by Heidi Tolliver-Nigro August 31, 2006 -- Recently, I received an interesting email: We're one of the largest high-speed laser print-personalization houses in the Midwest. Our specialty is highly complex personalization and MICR. Our job specs regularly run into the hundreds of pages, and we typically are dealing with spreadsheets with literally thousands of cells and our jobs use hundreds or thousands of graphics. We have seven high-speed IBM 4100's. We were recently awarded IBM's "Direct Mail Pioneer" award for our efforts in direct mail. Do you see "print personalization" and "variable data printing" as becoming synonymous? I feel pretty strongly that the kind of jobs we do are very different and potentially more complex than the VDP marketplace, but it seems that marketers these days think VDP means putting data on paper in all forms, which makes for a huge uphill battle for me. I'd value your opinion on this as I'm wondering what people outside traditional print personalization think about both traditional "personalization" and where it fits today, as well as where you would draw the line between what is personalization and what is VDP. In my opinion, I look at VDP as low-volume digital color or low-mid volume on-demand publishing. Is this in line with what you and the VDP market think? I find this email to be interesting for several reasons. First, because for so many years, service providers were happy for marketers to think about 1:1 print personalization in any form, just as long as they were thinking about it. Who cared what it was called? Second, it's an interesting question in its own right and speaks to growing depth and complexity of this marketplace. Where is the line between personalization and VDP? Defining "VDP" From the inception of this market, variable data printing has been defined as any document with text or images driven from a database. In the broadest sense, this includes telephone and utility bills. Although we don't typically call them "variable data printing"--we call them transactional printing--under the given definition, they (excuse the pun) fit the bill. And, like VDP, they are highly relevant to recipients. I think it's safe to say that credit card statements have a response rate that would make most VDP marketers drool. What we call "variable data printing" is differentiated from transactional printing because it's PostScript based, printed on machines optimized for high levels of print and image quality, including four-color, and is used for marketing collateral rather than bills and statements. But let's face it. "1:1 PostScript database-driven printing output on high-quality commercial machines for marketing collateral" is a mouthful. So we call it "variable data printing." What's In a Name? But the issue raised by this reader is an interesting one. Marketers like this one aren't producing transactional materials. They aren't producing what we would think of as "typical" VDP, either. They are producing extremely complex 1:1 documents with, in some cases, hundreds of variables (so complex that they require hundreds of thousands of lines of code) and, while these applications aren't as sexy as those populated with four-color variable graphics and charts, they get the job done. While the 1:1 portion is printed in black-and-white, it is often printed onto four-color offset shells, so these applications have a high level of impact. A typical application might be a prospecting letter for a major insurer trying to get information on a variety of products to millions of prospects across different states and cities. The prospect base is huge, so costs have to be kept to a minimum, but the level of personalization must be substantial. The program has to figure out what existing insurance products the person owns (if that can be known), what the marketer's most desired cross-sell is for each product, what the enrollment and effective dates will be, among dozens or hundreds of other variables, and then tailor it for the city, state, and region where the promotion is being run, each of which might have its own cultural, legal, and other requirements (some states won't let marketers use the word "affordable," for example). A variety of default buckets must be created in case things don't match up properly. It's safe to say that credit card statements have a response rate that would make most VDP marketers drool. Co-owner of Affinity Processing, one service provider offering these applications, coined the phrase "One to One by the Millions" last year to describe this kind of marketing. The databases Affinity Processing runs are huge, reaching 1700 MB, and jobs are output at a cost of pennies per page, run roll-to-roll, on high-speed black-and-white printers. These jobs typically use AFP workflow, which is necessary to achieve the kinds of speeds required to print runs in the millions. But what should the industry call these jobs? They have been called "hybrid VDP" (the "hybrid" referring to offset for the four-color and digital for the 1:1 personalization). They've also been called plain old "database marketing," but as the applications continue to develop, maybe both or neither applies. One current term, although not yet in widespread use, is "trans-promo" documents. Flying Off the Radar? Whatever you call them, despite the increasing visibility of VDP, this kind of highly complex, low-cost-per-page marketing production is off the radar of the average marketer. This is a bit of a mystery. They are often full-color (even if the color isn't variable). They are highly personalized--often more personalized than most of today's VDP mailers. They are highly economical and effective. The reasons, I suspect, are twofold: * Most of the hard-core VDP market development is being done in and by the commercial printing industry, but these jobs are being produced outside the commercial printing industry by data programming and processing houses. * While an increasing number of marketers working through commercial printers are starting to open up about their successes, 1:1 personalization is still a closely held secret among high-volume marketers, and their providers are under strict NDAs. * Many of the owners of these companies are computer programming geeks, not marketers, so they aren't adept at getting their message out. They are where commercial printers were some time back, when print was largely cost-turnaround-service manufacturing business and printers were craftsmen, not marketers or business development experts, as they increasingly are today. This lack of visibility is a shame, because there is a lot marketers could do with these applications. One of the big frustrations these days is the inability to get good data to start with. When you can run a sophisticated 1:1 campaign for $0.32 on a full-color offset shell, with 100 percent personalized in black-and-white, you could do a darn good prospecting campaign. Want to do sophisticated VDP, but have only an undifferentiated mailing list? Mail one million prospecting pieces using this type of personalization, then, if you want, use the information you get back to do a full-color VDP mailing to the most qualified prospects later. Or just be happy with the results you get from the campaign itself. These processing companies also often tend to be experts in database appending. If you have a simple database, you can go to the data guy and see if you can cross run your database with another that might give you more information on your own customers. You might find out that Bill drives a Ford Windstar and lives in the suburbs, for example, while Joe drives an Italian sports car and lives in Manhattan. If you are selling cruises, are you going to sell Joe-the-Italian-sports-car-guy a trip to Disney World? Probably not. But he might be interested in the trip for two to Rome. Many marketers think, when you are printing millions of names, it's a pure shotgun approach. Let's just blast it out there and see what sticks. That's not what these marketers do. Their programmers and customer service people can get their arms around complex concepts. You tell them what you want and they figure out how to do it--no matter how many lines of code it takes. Something in a Name So, to get back to the original point of the article, is this variable data printing? Or personalization? Neither? Both? Is it plain old database marketing? Hybrid VDP? Trans-promo? Some marketers might say, it doesn't matter what you call it as long as you call. But I disagree. The ability to differentiate between applications is a critical component of the growth of this marketplace. And that starts with a name. So what do you think? Let's play "Name That Application." Email me with your thoughts, and if I get a sufficient number of responses, I'll report on them in a future column.