April 5, 2004 -- To justify the investment and gain new revenue from variable data printing, commercial printers have to find a steady stream of personalization clients. Partnering with a design, marketing or advertising agency might be your best bet for locating these jobs. Printers and creative agencies can help each other for the client's ultimate benefit. You may gain a long-term alliance that can be a continual source of variable data printing referrals. In turn, the agency benefits from having a reliable resource that can make them look good to clients. 'The printing industry is one of the oldest in America, but not everyone has kept pace with the quickly changing landscape that technology has enabled. Like most industries, there are the haves and the have-nots relative to technology, notes Robert S. Mermelstein, CFO of Pittsburgh-based Ditto Document Solutions (www.dittodocument.com). "Those contemplating the decision to invest in variable information printing, which requires specialized hardware and software, are faced with a steep cost of entry. However, companies that are visionary and keep pace with technology could be well rewarded." A Natural Partnership Agencies need a competent personalization partner as much as printers need referrals. Marketers may have the clients and the ideas, but no way to execute. For example, The Williams McBride Group (williamsmcbride.com) had a creative concept for a mailer for a foundation account. "We wanted to incorporate a find-a-word game into the mailer using the recipient's name as one of the words in the game," explains Robin Williams Brohm, principal of WMG. It wasn't easy locating a printer who could figure out how to do that personalization, but Vectra Printing of Columbus, Ohio is working with Williams McBride on the project. Latham | SRM sees tremendous opportunity in the commercial printing industry for printers who can create and produce completely personalized or variable print products. "As a direct marketing agency, we have long been about the personalization of messages to our clients' customers. However, that customization has been restricted, due to cost and technology constraints, to a limited amount of variable copy in the letter text. The ability to completely customize a printed piece with relevant images along with a targeted message presents us with the opportunity to truly achieve one-to-one personalization, which represents the ultimate goal of all of the CRM efforts that have taken place over the last decade or so," noteS Greg Wallis, Latham vice president of client services. Over the last two years, Latham | SRM (www.latham.com) has been introducing clients to the world of digital printing and the ability to completely and successfully customize direct mail. "With our print partners, we have been able to create very compelling, fully personalized mailings that have provided our clients with a competitive advantage over their competitors and have proven, based on their increased response rates, to more than exceed the ROI targets that we had established," says Wallis. Everyone's in Learning Mode "We can't afford not to understand it," she declares, "if we present it to a client for implementation." Agencies, printers and their customers are all in a learning mode about the best ways to use variable data and personalization. "The obvious change that we have seen and have been recommending is an increase in the personalization of all forms of printed communications," relates Wallis. "Besides the traditional mail file database, increases in personalization have required the generation of content databases for housing customized creative and messaging. There is less and less pre-printed material and more and more data and content variability. Our print specialists have become much more focused on the variable data for both copy and creative as the print pieces have become increasingly more complex in variability." Brohm has also been educating herself and her team on variable data printing because the technique has become such a routine part of their designers' thinking and marketing concepts. "We can't afford not to understand it," she declares, "if we present it to a client for implementation." Advocates for Printing "Even smaller companies can now cost effectively use targeted, personalized communication in their marketing campaigns." Marketing and design professionals recognize that the concept of a paperless society is greatly exaggerated, and they remain advocates of the printing medium. "Print will always be a vehicle for communication. In spite of the progress made in our ‘virtual' world, there will always be a desire by individuals to touch and see things for themselves," Wallis notes. Marketers and designers share with commercial printers the vision of a positive future for print and personalization. "Personalized communication will continue to grow," says Robert Mermelstein. "Even smaller companies can now cost effectively use targeted, personalized communication in their marketing campaigns." "Blanket static print communications with only name and address personalization will begin to disappear as marketers begin to truly embrace the effectiveness and efficiency of fully variable print communications," Wallis predicts. "Marketers will be willing to pay a higher per piece cost for digitally printed communications as long as it is offset by the savings on wasted communications and postage to uninterested, untargeted recipients." Thinking Strategically "Personalizing the message, and the media of choice is key to establishing and maintaining a loyal and profitable relationship." Although marketers value print, they still look at it as just one component of an integrated communications strategy. Even so, this perspective can mean good things for the viability of printing. "Catalog Age recently published an article that described how revenues are increased for those customers who were being communicated to through both a print catalog and also through the Internet," says Wallis. "Reinforcement of the message and the ability of the message to be communicated in multiple media will be a key to marketing success for years to come." The key to integrated marketing, or Synchronized Relationship Marketing, as Latham has defined it, is to develop a communication strategy that is based on three supporting strategies: contact strategy, creative strategy and testing strategy. "Balancing these strategies within the constraints of budgets and time will dictate the media to be used," affirms Wallis. "Personalizing not only the message, but also the media of choice is key to establishing and maintaining a loyal and profitable relationship with that customer or prospect." Personalization also seems to be key to establishing a growing number of profitable relationships between commercial printers and marketing professionals.