Some Tales lead you back to where you've been before.

Five years ago Jim Olsen of Imagination Ink and I drove away from the PIA/GATF Variable Data conference in Phoenix agreeing that it was one of the best conferences we'd ever attended. There was enthusiasm and energy from attendees and sponsoring vendors alike. Since then, the conference has continually revised its format to keep pace with changing technologies, and two weeks ago more than 300 attendees still shared the same enthusiasm, energy along with the vision of this unique selling proposition of digital printing.

This year's curriculum encompassed three tracks covering VDP fundamentals, cross-media, and included sessions on the business management aspects of providing VDP and personalization. Two separate one-day tracks on selling VDP projects and on web-to-print took place immediately preceding the conference. The attendees (including over 70 from IKON) were a rich mix of newcomers to VDP, those with moderate experience seeking to take bigger steps, and others who have made VDP and personalization an active part of their business strategy. All picked up new information and were reminded of some VDP constants.

Not business as usual

For print providers seeking to change their business model, those who want to move beyond competing on price and do more than put toner on a page, the conference made it clear that maintaining the status quo is not an option. For most shops, this means the often-suggested transition to becoming a marketing services provider (MSP). What is important in this transition is the term "services," which should include database management and mailing in addition to digital printing. These skills enable a print provider to become an ally of (or partner with) the ad agency or marketing communications firm that handles the creative services. As has been noted here on ODJ and elsewhere, "He who has the data wins." Presenters at the conference made it clear that the more one can do with data, the better, because it is the ancillary services --the ones that enable the VDP to happen-- are where the profit lies.

Maintaining the status quo is not an option.

In working with data, the MSP must understand and pay attention to customers' goals, objectives and branding requirements and think about different ways of achieving them. The MSP must work with the client, agency or mar-comm firm to ensure relevancy of contact, content, media and the timing of the messaging. And oh yeah; test each and every job. This can be a challenging transition, but with careful planning much of it can be done in small steps.

The MSP must work with the client, agency or mar-comm firm to ensure relevancy of contact, content, media and the timing of the messaging.

Key Intelligence

For newcomers, it's important to start with small, relatively simple projects to gain experience and raise one's comfort level. Most equipment and software vendors have offerings that have a good upward migration path and some have good support systems for sales and marketing, business development and may offer hands-on help. Among the equipment providers, HP-Indigo, Kodak and Xerox all have programs to help customers develop new business, while software firms such as MindFireInc and XMPie offer solid support for companies making the leap to cross-media campaigns.

Those in the cross-media track learned how important it is to refine every aspect of a campaign during the planning process. This includes the data and how it is to be used, design of all print and online components, tracking mechanisms, and more. The myriad of details covered over two days seemed perhaps over the top for some (and even intimidating), but they could still see the potential was real if they took the time and effort to justify the investment in the technologies required to operate a successful cross-media campaign.

The business management tracks delved into the skills and people required for selling and implementing VDP and cross-media programs, based on the premise that VDP is not a technique, but a business model. This model combines a mix of services into unique integrated solutions that deliver value for customers. Attendees were strongly encouraged to use value-based pricing, look for ways to add more value for customers, and when working with advertising or marketing agencies, find ways to add value for their customers. At the same time, controlling and managing costs is essential, as is the need to resist the temptation to underprice VDP in a way that would commoditize it.

The keynote was not the typical rah-rah speech about VDP, but went right to the core concepts of modern marketing and branding --concepts print providers need to understand.

Compelling Keynotes

I'm not easily impressed by most keynote speakers. But Steve Cone from Epsilon and Micha Riss of Flying Machine held attendees' attention and provoked plenty of offline conversation at breaks and mealtimes. Cone drew from his book, Steal These Ideas: Marketing Secrets that will Make You a Star, giving the audience tremendous insights into branding and how marketing messages are crafted to sell products --or even the "experience" of a product. This was not the typical rah-rah speech about VDP. Instead it went right to the core concepts of modern marketing and branding --concepts print providers need to understand as they make the transition to providing marketing services. Reinforcing that message the next day was Micha Riss of Flying Machine, who talked about how some of the biggest brands in the world built recognition and how print providers could use many of the same techniques to break out of the "just printing" trap that limits future growth and potential.

Looking to Change the Game

At a roundtable meeting I spent time with an attendee who was an entirely offset shop. He had a great core business that worked well, but knew there was potential to reinvent his business and probably get a bigger share of his customers' wallets. This was his first time at this conference and he was looking for direction, ideas, and doorways to the future. He'd done his homework and asked great questions. I'm planning to get back in touch with him during the coming year and see how he's doing, and he tells me he's already planning to attend next year's conference, where he's hoping to have a success story or two to share.

It's all about Coney Island

Long-time ODJ readers will remember a column by Harvey Hirsch who penned a series entitled "The Samurai of Sales," Hirsch, president of Piranha Sales and Marketing, is an expert marketer for whom thinking outside the box comes naturally --because he lives way outside the box. His innovative, highly customized, targeted and often three-dimensional direct mail marketing programs have astonishing response rates and sell-through. As he puts it, "It's all about Coney Island, where you do things to get people interested. I try to disguise my mailers to not look like general business mail. This way they get instant attention and entice the receiver to interact with them,"

It's all about Coney Island, where you do things to get people interested. I try to disguise my mailers to not look like general business mail.

All Hirsch's programs do that and one of the key elements are imaginative die-cut oversize mailers of things like colorful fish, butterflies, slabs of beef, and giant wedges of cheese. Pre-printed and designed to be personalized using laser printers, his compelling graphics and often in-your-face messaging has developed a clear track record of success. When I met with Hirsch at the conference, he told me he is franchising his never-ending stream of break-through-the-clutter concepts with an eye to helping printers take the leap from mere printing to doing some creative and innovative marketing. His platform is proven, ready, waiting, and patented by the U.S Patent Office.

Many printers are facing a downturn in their marketplaces, bringing about plant closings and mergers, along with the overall commoditization of their product offerings. Hirsch and his partner Jack Grumet (formerly founder and CEO of Manhattan Bagel) believe they can reinvigorate an industry with the infusion of Hirsch's compelling products, technology and experience by creating a turn-key franchise program. Hirsch's new program is one any printer and their customers can use and is definitely worth a look if you want to separate your mailings from the run of the mill third-class opportunities that arrive every day.

Not just for pioneers anymore

The whole topic of VDP and personalization can get quite complex, and it remains a new frontier for the vast majority of printers. Yet while it ranges from very simple mailings to highly complex campaigns, getting started doesn't require expensive equipment or cutting edge software. While cross-media can add considerable complexity, a successful VDP direct mail campaign is more about a great concept, careful targeting, thorough planning, and attention to detail. At this conference it was clear that there's no need for anyone getting into the game now to feel they are a pioneer and that they have to cross uncharted lands. This conference still remains one of the best of the year, with great interaction from all involved. You really ought to put this one on your calendar for next year.