By Joe Kolman February 23, 2004 -- The most encouraging thing about the recent PODI Applications Forum in Las Vegas was not the general level of enthusiasm or the buzz of new ideas floating a couple floors above the gaming tables. It was the sheer number of attendees --more than 300, up from less than 100 at the previous forum in June. The highlight of the show was: "The Best of the Best--a review of award winning digital print applications." Here are three of the most interesting winners: Direct marketing: HotIdeas.com/Jay Pontiac-Buick Automobile dealers send out lots of generic promotions to customers for everything from sales and lease promotions to service reminders. But although they keep plenty of detailed data on their customers' service and parts orders, they don't have the in-house talent to exploit it. They also have a hard time measuring the effectiveness of their promotions. Marcus Davis, president of HotIdeas.com, received the award in the direct mail category for solving some of these problems in his work with Jay Pontiac Buick. The dealer wanted to improve customer retention with a personalized "winback" promotion for customers that weren't bringing in their vehicles for servicing. Hot Ideas got direct access to the dealer's service and parts database, and then cleverly used the information to design a direct mail promotion and track its effectiveness. The promotion is a tri-fold piece that's packed with variable information. The customer's specific vehicle image (make, model, year, color) appears on the cover along with the customer's name. To push maintenance sales, the promotion lists the car's service history and even estimates the tire tread and brake pad wear. The call to action is a series of coupons for the recommended services, as well as other dynamic coupons and a message and photo from the dealer. The results of the promotion were stunning: 1000 pieces resulted in 280 customers responses and 382 repair orders. Hot Ideas is also working on providing dealers with analysis that lets them track how many sales result from recommendations from particular service advisors. The company has already signed up more than 100 dealerships for its product. Transactional: DST Output/Securian Retirement Service Wes Ervin, of DST Output accepted an award for his company's work with Securian Retirement Service. Securian was mailing a standard 9 to 12-page monochrome benefit statement every quarter to its 180,000 401(k) participants. It was also mailing generic quarterly newsletters of 4 to 8 pages. Because the newsletters were mailed to plan sponsors for distribution to their participants, Securian had no way to measure their penetration or effectiveness. Moreover, focus groups showed that customers weren't getting enough information to make decisions about their 401k funds. Securian's goal was to improve the information it provided participants and bring more people to its web site for self-care. DST Output started by simplifying the statement to increase readability. Then it designed a shorter version of the newsletter that was personalized to address each participant's investment goals. The statement and newsletter were combined in a single four-page four-color package. Securian is now giving its customers a simplified full color product at less cost. Although the cost of producing the four-color images is higher, DST Output saved 60 percent on postage by moving from two mailings totaling 14 pages to a single 4-page one-ounce piece. The company was hoping for a 6 percent increase in web site traffic: it got a 9 percent increase, and participant use of a section of the site for self-care has increased over 30 percent. This reduces phone calls from customers, easing the workload in the call center. Best of Show: Royal Impressions/Prudential Retirement Christopher DeSantis, President of Royal Impressions, a New York City based marketing firm, and John Corrieri, VP of marketing and communications at Prudential Retirement, received an award for their work redesigning Prudential's 401(k) materials. Prudential had multiple objectives: to increase its presence in the 401(k) industry, to increase the enrollment and contribution rates of its 1.1 million participants, to encourage people to make proper investment decisions, and to encourage participants to keep their money with Prudential when they left the plan. The firm also wanted to reduce collateral inventory and spoilage costs that resulted from the frequent changes in industry regulations. Prudential realized that personalization would be the key to success. Its competitors were producing new enrollment kits for each company 401(k) plan, but participants all got the same kit, regardless of their investment goals. Prudential's breakthrough was to create highly customized enrollment kits for each participant. Each 40 to 90 page kit contains information targeted to the participant's age, enrollment status and income level. Images and tag lines are based on the participant's age and the employer's industry. The kits also include personalized projections based on salary, expected social security payout, years to retirement and company match. The personalized planning guides are sent out when Prudential gets a new 401k plan, when new hires become eligible and when an employee leaves for another job. A follow-up survey has tracked dramatic increases in participant enrollments, contributions, knowledge and satisfaction. And the new kits have proved to be a powerful sales tool that differentiates Prudential in the marketplace and improves client retention.