From Print to Web: Use a Subtle Approach

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The rise of the Internet has impacted the daily life of millions of people around the world. Communicating via e-mail, trading stocks through online brokerages and purchasing books from online retailers have become as commonplace as picking up the telephone. However, what impact does the Web hold for the direct marketing industry?

While direct marketing in electronic media is already occurring -- with such techniques as cookie-driven, customized Web portals and direct e-mail lists -- it has not yet reached the level of sophistication of printed tools. It's expected though that the Internet will reach its full potential as a direct platform soon, and marketers are currently developing technologies to make that happen.

At the same time, it's important not to overlook how to best combine the power of the Web with the proven capabilities of intelligent variable print publishing. Intelligent variable? That's using variable data to make a connection with the reader, while not offending them with big brother-like over-personalization. Messages with subtle customization -- customization that is transparent to the reader -- is the key to success. Tying in customers' and prospects' online usage to obtain and massage the data needed to create those subtleties is where the Web can best play its part in the short term.

To better illustrate this point, let's look at The Kroger Co. How does the United States' largest retail food company, operating 1,410 food stores under seven names across 24 states, and 797 convenience stores under six logos in 15 states, reach its customers in a relevant manner? Advertising, or perhaps some mass-market direct mail, right? While these are common promotional methods for retail outlets, Cincinnati-based Kroger decided to take a unique approach by speaking directly to thousands of individual customers on a regular basis. Impossible? Not with Internet-driven data collection and variable publishing.

Kroger's customer marketing program was developed as a method to aid acceptance of the new Kroger America's Brand products, which number more than 5,000 SKUs. Calling upon the power of the Web, the company instituted a system by which customers are provided with cents-off coupons via the Kroger Internet site.

Visitors to first register with basic identifying information and answer a few simple questions regarding household demographics. Based on that data, the site initiates a listing of multiple coupons, demonstrating the value of America's brand products. Users can then select which coupons they would like by marking check boxes, and the coupons will be mailed to them within a week.

On the back-end, a Java application outputs an XML stream containing information about the user and selected coupons directly to a variable publishing solution. That technology then retrieves the appropriate images from a digital asset management system, and using its object-oriented composition system, formats one or more pages of coupons for each customer, RIPs them on the fly to a digital printer for spot color output and delivers them directly to the postal processing system.

This closed-loop marketing process also employs multiple security features to prevent unauthorized distribution or use, thus guaranteeing the accuracy of redemption data.

The end result? Relevant, quality, high-volume variable output, quick turnaround and satisfaction for thousands of customers.

As time progresses, we'll certainly see a shift from printed variable output to electronic variable output, where Web pages and streamed media are customized based on user demographics. However, the key to using variable data most effectively will remain the same -- maintain a subtle approach to make the communication relevant, yet not intrusive. Keep that in mind, and you'll uncover more opportunities, and turn more of those into revenue, than ever before.

Forrest Gauthier is founder and chairman/CEO of Varis Corp., Mason, OH, a provider of variable printing solutions to the printing and marketing industries. His company's e-mail address is

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