-fated Andrea Gail, which should have been steaming away from the storm, printers looking to capitalize on the variable data printing market ought to be steaming right toward the eye.