By Carro Ford Most companies are sitting on an untouched goldmine of customer behavioral information that can be used to dramatically improve marketing initiatives and sales May 10, 2004 -- The "experts" keep telling commercial printers that they've got to get into personalization (among other things) to stay in the game. That may be true, but if you don't have customers ready to try it, what good does it do you to invest in the technology? Personalization may seem like a "chicken and egg" balancing act. Should you get the equipment and software first, or line up some business? Maybe you already have customers who'd be willing to experiment with variable messaging if they knew more about it. (And then how natural for them to want to work with you!) Some of your clients may be more ready than they realize, and are just in need of some gentle persuasion. "Most companies are sitting on an untouched goldmine of customer behavioral information that can be used to dramatically improve marketing initiatives and sales," says Michael Sevilla, president of Gravity Metrics. (www.gravitymetrics.com.) Increased restrictions on other forms of marketing such as telemarketing, faxing and email have also made it a good time to encourage clients to try direct mail personalization. "The public reaction we have observed with the passing of the Do Not Call legislation and with all of the anti-spam discussions only helps bolster our expectations for the future of one-to-one personalized print communications," notes Greg Wallis, VP of Client Services, Latham | SRM (www.latham.com). "The response to unwanted telemarketing and email has clearly brought a renewed interest in printed communications. While these forms of communication may be less costly, public recoil and filtering options like the DNC list and anti-SPAM software create tremendous obstacles for marketing messages to traverse." Used properly and not gratuitously, personalized information is powerful marketing, and this tool can be pitched to customers in a variety of industries. For financial services, insurance, automotive, retail and other industries, personalized statements, promotions and notices create a stronger bond with consumers, who are more likely to take notice of a personalized piece than a static mailer. "We see banks, insurance companies and brokerage firms using variable information to personalize their communications through graphs, pie charts and images associated with the individual customer's invoice, statement or notice," says Robert S. Mermelstein, chief financial officer of Ditto Document Solutions (www.dittodocument.com). Talk Up The Advantages Every client Latham has is trying to do more with less, be more effective and efficient, and get their messages read. "This is especially true with our financial service and insurance clients, where there is such intense competition across the board. These clients also know that their materials, such as statements, are getting opened and read - a perfect opportunity to get additional promotional and product messages in front of their customers. With the cost of postage usually being the largest cost of any mailing, it makes sense to communicate as much as possible with any single mailing as possible." This is a message you can share with your potential variable customers, too. If they are already sending invoices or notices or something like it, it's smart business to add more bang to the buck with personalized touches besides just "balance due." Companies must do a better job of maintaining and updating their databases if they are going to use them to create effective one to one marketing tools. One-to-one marketing is a more targeted approach involving shorter run lengths than traditional direct mail. "The old shotgun approach was mailed to a much broader base of prospective customers, while one-to-one marketing pieces are targeted to a specific audience based on database mining," Mermelstein explains. "Traditional direct mail has very low response rates, while one-to-one campaigns have much higher response. Though the cost per printed piece is higher, the cost per response is much lower." This can be a selling point in your personalization pitch. A Worthy Database "The key to successful one-to-one marketing strategy lies in the worthiness of the database," says Mermelstein. " Companies must do a better job of maintaining and updating their databases if they are going to use them to create effective one to one marketing tools. It follows the old theory of garbage in, garbage out. With a good database, marketing firms and their customers (and their printers!) can create tremendous value through targeted personalized campaigns." Encourage your customers to get their database houses in order. If you are really bold, this may even be a service to add to your portfolio of business as you expand offerings across the document workflow spectrum. Latham does this with its clients: "In order to be most effective and efficient with our clients' print media, we work with them to segment their customer and acquisition files to such a degree as to ensure that the dollars spent in this marketing channel are justified," says Wallis. "As long as legislation does not limit companies from delivering their marketing messages through the mail stream, we will absolutely continue to recommend this channel to our clients. "It constantly surprises us how few companies actually track, report and analyze the results of their marketing efforts, Indeed, many people are rooting for personalization to become even more widely adopted. It can be the key to success for a variety of enterprises, including commercial printers. There are many parallels between what personalized communication does for your customer's bottom line and what it does for yours. Talk About Tracking Here's something else for your on-the-fence customers to think about. "While it may seem elementary, for printed communications to be more valuable to the marketer, the sales generated from those communications or series of communications needs to exceed the cost to create, print and mail the communications," Wallis declares. "It constantly surprises us how few companies actually track, report and analyze the results of their marketing efforts, regardless of the channel, or channels, of communication. The goals of any direct marketing program are to increase response and conversion rates while, at the same time, reduce costs where possible. "From a customer perspective, we want our clients to be delivering the right message, at the right time, through the right channel. By doing so, customers will spend some of their most precious commodity, time, to read the communication and, hopefully, act upon it. We see one-to-one personalization as a real key to cutting through the clutter of the customer's daily mail." It is certainly not a simple undertaking, this personalization business, and you may not want to become the composition software guru or the database expert. Knowing enough about it though, even in a general sense, and finding and excelling in your niche in the opportunity can secure you an ongoing role in your client's long-term strategies. Everything you can do to position yourself as a player is effort well spent, provided you back it up with results. Take the time to read some articles, attend a webinar or go to a conference. As a key player, you improve your odds of building long-term relationships with customers and snagging your share of the personalization pie.