by Heidi Tolliver-Nigro January 19, 2006 -- As we head into the new year, it's time to look back at some of the lessons we've learned in the variable data marketplace in 2005, and looking forward, what we can take from those lessons in 2006. Here are the five most important VDP lessons I think have become manifest over the last year: 1. "Personalization" is more than 1:1 variable data. If there is only one lesson to be learned from the growth in the VDP market, it's not to restrict our perspectives of "personalization" to glossy, full-color pieces, individually RIPed and targeted on a 1:1 basis to individual recipients. There are an increasing number of printers who can do sophisticated 1:1 jobs like these, but "personalization" has become a broader category that embraces Web-to-print, 1:1 black-and-white, hybrid printing (black-and-white VDP printed onto four-color shells), simple VDP that boosts the benefits of very simple (but carefully selected) personalized information with highly targeted lists, among others. The broader our perspective on personalization, the broader the customer base and the faster personalization will become widely accepted and utilized. Each of these applications has its own set of benefits, optimal customer base, cost structures, and so on. This allows personalization, whose success is really due to relevance, not solely 1:1 targeting, to fit into more customers' budgets and printers' workflows. The broader our perspective on personalization, the broader the customer base and the faster personalization will become widely accepted and utilized. 2. Forget technological snobbery. Readers of this column often email me, saying that they are looking into getting into VDP and asking which digital press is "best" for producing these applications. I tell them that this is the wrong question. The success of VDP is in the business model, not the technology. Those printers who have been most successful with VDP are those run by (or who have dedicated) business development executives. Business development is different from sales or marketing, even consultative selling. Business development is the process of developing ideas for helping your customers improve their business communications and make more money. It's not about selling applications or technology. It's about asking the question, "How can we boost our customer's sales or make them more profitable?" then applying the right technology or application to the problem. Business development is about asking, "How can we boost our customer's sales or make them more profitable?" then applying the right technology or application to the problem. This is why many digital printers were successful getting started --and may even still be using-- slower, less sophisticated digital printers and color copiers in the VDP market. The quality of print is not as important as how the data is used; and often, even color copiers can be used to output very successful marketing pieces. Sure, a digital press allows you to print documents faster, and certainly, higher quality output allows you to attract a more sophisticated clientele, but if you truly understand what makes VDP applications successful, you should be able to sell VDP output from any type of technology. 3. Response rates are relative. VDP snobbery often extends to response rates, as well. We've been trained to think that VDP can --and should-- result in double-digit response rate increases. If they don't, somehow, the application has failed. This is ridiculous. What constitutes "success" depends on what response rates the customer is current getting and what ROI the new application generates. For example, I recently wrote a case study on a printer whose customer, a regional bank, was thrilled with a 3.0 percent response rate. Why? It's previous campaign netted a mere .4 percent response rate, so the new campaign increased its responses by 700 percent. We've been urged to think that anything less than double digit response rates is a failure. This is ridiculous. It's also important to take into consideration the value of what's being sold. If you are selling high-end automobiles, you don't have to boost the response rate very much to net a huge additional profit. Similarly, VDP campaigns often result in higher sales per response than static campaigns. Even a small boost in response rate, when combined with higher revenue per response, can result in excellent numbers. 4. Internet and Print: Partners, not Competitors Another important lesson is that the Internet and print are not always competitors. Web-to-print applications, both template-driven customization (sales offices able to log into a corporate site, access templates, customize them for their locations and customer base, then print them on-demand) and one-off 1:1 communications (auto dealerships inputting information from prospects who test drove a car that day, then following up with a personalized piece) are fast-growing applications that even small and mid-sized printers can implement. Likewise, the use of personalized URLs to use print communications to drive recipients to their own personalized Web sites, where they can respond to offers and where their activity can be monitored and tracked, gives marketers the best of print and the Internet. In both cases, the combination of media creates an application whose value is far greater than print or the Internet alone. 5. Personalization is more than just for sales. We tend to think of VDP as a powerful tool for boosting response rates to marketing offers, but this, again, limits this technology. There are a wide variety of important applications, from pre-filling response cards, to printing medical and other identification cards, to enabling helping companies comply with governmental regulations by creating easier-to-understand documents, that have nothing to do with sales. Combining print and the Internet can create an application with value far greater either medium alone. The point is, increasing sales is not the only need companies have for which they utilize print. Expanding your thought process beyond sales opens new opportunities to use personalization to help your customers run their businesses more effectively. The challenge for printers these days is to increase the relevance of print in an increasingly electronic world. So as we head into 2006, let's keep these lessons in mind. Heading Into 2006 What makes Internet applications so appealing is that they are personal and on-demand. VDP brings many of these benefits to the print world, only with the glossy and beauty of color on a tangible page. But before VDP --or, on a broader scale, personalization-- can become appropriate and accessible to most, if not every, customer, it has to be broken out of the box into which conventional wisdom has placed it. This starts with you. After all, we can't expect customers to do it for us.