A Tale of Two Conferences By Noel Ward, Executive Editor December 15, 2006 -- It's getting to be a habit, heading to Phoenix in November for the PIA/GATG Variable Data Print Conference. And as usual, it was worth the trip, and not just because it provided a sunny break from the clouds, rain and chill of the northeast. There were actually two conferences in one place, and there's lots to talk about. This year, the event was preceded by the Web to Print Symposium, which drew an enthusiastic crowd for the better part of a day as print providers sought tips and ideas for how to leverage this emerging technology in their businesses. Any jobs or documents that can be templatized or simply made available in a web storefront are a natural fit for a Web-to-Print (W2P) model. Examples include a variety of marketing collateral materials, forms, posters, letterhead, brochures, and especially apparently simple jobs like business cards. The latter, as any print provider knows, can involve labor all out of proportion to the size and revenue of the order. But when a business card style or format is held in a repository and can be customized using a web browser and the order submitted, the entire process is streamlined--and made profitable. If you don't think Web to Print really works or has potential, look no further than VistaPrint, which is very likely taking business from you today. Mike Chiricuzio, Director of Digital Printing at Arizona State University told attendees how ASU began implementing a W2P model for business cards on August 15 of this year, had it ready to go by September 30, and had some 242 departments and 700 users taking advantage of it just one month later. Chiricuzio said some 30 to 40 orders come in each day. The orders are all proofed and approved on line and nothing is printed until the job runs. All the costly and time consuming steps of manual proofing and approval have been eliminated and people have their cards within a few days of ordering. Larry Zusman, worldwide manager for workflow marketing at Xerox said he sees W2P as a continuum, part of a more complex workflow that will lead to increasing customization of print, enabled by the Web. This will, he said, drive revenue and profits and ultimately support more complex workflows. Gotchas There are, however, some "gotchas," noted Dave Vanable of Rochester Software Associates (RSA). 1. You must first identify your business objective for a W2P initiative 2. Decide whether you want to just offer it in a small way or be fully committed 3. Host it yourself if it makes sense, otherwise use an ASP model 4. Understand what each option for W2P is and which gives you the most flexibility moving forward. The latter is especially important because as W2P becomes something customers expect, you will need to be able to deliver on those expectations. Companies like RSA, Four51 and Printable offer different models, each of which has its place in the market, but be aware that none of the offerings available today do everything. You still have to choose carefully and think about the future. Much of the decision comes down to your internal resources, people and where you expect your business to go. It can make good sense to begin with a basic ASP model today, then migrate to a more complex ASP option as volume grows. Other shops will prefer to host their own system using software from a leading firm that can be updated, more deeply customized, and offer features not available on ASP systems. "Printers are turning into marketers, marketers are turning into strategists and demand for VDP is on the rise," It will take some time for W2P to become business as usual with the majority of printers, but until then those who have some type of W2P solution will have an advantage in the market. And if you don't think Web to Print really works or has potential, look no further than VistaPrint, which is very likely taking business from you today. That's the short version of Sunday in Phoenix. The VDP Conference Next came the Variable Data Print Conference, a mix of presentations, roundtables and break-out sessions covering many aspects of VDP. I can only touch on the high points here, but you can download the wrap-up presentation ( 563 KB pdf) I gave at the end of the conference for some extra detail. The Window of Opportunity There are certain persistent messages and themes surrounding VDP, and they are reiterated at this and other conferences. The difference is that now, compared to a few years ago, more and more print providers understand how they have to change how they think about their business and be more than a printer. "Printers are turning into marketers, marketers are turning into strategists and demand for VDP is on the rise," said Xerox's Larry Zusman. "Some of the guys on Madison Avenue are even beginning to 'get it,' and the time is right to move into VDP if you haven't already." Zusman said the window of opportunity for VDP is open and encouraged attendees to go through it now, to start small and grow, because waiting will put them at a disadvantage just one or two years hence. That's how quickly he and many other industry experts believe the VDP market is accelerating. Intelligent Mail One of the most interesting sessions was the keynote with David Mastervich of the U.S. Postal Service who talked about the four components of "Intelligent Mail." 1. Engagement (getting people to open the envelope) 2. Relevance (a message that gets their attention) 1. Personalization (speaking to the recipient's interests) 2. Precision (accurate addressing ultimately improves overall response) These elements are every bit as mission-critical for variable data print providers as creativity, innovation, and understanding a customer's needs, its brand and its audience. The last one, precision, is going to get more complex with soon to be implemented addressing requirements, so it's important to get up to speed on the new rules. Go to http://www.usps.com/ to start learning and take advantage of local programs held in your area. Cross-media Critical Other sessions from a variety of presenters pointed out that a key component of modern, successful VDP campaigns is expanding them to the Web and to email. Using PURLs (personalized URLs) and email that reiterate the message of a direct mail piece is proving, over and again, to increase response and sell-through. Cross-media should, though, be built into programs from the beginning and have feedback mechanisms in place to increase personalization, track response, build relevancy and keep fickle customers engaged. The Operative Word in VDP That would be Data, not Printing. Anyone who doesn't believe that should make real sure they attend this conference next year. Data must be clean accurate and it's imperative that you work with your customer to get it that way. Unfortunately, most of your customers probably don't "do data" well so you'll have to take the lead, which may mean hiring people or partnering with a company that can support this area. Unfortunately, most of your customers probably don't "do data" well so you'll have to take the lead Emphasizing this message we heard how data management at Frank McPherson's Custom Data Imaging in Markham, Ontario had a profound impact on Canadian elections. Daimler Chrysler is using everything from targeted direct mail to PURLs to embedding products in video games to promote their brand. And then there's Move.com, the 21st century version of Welcome Wagon that leverages data from multiple sources to drive new businesses to a variety of customers and business partners. How does that data play out in terms of response? Mastervich, the USPS guy, said simply personalizing a document can deliver a 20 percent lift over generic mail. Segmenting your data can double response. Product mapping, so that the right product is offered to the right customer is good for a 5 X lift. Correct timing can boost response 10 times, and intelligently applying all the data collected about a customer can take response up twenty times above that generic mailpiece that has a life expectancy of three nanoseconds once it hits the kitchen counter. You Need a Plan One of the key messages was that you need a plan for making VDP part of your business, in large part because it requires a different way of thinking. As Zusman pointed out, Printers are becoming marketers and marketers are becoming strategists. If you aren't comfortable in those roles you need to find people who are, either as employees or partners. Then, moving forward, think about VDP programs not documents or jobs, because the real success comes as programs build relationships, loyalty and an ongoing stream of business. It is also critical to keep improving. As with other technology-enabled services commoditization is a real danger, so as you develop new skills it's important to keep raising the bar. This enables you to be more valuable to your clients and to compete on value delivered, not the price offered. As in the past, the PIA-GATF Variable Print Conference was a great forum for learning and sharing of ideas. The many knowledgeable presenters were eager to share their experiences and offer suggestions for how attendees could move forward and take advantage of the VDP opportunity. The combination of the Web to Print Symposium and VDP Conference made great sense and my guess is that next year we'll find these paired more closely as these technologies develop a more symbiotic relationship and print providers learn how to leverage the Web as a means to drive more print.