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Getting Personal

Variable Data as a Complement to Large Format

By Gretchen Peck

When large format print suppliers implement variable data printing, it requires not only an investment in hardware and software, but a whole new way of thinking about the business model.

Some call it one-to-one marketing; others refer to it as personalized communictions. But folks in the print industry know it best as variable data printing (VDP). No matter what you call it, VDP is—and will continue to be—a highly effective marketing strategy that often elicits far greater response rates than non-personalized messaging. Certain segments of the commercial and publication print industry have known this for many years. While VDP first became prevalent in transactional documentation, today, it has gradually been adopted for direct mail, catalogs, and other marketing collateral.

Surprisingly, the greatest barrier to VDP is not technological. What prohibits even faster adoption of VDP in commercial printing is the lack of good, clean data on the front end. The greatest challenge to an organization is capturing accurate information about consumer behaviors, and utilizing it in a meaningful way.

These challenges are slowly being overcome, and that’s evident—or perhaps not so evident—in the type of personalized communications print suppliers create. Gone are the days when a VDP piece is obvious to the recipient, with perhaps the person’s name inkjetted in—often in a different font. Consumers today are savvy; they’re not as easily wowed by such simplistic marketing tricks. By and large, they’ll still appreciate a specialized piece of print created just for him or her, but the messaging must be truly unique to really generate three- or four-times the response rates typically achieved by static, non-personalized print.

While some may think VDP is better left up to commercial printing experts, others find that personalized large format print—with variable images, graphics, and copy based on geography and precise demographics of those who will see it—is an emerging opportunity that large format customers may soon come to value.

New Opportunity for Large Format Specialists
Large format digital print wouldn’t seem a natural fit for VDP, as most big print jobs are one and done. But on occasion, even in the large format specialty, the basic principles of VDP apply.

Take, for example, the regional supermarket chain that needs consistent branding for a series of posters or point of purchase (POP) displays planned for multiple locations across the U.S. Based on customer demographics and prior store performance, perhaps each display requires one or two elemental changes, such as a different graphic or block of copy.

The question a large format print supplier must ask is whether such scenarios occur frequently enough to justify making an investment in a VDP workflow.

Most likely, large format print companies will see promise in VDP as an extension of its business model. By investing in smaller-format digital print engines and VDP prepress tools, they’ll be more apt to become a one stop shop for its marketing and corporate customers. Increasingly, commercial printers are adding wide format print capabilities to their service rosters in order to achieve this same goal. Certainly, the reverse may present new opportunities for large format print companies, too.

"We’ve seen traditional sign shop customers now diversifying and adding small format capabilities to complement their large format services," attests Deborah Cantabene, VP, workflow marketing, Xerox Production Systems Group.

"For example, one of our customers prints thousands of personalized flyers using standard VDP software and hardware technologies, and is also using the Xerox Wide Format Color Server Pro RIP to customize complementary wide format posters," Cantabene confides. "The combination of large and small format digital printers enabled wide format specialists to realize new revenue streams through unique, value added VDP services."

"Our company started as a service bureau over 30 years ago, and approximately 13 years ago we got into the digital print business—in both digital commercial and wide format. We have seen the need for both to help complement each other," affirms Jason Morales, information systems manager, Rochester, NY-based Digitech Publishing.

Since they implemented digital printing, Morales says there were a few cases when a wide format job required "some degree of personalization."

"The need for VDP in these instances is project dependent," he explains. "At times, it’s simpler to treat the personalized versions as independent projects depending on variables such as quantity per location, complexity, etc."

For wide format jobs, Digitech deploys three print engines—a Mimaki JV3, an Hewlett-Packard (HP) Designjet 5500, and a Xerox 8265. Wasatch Computer Technology’s SoftRIP processes files for all of the devices.

"When we started seeing an opportunity in VDP, we began using Meadows Publishing Solutions’ DesignMerge due to the fact that a majority of our jobs were supplied in Quark format," Morales recalls. "Since then, we have seen a shift in the industry and most of our customer-supplied files are in some sort of Adobe file format, so we utilize Printable Technologies’ FusionPro Desktop.

"Although there may be no software specifically for wide format VDP, there are tools out there that can be utilized for wide format, as well," Morales adds. "I’m sure that as capabilities and speeds improve, there will be a market for personalized wide format."

A New Relationship
Unlike a typical print job requiring a customer to hand off a digital file representing the precise content it would like to print, a VDP job requires a seamless workflow—with creative, production, and output technologies all working hand-in-hand—and a true collaborative partnership between the two parties.

"We work closely with the client to ensure data and files are submitted in a format that will facilitate the production of the project," notes Digitech’s Morales. "We encourage our clients to include us in the planning and development of their projects so that we can be certain all components of the project will be produced with the highest degree of accuracy and manufacturability."

"The VDP workflow can bring together several groups not usually accustomed to working together—marketing, finance, IT, marketing, in-house creative organizations, or outside design agencies," forewarns Xerox’s Cantabene.

At first a creative team consisting of all of these groups may be confusing but, "These partnerships are crucial because VDP enables printers to go beyond providing print services," she confides. "It enables the building of the relationship between their customers, and their customers’ customers, elevating the value of the service they are providing—from printing to strategic communications."

When implementing a VDP workflow, print suppliers should also consider how best to enable the client to supply content. A Web-to-print solution may come in handy, suggests Jeroen Van Bauwel, product manager, digital front end, Punch Graphix.

"Take, for example, a restaurant chain with multiple franchised locations," Van Bauwel suggests. "Every restaurant may need to order its own personalized menus with its own pricing and maybe a few local items, but the brand-specific data should be organized and centrally controlled. Using a Web-to-print interface, the printer can offer the customer a portal that enables every franchise to chose the type of jobs including posters, menus, direct mail campaigns, and so forth. The printer then adapts the job by generating some unique content. The final printable file is automatically generated and dropped into the printer’s workflow."

Because the nature of the relationship between print buyer and print supplier is more intertwined and consultative when it comes to VDP work, the print company needs to change its mindset and transform into a marketing service provider.

"Those who have not begun to offer VDP services need to transition to value added service providers and marketers, and not simply manufacturers," suggests Kathy Wilson, director of product marketing and strategy, EFI, Inc. EFI integrates XMPie’s personalization technology into its Web-to-print and business management solutions.

"Only a small minority view VDP as a top sales opportunity," Wilson confides. "But savvy printers get it. When they start to offer this value added service and realize that VDP offers their customers a means to increase response rates, increase the value of an average order, improve response time, improve customer retention, repeat orders, and improve overall revenue and profit, the business benefits of VDP become clear."

VDP: A Whole New Animal
"VDP is different than signage," suggests Shawn O’Neal, GM, Conestoga DPI, a central PA-based print supplier that offers both digital commercial print and large format display graphics.

"When you print a sign," he explains, "it’s one and done. Or, take trade show displays, for example. You may produce one for a customer and not see him again for a couple of years until he’s ready to make a change or update the display. But with VDP, you’re talking about a more hands-on relationship—not only with workflow, but with the overall marketing strategy. Because VDP is anything but one and done. You’re constantly trying new strategies, choosing new lists and sources of data. You’re monitoring the results, and offering new ideas to your customers on how to complement their campaigns with things like Web landing pages. It is more of a consultative relationship." In short, VDP is constantly growing marketing opportunities for clients.

Conestoga DPI is similar to a lot of print businesses these days. Its roots are grounded in one type of print, but the company’s business model is evolving. "We do short run, on demand digital work, and also, we’re doing the large format indoor, outdoor, and trade show graphics," O’Neal explains.

The company’s history is unique. "I co-founded the company with another fellow who was the owner of a log cabin manufacturing company," O’Neal recalls. "At the time, my partner was looking for a way to better serve his customers by producing versions of catalogs tailored to the different markets he was catering to—such as Kampgrounds of America, Inc. (KOA) campgrounds, non-profit organizations, churches, and consumers."

Though the manufacturing company required a lot of print work in the form of catalogs, brochures, and other marketing materials, O’Neal’s partner wasn’t originally interested in the entire cost of the required digital print equipment. Together, they started the print business, which, from the start, not only produced the print for the log cabin company, but also catered to the local print for pay market.

A Canon CLC printer and a 40-inch HP plotter were among the company’s first investments, and as the business grew, it became evident that the greatest opportunity for expansion was in large format work. "We’ll double the volume of large format work this year from last year," he confides. "Our short run digital work is pretty much confined to businesses within a 20- to 30-mile radius, but our wide format business covers the entire mid-Atlantic region—DE, NJ, NY, and PA."

The combination of short run digital—VDP included—and large format capabilities is key to the success of Conestoga DPI, O’Neal asserts. With the installation of a Raster Printer RP-720 UVZ flatbed, it has allowed the company to be a true one stop shop for its customers.

Print buyers not only value the simplicity of having a single print vendor with which to work, they also appreciate the ability to achieve consistent quality and color across the spectrum of a print campaign, he notes.

"Banks, for example, are great clients for us, because they have indoor needs—from counter cards to posters, variable data marketing, and trade show graphics. And then they’ve also got the outdoor needs, such as drive-thru, yard signs, and banners," O’Neal suggests.

VDP isn’t only a different sell in terms of the relationship of the client, O’Neal says that there are also differences in competition between vendors.

"With signage, your competition may be the guy down the street who has the same equipment, the same capabilities. But with VDP, your competition is expanded to other forms of media. You’re competing with not only other print companies, but also with other forms of marketing media, such Web sites and email campaigns. And as a print supplier, you need to be able to advise your customers on how best to capitalize on each, and demonstrate the return on their investment," comments O’Neal.

Looking for an Edge
Time will tell if the concept of the VDP-driven one stop shop translates to the wide format space, but many pundits agree it’s a trend likely to gain interest as competition imposes further strains on sign shops and other large format businesses.

"I think that you’ll see more companies purchasing digital printing presses in the months and years ahead," suggests Greg Bane, DesignMerge channel manager, Meadows Publishing Solutions. "There are more entry-level digital presses producing a higher quality product than ever before."

"As a graphic arts supplier, you are always looking for an edge or a way to maintain control of an entire project, and this is an excellent way to do so," Bane notes. "The wide format printer is then able to offer all of the marketing pieces to complement the typical wide format project. We have seen this trend already taking place in the graphic arts community."

The attraction to VDP is certainly not static. Based on what the above experts state, if anything VDP will spur the graphic arts market to greater heights in the coming years—complementing all forms of wide format work.

May2008, Digital Output

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