Web's Power May Rest in Ability To Marry Data, Targeted Print Pieces

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The Internet changes everything. But the interactive universe is still unfolding as marketers, online technology and changing consumer habits intersect to give shape and substance to the digital world. Direct marketing will, in the end, be among the most altered industries in ways that are quickly coming into focus.

One thing is certain: The Internet's capacity for data gathering and print-on-demand's infinite flexibility to create targeted, high-quality, four-color digitally created pieces is a natural match. Digital printing -- which produces high-quality output directly from digital files without creating printing plates -- is the tool that marketers and agencies have been waiting for to put their still-growing Web activities to practical use. And the right twist will drive sales.

For example: When automobile manufacturer Subaru wanted to ratchet up its engaging but noninteractive Web site to offer consumers more than sales information, the auto manufacturer transformed a portion of its site into an interactive experience with a follow-up mechanism. Interested consumers were permitted to "build" their ideal cars on-screen, including choosing interior and exterior colors, specifications, accessories, options and where they would like to drive their cars. Then, of course, logged-on tire-kickers provided the fundamentals of database information: name, address, ZIP code, date, e-mail, fax and dollar value of self-selected model.

Straightforward Net marketing with a subtle twist: Within 24 hours of submission, a personalized brochure, including pictures of the precise model in the preferred setting (say, at the Grand Canyon), down to the interior colors, was in the mail to the consumer courtesy of his Subaru dealer. This was a textbook example of targeting customers and prospects with variable information products -- simply, a print run where each printed page is somewhat different, with the variations determined by relating print element options to customer information in a database linked to a digital print engine -- and, as a result, driving sales, changing behavior and building long-term relationships.

And the Internet should complement other data-gathering systems. Last year's Internet- and IVR-based system created by KPN, the Netherlands-based telecommunications company that owns both the Dutch phone company and the Dutch Post mail system, enabled consumers to request information about products and services via an IVR system and receive a customized catalog in the mail within two days. The campaign permitted consumers to access the service via telephone or the Internet and opt to receive information on a range of products and services, including travel, home furnishings, computers, electronics, cars and financial packages. Within 48 hours, a four-color, catalog was delivered to their doors with customized articles, including expert advice, manufacturers' specifications, ads, comparative test reports and local dealer or supplier addresses for requested products.

Was it successful? Last year's KPN campaign inspired nearly one-fifth of the Dutch population to pick up the telephone or visit the Web site. As a result, more than 3,000 customized 36-page booklets were produced each week. Of those who responded, 45 percent purchased a product or service within two months while 91 percent referred to the booklet when making a purchasing decision.

There are other proactive ways to leverage the Internet, including programs that deliver customized and useful information on a timely basis to purchasers, prospects and existing clients. For example, a large financial services company provides its salesforce with an Intranet-based site that lets it create customizable newsletters by selecting prewritten articles and artwork. The publications are delivered in hard-copy format and e-mailed to the client. The bottom line is the client receives a company-specific, useful newsletter sponsored by the financial services company.

The variable information is transmitted by using electronic files, and the end product is generated through a plateless imaging system or direct-to-press printing from computer files, which eliminates film, separations, plates and traditional make-ready.

The concept of on-demand printing is simple: high-quality, four-color pieces on short notice, with quick turn-times and economical print runs. When all criteria are met, the results include lower inventory, lower risk of obsolescence, lower production costs and reduced distribution costs.

But the depth and reach of the impact of on-demand printing in collaboration with the Net are only beginning to crystallize. The Internet is even changing the way we think about relationship marketing.

Previously, relationship-marketers reached out and touched a segment of consumers with printed pieces that included as much variation as possible, but it wasn't, frankly, very much. Now, with the convergence of Web technology, sophisticated database management and breakthroughs in digital printing, marketers have the right tools at the right time.

Rab Govil is executive director of the Print-On-Demand initiative, Rochester, NY, and Cindy Turek is director of sales at Moore Response Marketing Services, a division of Moore North America.

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