By Noel Ward, Executive Editor November 17, 2003 -- Jim Olsen of Imagination, Ink and I were driving to Sky Harbor Airport talking about the conference we had just attended. “That,” asserted Jim, “was the best conference I have ever attended.” I agreed completely. The GATF Variable Data Printing Conference that ended last Wednesday in Scottsdale was upbeat, interactive, and packed with some of the most useful and compelling presentations and discussions I have seen in this industry. Steve Schnoll of Schnoll Media Consulting and GATF should be congratulated on putting together one terrific event. The speakers were the people on the front lines who have been out there selling the ideas, building the processes and actually doing the work. While most of the major print engine vendors were present, the platforms used were secondary to the processes used to create a broad array of variable content documents. In fact, the most complex VDP presentation barely mentioned the hardware at all. Which is as it should be. The printing aspect of VDP is ultimately secondary to the processes used to make it possible--the databases, software and content management that drives the final output. The cases presented emphasized the oft-noted fact that ‘he who has the data wins.' Three Case Studies The program began with an example from E.J. Flammer of BatesJackson, a former engraver that has seen the light and Tod Martin from the Martin Group, a marketing agency that partners with BatesJackson on VDP projects. Both are based in Buffalo, NY. They showed off a direct mail campaign for a New York Indian tribe that used targeted direct mail to promote cigarette sales via the Indian reservation. Due to various governmental legislation, certain Native American organizations are exempt from taxes on tobacco products and can offer smokers substantially reduced prices, especially on their Indian-owned brands. So an enterprising group in upstate New York decided to leverage some technology to maximize their advantage. Using a NexPress 2100 and DL100 software to handle the variable data, the mailer featured codes that tracked response to individual consumers, who could place orders using an 800 number or at a website. All pictures, logos, offered pricing, and most copy used in the mailers was data-driven, based on pre-determined business rules, so each document was related to prospects' brand preferences. The price per piece was about 70 cents, which seems high until you learn it achieved an 8 percent response in the first week and a 25 percent return overall. Not too bad, in an time when most marketers celebrate generic direct mail responses of anything over 1.5 percent. Using the same hardware and software, was a program BatesJackson and the Martin Group runs for Forge Consulting. Forge is a financial advisory firm assisting trial attorneys in setting up structured fee arrangements and investment strategies for clients who win large settlements. Being an upstart in the industry Forge needed a way to get instant traction and recognition. To do this they used targeted 8-page brochures inviting attorneys around the country to various golf outings where Forge's expertise and programs were explained in detail. And many lawyers were quick to sign up. The direct mail program has helped Forge go from being an unknown start-up to a nationally recognized company in just six months. And according to Martin and Flammer, the big financial services firms that can provide services similar to those Forge offers have been caught flat-footed and unable to respond effectively. It seems they are unable to leverage data effectively and produce tightly focused direct mail offers. A key part of the process was the ability to collect and manipulate data, a task taken on by The Rochester Group, of Rochester, NY. This small database management firm captures an array of data from Forge's events, and manipulates it to provide highly targeted mailings that create customized communications before, during and after a law firm becomes a Forge customer. The critical component here is the alliance of print provider, marketer and database company. This key combination for successful VDP is further demonstrated by the next example, one of the most complex I've seen, and which has enormous potential for reaching into millions of households. VDP Goes to the Dogs (and Cats) The example of VDP Nirvana was the work of Joel Rowland of DocuGlobal, Doug Brown of Brown Bag Marketing, and Alan Shakleford of Veterinary Metrics. It addressed a challenge familiar to many veterinarians--encouraging consistent pet care--and did it with targeted direct mail pieces that increased patient visits, drove up revenue and educated customers. The program is presently running only in the Atlanta area, where the three companies are based, but is ripe for rolling out to national markets. The challenge most veterinarians face in getting customers to bring in their pet for regular check-ups is that the generic post cards they send out are easily lost in the pile of other direct mail people receive every day. “Our mailers help a vet compete--not so much with another vet down the street-- but with the colorful direct mail pieces from big companies like American Express” said Doug Brown. In addition, they provide a more professional image, tracking capabilities, and are extremely customized to specific customer characteristics. This makes them especially appealing to pet owners (over two-thirds of American households have pets) and as you'll see, clearly makes the program more effective. The details of the application are too involved to explain here, but the mailers are totally customized using Xerox VIPP and a DocuColor 2045. Some 36 different letters are used, personalized with the pet's and pet owner's names, lists of treatments currently due, pictures of the given pet's species (dogs, cats, etc), short customized messages, and more. There are also three areas used for an educational message, a coupon related to the service or procedure needed, and a product coupon--dictated by the individual veterinarian's preferences--for a relevant product from a vendor, such as food, medicines or pet care products. In all, there are 10,857 different possible combinations for the mailers, which are all created on the fly and printed on 8.5 x 14-inch blank stock, folded to 6x9-inches, inserted in a 3-window envelope, and mailed. Over the initial 120-day roll-out period, net veterinarian revenue increased nearly 19 percent, compared to a 3 percent decline in a test group not using the new mailers. For the veterinarians in the program, equates to tens of thousands of dollars in additional revenue and spurred deeper investment in the program. Given the high percentage of U.S. households with pets, the market potential for this is enormous. In fact, a printer I know who was at the show was looking at finding ways to implement the program in his market. Beyond VDP, the program also has a secure web interface for veterinarians to upload customer information, along with a broad range of data on their business should they want to partake of Veterinary Metrics' business consulting services. The Point The applications were as compelling as the response rates and results they provided for the companies involved. But the real points--ones reiterated throughout the conference--were the key lessons attendees learned about implementing VDP solutions: partnerships and relevancy of content. And those are the topic of the next installment.