Jul 302011

Variable Data: The Gorilla in the Room

Say what you will about digital printing, there’s no getting around the one thing it does hands-down better than traditional ink on paper. And that’s variable data. If information is the engine of today’s business, then data is the fuel that drives that engine. And it’s the fuel that makes variable data technology work as well,

When we were typesetters, so long ago, our motto was, “He who keeps the most copies, wins.” In the course of any particular typesetting project, edits were made and crossed out, phone edits (this was before email) painstakingly recorded, and countless copies of interim print-outs produced and held on to. When there was (heaven forbid) a typo, it wasn’t hard to track its source down. A two-edged sword to be sure, but knowledge was power. And it still is.

For today’s information-driven world, it’s “he who keeps the most data, wins.” And one of the places you need the data to win is in variable data printing. As someone who learned to set up a California Job Case in high school (the “California Job Case” is a wooden frame that has compartments for the hot metal type pieces used in letterpress; the particular configuration by that name was supposed to reduce a typesetters hand movement by half a mile a day), I have seen some interesting technological developments in the print industry in my time. None has been more under-utilized than variable data printing. The reason is simple: we just don’t keep enough of the right kind of data.

Do you know what each of your customer’s favorite color is? Their favorite sport? Vacation destination? Food? Birthday month?

Extraneous information? Maybe. But in the hands of a skilled variable data designer, you can produce a promotional piece that might just have the extra edge it needs to really stand out from the crowd. Variable data technology allows you to leverage the information you have acquired to make print presentations more attractive on a very personal level. Variable data allows you to use different type or graphics on each piece of a print run. Seeing your name on the side of a train or movie marquee in a direct mail piece is a powerful motivator to read on. A catalog with a skier on the front is more attractive to someone who enjoys that sport than a catalog with a surfboarder on the cover. But you don’t have to pick one or the other. If you know what your customer is interested in, you can deliver that image through the magic of variable data technology.

Variable data technology has been around for a while. We “beta tested” the first version of “Darwin,” a surprisingly robust plug-in for Quark and were immediately struck by the potential power of the software, in the right hands. Unfortunately, except for some very large firms, the right hands seem hard to come by. It always seems strange that a company with thousands of accounts (or more) knew more about their customers than small firms with just hundreds of accounts. (Then again, maybe we’re just not meeting the right people.)

So we’ve ambled along, using this great technology for essentially mail-merge applications, although it has also proven useful for consecutive numbering applications, certificates, fund drive letters, and dealer-loader promotions. Will it ever live up to its promise? I hope so. Once you have the data, the additional cost to use it is almost negligible. And variable data printing is no more expensive per piece (at least here at Digital Imaging) than non variable data printing. Some additional set-up costs are involved, but they are usually quite minimal if the document is set up properly.

The value is definitely there. The effectiveness has been documented. All we need is the data. There’s an old proverb which goes something like this: “The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago; the second best time is now.” The best time to start collecting data on your customers was ten years ago, the second best time is now. Begin building your data base. Put it on a simple Excel or other “flat” spread sheet. Every entry is a deposit that can draw interest on as it helps you build more effective print marketing. This is a technology you can use right now.