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Variable Opportunities

VDP Technology Becomes an Increasingly Attractive Option

By Mike Antoniak

Variable data printing (VDP), is now a viable solution for anyone with a marketing message and a database. Innovation and advances in digital print systems, especially the software which drives their VDP capabilities, delivers solutions more versatile, affordable, and user-friendly than those available a few years ago. Whether one wants to cater the message and attendant images to the recipient’s unique profile and interests, implement a cross-media personalized marketing campaign, or establish a Web portal for customized communications and marketing materials, VDP may have the answer.

"What’s changed, dramatically, on the print side is that the combination of quality, speed, and the price-per-page of today’s print engines have gotten to the sweet spot," points out Jacob Aizikowitz, founder and chief technical officer, XMPie, Inc. "More people are using VDP and the feedback they are getting is that it works."

As a premiere supplier of VDP software solutions, XMPie sales climbed more than 270 percent last year as the company released products for all tiers of the market. Their offerings include uDirect Professional, a midrange solution for creating variable data campaigns within Adobe InDesign CS2; the uStore e-commerce solution; uImage, a variable imaging plug-in for Adobe Photoshop; and the XLIM Composition Engine for VDP business documents.

The combination of current tools push beyond the personalized bills and letters which caught recipients’ attention a few years back. "We’re seeing more and more [marketers] adapt VDP and integrate it into cross media campaigns," Aizikowitz observes.

"One thing we see catching on very quickly is integrated mail and email campaigns which drive the respondent to a Web site or microsite with a unique URL," he offers as an example. "By incorporating response URL into marketing material you build in a way to measure its effectiveness."

Introducing clients to ways they could implement a VDP strategy could help secure the future for printers with VDP capability. "The minute the print services provider becomes a marketing solutions provider it becomes much harder for that client to ever think about leaving," Aizikowitz points out.

Moving VDP to the Desktop
One emerging trend is the arrival of VDP for desktop PCs. For example, Printable Technologies now offers its FusionPro Desktop software for $399. With the software, Mac or PC users can create their own VDP document templates, incorporating variable text, data, and images, for use in any PDF workflow.

"We’re just about at the point of mass adoption of VDP," suggests Mark Hilger, marketing product manager, Printable. "Early adopters have already been using VDP for years. We think there’s been a lot of people who have been sitting on the fence, waiting until it is affordable and practical for them."

As new users have discovered the software, they’ve started adapting VDP to a range of needs. "The whole concept of what is VDP seems open to interpretation," offers Hilger. "It’s no longer just about doing large VDP mailings with targeted data."

Hilger is continually amazed at how buyers are using the software. "It started with business cards, letterheads, and personalized post cards—things you’d expect. But it has grown to include things like ID badges, event attendee packets, personalized bingo cards, point of sale materials, and Web-to-print products."

Any of these print products can mean opportunities for those who promote them. "Maintaining your customer base has a lot to do with offering them something new they can’t get from someone else," Hilger explains.

"But succeeding with VDP requires more than a software tool and a digital press. You also have to know something about your customer’s business, their goals, and how VDP can help get them there."

Many Paths to VDP

At Pageflex, director of marketing Alice Fackre states that new users first turn to VDP with some specialized need in mind. "There doesn’t seem to be one path people are taking to VDP. They are starting from different points, and growing into its capabilities in different directions. Web-to-print seems to be one of the driving forces bringing many new people into this market right now."

The company offers a suite of products users can embrace and incorporate as their needs grow. They include Pageflex Storefront, a Web-to-print document customization and e-commerce solution; Pageflex EDIT for versioning branded marketing materials; and PageflexMPower, a database and Web-forms-driven solution for enterprise VDP applications.

Last year, the company added the Persona Cross Media Suite, applications for creating and distributing variable data documents as print or email on desktop PCs. "Persona makes VDP available where people have been waiting for a solution," Fackre notes. "It’s template driven and can output VDP documents as PDFs and Postscript."

VDP On the Web
Over the past year, Pageflex has also seen heightened interest in its Web-to print solution. "A lot of our recent effort has been with our Storefront product," says Fackre. "We designed it to make it very easy for anyone to create a Web-to-print business, with a set-up wizard and templates they can easily customize. The software makes it so easy, some customers are using it to quickly create dummy sites as a way of selling their clients on the benefits of a Web-to-print operation."

Businesses tap Web-to-print VDP capabilities in several ways. Some deploy it as a way of generating instant response in print, email, or both, to site visitors who register or request information. For businesses with offices or stores distributed over a wide area, a Web-to-print solution may also make it easy for field offices to prepare and order documents customized to the local market.

"It gives businesses a central point online for ordering all marketing materials, anything which may need to be versioned," Fackre explains. "Our customers have found that once the branded Web-to-print portal is up and running for their clients, those clients tend to print more."

Large Format VDP
VDP is also being employed for printing versioned or personalized documents in large format. "In the past, the focus has been on traditional VDP applications, in narrow format printing," observes Alison Johnson, marketing manager, Wasatch Computer Technology. "It’s been hard for people to get their mindset around what can be accomplished in large format printing with VDP."

The company is changing that with the release of their Variable Data Printing Option for Wasatch SoftRIP, used in many large format inkjet workflows. The add-on equips compatible printers to incorporate variable data, variable images, and sequential numbers into larger prints. "It works with data from any Excel or ASCII database," Johnson points out. "And any part of an image can be variable, too."

The market has responded in some unexpected ways. "Initially, we thought the killer application would be in production of sports jerseys," Johnson shares. "People who had an existing need for VDP in large format picked up on it right away as a better way to do what they’d already been doing. As others realized what we offer, we’ve been continually surprised at how they are using it."

For example, digital print providers with print-and-cut capabilities have found it an easy answer for some specialty projects. "Since they can set it up for serializing numbers, they’re printing out sheets of parking tickets, ID badges, club memberships, bar codes, and labels for asset tracking. They print them in quantities with their large format printers, then cut them to the needed size."

For a relatively small investment, it allows them to accomplish more with existing equipment. "And, since there aren’t many companies offering the VDP services in large format yet, it can be a very profitable revenue stream," she adds.

Buyers of Canon’s imagePROGRAF iPF5000 also have a large format VDP option. Shipping with the unit is PosterArtist 2006, a desktop application with built-in VDP support. "It’s one of the new features that will allow users to easily create customized posters for POP and advertising, with whatever changes they want made in the text or image," says Richard Reamer, business system marketing manager, Canon U.S.A.

"We’re seeing print-for-pay providers get more involved with VDP as a way of differentiating themselves from their competition," Reamer reports. "They’re also setting up the Web sites which make it easy to upload a database and order customized print pieces. It’s a service area that should see growth for the foreseeable future."

"The time for VDP is now," says Chris A. Watts, manager of readiness/rollout, Exstream Software, Inc. The company supplies a comprehensive platform of VDP solutions for personalized communications in several business sectors. "Print-for-pay vendors should make VDP offerings a core part of their solution set," he says.

Driving the appeal of VDP and service opportunities are advances in the technology, as well as shifts in how customers use available data. "The value of color and availability of faster, more affordable color printers have changed the VDP landscape, prompting organizations to explore a variety of new options for their VDP solutions," Watts observes.

"Today’s VDP solutions must be able to richly support complementary, multi-channel output for traditional print, as well as archive Web presentment and robust data collection services," Watts continues.

With the range of applications for VDP, Watts suggests that offering these services could be critical to the future of some digital services providers. "VDP is a strategic initiative that print-for-pay vendors must embrace or risk losing customers to other vendors that do offer such solutions."

A Range of Options

For those who want a piece of what promises to be a growing part of the business, there are many vendors eager to help them down the path to success with VDP services.

Electronics for Imaging (EFI) offers products that, according to the company, "take full advantage of evolving VDP applications and offer a customized approach that achieves maximum productivity." The EFI Fiery digital front end offers high color quality, open VDP workflow flexibility, and tools for graphic arts professionals. Including such VDP languages as Fiery FreeForm, industry standard PPML, and a host of legacy proprietary languages, the EFI Fiery digital front end provides integration into existing variable data workflows. The EFI Digital StoreFront Web-to-print solution is available fully integrated with the Fiery digital front end. Digital StoreFront provides a personalized, interactive Intranet or Internet presence 24 hours a day, and offers a complete workflow from the document creator, through the print production environment, to finishing and delivery.

The latest addition to DirectSmile’s product line-up is version 3.0 of its Design Editor software. Developed to simplify and enhance the creation of personalized images, the upgrade features a new set-up wizard; layering options for greater flexibility in image personalization; transforming grids; enhanced frame functionality; and new style sheets and special effects.

Earlier this year, Document Sciences Corporation expanded its VDP solutions with the official release of xPresso, a content publishing suite. It can be used to create personalized marketing materials, brochures, catalogs, and correspondence. Components of this scalable solution include xPresso for Adobe InDesign xPRS Server for assembling, formatting, and delivering documents; and xRequest, a Web-based interface for selecting document templates, processing them with variable files, and previewing before submitting for publication.

GMC Software Technology, Inc. offers a scalable solution in its PrintNet suite of modules for variable document design, approval, and Web-based services. Components include PrintNet T, for customized document design and production; PrintNet Connect, for production of printed and electronic documents via Web services; PrintNet Transform; Web Design; and WebProof for Web-based document design and approval.

IXT Patient Connect from IXT Solutions is one example of a specialized application incorporating VDP capabilities. Included in the revenue management application for health care providers is a module which generates targeted correspondence using information from a patient database.

Kodak Graphic Communications Group offers a range of systems capable of handling VDP jobs, as well as the software which drives that capability. Hardware options include the Kodak Versamark inkjets, NexPress, and Digimaster digital print systems. The software includes Darwin 6.5, a desktop authoring tool for Adobe InDesign or QuarkXpress for one-to-one marketing campaigns; Nextreme DL 100 Variable Data Software, an Acrobat plug-in for creating color documents containing variable text, images, charts, and tables; Nextreme DL 1000 Variable Data Software, a client-server version; and the Nextreme Web-to-Print Exchange order management solution for automated fulfillment of short run, versioned print jobs.

Lytrod Software provides its customers with the software creation tools to tap the VDP capabilities of Xerox color and monochrome digital print systems. Lytrod’s ProForm Designer and Desktop Designer lets PC users develop VDP applications on the desktop for personalized marketing campaigns and customer correspondence.

The most recent additions to Meadows Publishing Solutions DesignMerge software include DesignMerge Server and DesignMerge Pro for Adobe InDesign. The DesignMerge Suite lets users create VDP output from QuarkXpress documents in Mac and Windows workflows. DesignMerge Server is a server-based version of the company’s DesignMerge Pro VDP solution compatible with QuarkDDS. It allows users to upload templates and databases to the Quark server for personalized output in popular VDP formats. DesignMerge Pro for Adobe InDesign delivers comparable capabilities to users of Adobe InDesign.

Objectif Lune’s PlanetPress software provides a VDP solution for customized marketing communications and personalized documents. Version 5 offers tools and features designed to simplify creation of personalized documents.

PReS from PrintSoft Americas is a suite of software tools for designing and publishing a range of personalized documents, including billing statements, reports, insurance policies, and marketing materials. Documents created can include such variables as test images, graphics, barcodes, and data. In addition to HTML, print, and email, documents may also be distributed as SMS messages, XML files, and faxes.

The Agilis Marketing Suite of VDP solutions from Saepio Technologies provides enterprises with a solution for creating and distributing VDP documents. Some components include the Agilis Storefront, a Web site resource for regional and local marketers; Agilis Print, a Web interface for versioning of advertising and marketing materials; Direct Mail List Center for list selection, content creation, and ordering; Asset Management for managing and retrieving graphic elements used in marketing materials; and E-mail Builder for preparing, distributing, and monitoring personalized HTML email correspondence.

The X-800 digital front end for Xeikon’s print engines provides built-in support for VDP in its presses. According to Xeikon, it can process VDP jobs containing as many as one million records.

Xerox Corporation supplies the FreeFlow Variable Information Suite to power the VDP capabilities of the presses in its FreeFlow Digital Workflow collection. These include the DocuColor, DocuPrint, DocuTech, Nuvera, and iGen 3 systems. This suite of software tools allows users to combine variable data and images into personalized documents at the full production speeds of these presses. Modules include a VI Designer for creating, editing, and viewing VIPP applications, and a VI PDF originator for outputting PDF files for distribution via email, the Web, or fax.

The Theory In Practice
Today, variable print technology is empowering more effective communications, published both on and offline, in all types of publishing. The range of VDP applications include everything from printing personalized bills and correspondence which gave the technology its start, to sequential tickets, membership cards, etc., printed in large format then cut to size. The large format market is still in the early stages of VDP adoption. It will be exciting to see where it leads the print industry next.

May2006, Digital Output

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