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.

Apr 162011

Back in the “old days” we had a fellow working here as a typesetter (when we still were typesetters), let’s call him Charlie. Charlie was pretty laid back. While we were all running around “doing the crazy dance” trying to meet a deadline, Charlie would just lean back in his swivel chair, put his hands behind his head and say “It’s all just ink on paper.” That was his answer for every problem.

So let’s just take a moment to talk about the pros and cons of this digital printing. It is quite a bit more than “ink on paper,” and quite a bit less.

There’s an old saying that “whatever they’re talking about, they’re talking about money.” And the difference between digital and traditional (that “ink on paper” thing) has a lot to do with the money. A traditional printer buys his press; he (or she) may take out a loan to do it so there’s a loan payment every month. A traditional printer can run a million copies a month through the press and other than the loan payment the only costs are the paper, the ink, the payroll and the overhead. Almost all digital presses have a meter, just like the meter on your electric power. Every piece of paper that goes through the press clicks that meter over one notch. At the end of the month (or some established billing period) a meter read is taken and you are billed for each and every sheet. Whether you use it or not. This is in addition to the pretty hefty lease payment. And of course, there’s the cost of the paper, the payroll and the overhead. So there’s no way that digital printing (as we know it) can ever really compete with traditional printing on volume work. Having said that, I’m sure there are some big plants somewhere that have developed enough of a volume to stay pretty competitive. But for most independent small shops, it’s the “short run” market we look for, in general. Once you start talking about thousands or tens of thousands, we’re probably going to refer you to a traditional printer. At a traditional printer, the cost of all the make-ready processes usually prices short runs out of the market.

On the other hand, there are a number of instances, other than short runs, where digital printing is the process of choice. For example, when you need something very fast. Traditional printing takes time. Time to set up the job, time to make the plates, time to do the stripping, time to set up the press, time to let the ink dry. None of these figure into the digital process. If your electronic file is ready to go, we can usually print you job in a day or two under normal turnaround. And if you’re really in a rush we can usually print it the same day (this will cost you a premium rush charge). Another example would be variable data printing.

Variable data printing allows you to change the content of each and every page you print, “on the fly.” The information can include text, images, page formats, nearly anything. It is usually linked to a flat data file that directs the content of the page based on the data in the spreadsheet. So you could create a coupon page that only featured coupons for products your customer has already purchased in the past. Send a personalized letter with specific information about each customer, all at the same speed and price as a regular print run (there is a small additional set-up fee, but the print price is the same). Variable data is simply not possible with traditional printing; you’d have to make a new plate for each page. Fugggeddaboudit!

On the dark side,  there is this problem with alignment. Printing presses have a mechanism that positions each page before the image goes on. It keeps everything pretty much in line. They are still imperfect things, but they are a lot more perfect than many digital presses. Most toner-based digital presses are really souped-up copy machines. As such, the paper travels along a belt and the image is applied to it. This results in a couple of problems. First of all, the image does not necessarily go down on the same place on each page. In fact, on some digital presses, the specs allow for a substantial difference across an entire run, maybe as much as 1/8″. Then there’s the skew. The heavier the paper and the larger the sheet, the more skew you are likely to see. Both of these are combined to cause some issues on two-sided pieces where the designer has decided to use a different color panel on each fold. Expecting all of these sides to line up perfectly for each and every sheet is probably a bit optimistic in the digital  print world. It might happen, but don’t be too surprised if it doesn’t.

And finally there’s the post-processing issues. Scoring is my favorite. Toner, unlike ink, sits right up on the surface of the sheet. Try to score that nice glossy sheet on an all-black surface and you are probably going to end up with the image “cracking” along that seam.

Of course, all of these issues can be designed around. Try to keep your folds on light or white areas. Allow for a little extra “slop” on two sided pieces so folds that are a millimeter or so off won’t be too noticeable. Avoid borders, especially on business cards. We print them about 20-up on 12×18 and the cards on the outside corners are going to have just enough torque to show that border is not quite even. It’s the nature of the beast.

Digital printing is a valuable tool. It’s not, in its current generation, the answer for all your printing. But it can be the best way to go in a lot of cases. It does put some restrictions on design, but it can make up for that in speed, price, and flexibility.