by Heidi Tolliver-Nigro August 31, 2006 -- Last month, I reprinted a letter I received from a reader who raised an interesting question. Should all 1:1 personalization be called "variable data print"? What about the vast diversity of applications and levels of complexity? Is a four-color, PostScript-driven marketing document with a dozen variables "VDP" the same way a monochrome AFP-driven document with hundreds of variables printed onto a four-color offset shell is "VDP"? Should we even use the same language to describe them? I asked readers to respond to this question by emailing me their thoughts. Dave Mainwaring of Print Planet also posted the article to the VDP-Plus forum, which generated some lively discussion. In this column, I thought I'd take a look at the responses to this invitation and the conclusions reached by those participating in the debate. Emails and posts are edited for clarity and length. Wrote in one reader: I don't see anything wrong with calling transactional material "transactional," nor VDP material "VDP," no matter how extensive and complicated it is. After all, in the traditional offset world, we called printing software documentation (remember the big thick books for Excel?), financial prospectus, magazines, brochures, postcards, labels, and business cards all "printing." So why not call variable data printing "variable data printing"? However, I do think that "data-driven print" is much more appropriate than "variable data printing" as a general term. Wrote another: You raise a great point. We are a sales training company. One of the most common initial objections that sales people face in identifying prospects is, "We have already looked at variable printing." It has become a generic term like "document management," and efforts to create catch-all phrases to differentiate applications have made matters worse. Terms like "personalization," "variable content printing," and "transactional printing" do not reflect the complexity and scale of enterprise applications versus single user/home business applications. In subsequent emails, one of the points brought up by this reader, as well as by several other industry insiders I spoke with, was the challenge created by the gap between industry insider lingo and the language used by print buyers, which is often substantial. Put simply, for industry insiders, terms like enterprise, complex, cross-media, transactional, distributed, demand, Web-to-print, light production, variable print, and others serve a useful purpose for qualifying these applications for their own internal workflow and sales and marketing purposes. But for customers, they are all but meaningless. Thus, the conclusion reached by most of the participants in this discussion is that it is often best to stay away from industry and industry supplier terms altogether. Wrote one, "[These terms] are killing us and delaying the wide acceptance of production digital printing and publishing." Working For? Or Against? Interesting idea—that nomenclature is working against printers rather than for them. When asked to elaborate, this reader, the president of a sales training and management firm, wrote: Building a common language at this time is great for manufacturers and software developers. It helps them segment the market, target opportunities, and allocate resources. However, it is not generally helpful for most printers who need to directly sell products and services to their clients. I recently asked a group of small and large business school marketing managers to explain what these terms mean and how they apply to their businesses. We found that these manufacturer-inspired terms do not help, but actually give customers an excuse not to see a sales person. They say, "we have seen it already," "we are not interested," or "we are happy with our current program." In our work with commercial printers, we see that the sales/marketing skills and knowledge are generally not strong enough to link capabilities to the customers' business requirements. Simply laying out a bunch of printed best practices and throwing out industry terms is not enough. As opposed to the development of data center, digital production, transactional printing, this business will need to be developed not by manufacturers, but by the many small and large printers. That is why I am very happy to be in the sales and sales management training business at this time. Another reader made a similar point: Interesting article on the definition and use of the term "variable digital print." As a direct marketing agency with a robust internal print production staff, we leverage both VDP and what I refer to as "traditional" personalized print or simply laser print. What becomes very difficult for marketers without the specialized production skills is knowing when and how to use each option. The variations between VDP and traditional personalization affect design, process, workflow, data manipulation, cost drivers, format, appearance, and potentially response--all very significant factors to be evaluated prior to design in order to utilize the most appropriate print method. This has introduced a new level of complexity in the world of direct marketing print production. Thus, we're back to the conclusion that terms should be avoided altogether and the focus should be on describing what the applications do, rather than what they are called. For example, if marketers think of VDP as being a cost-effective way of generating leads, when targeting marketers, VDP applications should be positioned in terms of lead generation. If manufacturers see VDP as a way to shorten the sales process, when targeting manufacturers, VDP needs to be positioned for lead qualification. If direct mailers see it as a way to maximize affinity sales, when targeting direct mailers, VDP needs to be positioned as maximizing affinity sales. Each vertical market has its own goals and tickle points, as well. If the end user is a nonprofit fundraiser, publisher, insurer, real estate company, or financial services firm, each has different goals and trigger points that might encourage them to respond to the pitch. This is why, in its sales training, Xerox regularly makes the point that each vertical market wants to see samples from its marketplace, not the general marketplace. If the samples are not from their vertical market, they don't relate to them. And Here We Are Again… The challenge, of course, is that this type of sales and marketing requires knowing the customer and vertical market well enough to position these applications in the appropriate ways. But this is a skill set that printers are still developing. One Print Planet participant condensed the issue nicely: Variable data printing is a group of enabling technologies, nothing more and nothing less. But most end users (customers) are interested in what an application does, not in the technology that enables it. Over the years, Oracle has sold thousands of copies of its relational database programs, but it has sold very few of those copies to end users. What end users purchased were the accounting, manufacturing, ERP, and other applications that companies created using Oracle database programs. In the printing industry, we have a strong tendency to think in terms of enabling technologies rather than end-use applications. I am convinced that the market for customized documents would have grown faster had we in the industry not been so intently focused on selling "variable data printing." Unfortunately, we appear to be making the same mistake with "Web-to-print." Once again, we are emphasizing the enabling technology rather that the value-creating applications that are based on the technology. Points well taken. But then, doesn't that put us back to where we started? (Ecclesiastes 1:9)