Functionality, Flexibility, and Potential for Growth
By John Nitti
Commercial printers who want to add personalized communications to the list of products and services they offer face special challenges. First, they have little control over their customers' in-house IT systems or databases, so compatibility can be a significant issue. Second, print buyers come from every industry, from retailing to telecommunications to non-profits, and each field has its own communications conventions and objectives. Third, commercial printers traditionally have specialized in document output, but when it comes to adding variable data to production, data input often determines the look, feel, and even the volume of the final product. Because personalizing communications can be a complicated undertaking, print industry consultants strongly recommend that commercial printers cut their teeth by producing less complex projects until they're fully familiar with the process and ready to handle a full-blown, highly personalized production.
So when you take into account these very real concerns and decide to take the leap, what should you look for when selecting a software solution that supports your ability to offer personalized applications? As complicated as it may seem, it really comes down to three key attributes—functionality, flexibility, and potential for growth.
To meet the personalization objectives of a variety of customers, robust and sophisticated functionality is a must. The solution you choose must be able to easily integrate with your existing systems, as well as those of your clients. These include legacy and ERP systems, as well as graphic and text files stored on the desktop computers in the client's marketing department. The software should streamline the process of creating personalized communications, making it easy to develop and deploy new document applications. And it must allow you to help your customers get to market on a timely basis with relevant information and targeted offers. To ensure consistency for your clients across all outputs --and profitability for printers-- the solution should allow you to create any type of document quickly and easily.
The solution you choose must be able to easily integrate with your existing systems, as well as those of your clients.
It is imperative to find a solution that is flexible enough to meet your own needs and your customers' current business requirements, as well as future needs that you haven't yet anticipated. Some clients may delegate all responsibility to the printer, including database management and page design. Others will want to retain in-house control over these and other functions. Look for software that provides a collaborative authoring environment --a common platform accessible to you and to your clients. The software solution should enable quick and easy changes and updates to content on single and/or multiple pages. In addition, the software needs to be compatible with your digital and mechanical printing environment.
As printers expand their role of "print-only" to "communications solution providers", multi-channel document delivery becomes a necessity. It is crucial that the chosen software supports document distribution to a variety of output destinations: to the press for printing and mail delivery, for e-mail distribution, or for posting to a customer website. To keep your operations efficient and competitive, the software should require you to create a document only once—even if it will be delivered in several print/electronic formats. Critical corporate colors, approved text and graphics, and any required regulatory material should remain unchanged, even though your clients need to reach their customers through multiple communications pipelines.
As printers expand their role of "print-only" to "communications solution providers", multi-channel document delivery becomes a necessity.
Potential for growth
Finally, think big, but start with simpler projects, like postcards, sales circulars, or retail price lists. Choose a software solution that offers potential for growth. This means looking beyond entry-level programs with limited capabilities that you'll only to have to discard for something more robust several months after installation. On the other hand, the software you select shouldn't require you to retool your entire operation.
Look beyond entry-level tools that you'll only to have to discard for something more robust as you gain experience.
The most successful implementations of VDP start with software that has the capacity to grow with your clients' demands. You should be able to invest in just the capabilities you need today and have the ability to add options as your business grows and clients ask for expanding capabilities. Be sure comprehensive training and consulting services are available as you climb the learning curve --or need to provide more sophisticated services. You must feel confident that the vendor you select is a technology leader and will be a true partner, listening to and accommodating your needs through solution enhancements.
Increasing complexity = increasing opportunity
Though technology that supports the use of variable data has been available for a few years now, the majority of early adopters have been transactional printers who produce ongoing communications such as utility bills and invoices. Combining variable data with the esthetic values typical of quality commercial printing is an area still open for exploration and innovation. New applications and techniques are taking personalized communications into the realm of true relevance and ongoing customer engagement. The software tools you choose should support such activities so you can add the value your customer needs.
New applications and techniques are taking personalized communications into the realm of true relevance and ongoing customer engagement.
Relevance goes beyond inserting a different name and address on every document, and even beyond segmenting customers by ZIP code or age group. Relevance reflects a customer's individual interests. For example, an electronics retailer might send a camera accessories brochure to a customer who bought a new camera within the last three months, while a department store might announce a toy sale only to customers with children. Your chosen software should enable you and/or your customers to predetermine automatic triggers that direct relevant information into flyers or catalogs based upon every customers' tastes and preferences as indicated in the database.
A new continuum
Most personalized mailings now stop at the delivery mechanism. Marketers track response rates, but rarely track specific customer responses. However, relevant communication requires engagement --round-trip interaction with the customer-- which supplies further data for the next marketing campaign. Engagement carefully tracks the responses that result from an offer, including the lack of response.
Relevant communication requires engagement --round-trip interaction with the customer.
As personalized print applications become more widely adopted, we're going to see both improved relevance and routine customer engagement. A retailer will send the customer an offer and the customer will take them up on it. The next step will be to send the customer a discount coupon. Then, when the coupon is used in the store, that response is tracked and used to create the next, more personalized and relevant offer. Any software you purchase now should support this cycle of feedback.
Software tools are currently available with some or all of the features described here. They give printers a fully-automated means of adding significant value to every printed item they produce, which translates into increased revenues and more --an edge in today's and tomorrow's competitive print marketplace.
John Nitti is vice president of diversified services for Exstream Software. Exstream Software helps organizations of all sizes connect with their customers through higher quality, fully personalized communications. Exstream is on the web at www.exstream.com.