Don't Skip the Crucial Proof of Concept

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Catalog customization has progressed recently from an afterthought, where extras are added once the catalog is complete, to an integral part of the creation process. This progression requires catalogers to take a more comprehensive look at a book, integrating everything from IT to print services.


The previous add-on approach to customization created a linear process from marketing to IT to the print service provider. The IT department turned over data, which would be added to the catalog verbatim. But to use customization to its fullest, design must become more involved in the process, especially if you plan to take advantage of the increasing sophistication of customization.


Marketing's role. The marketing team's understanding of the global data available and customization techniques will determine the focus and direction for a customization project. Design then will implement the marketing vision using practical data that can be mined, and will create a layout that complements the vision and meets the requirements for customized printing. The role of IT is to extract and/or compile the appropriate data to support the marketing goals and design requirements.


Though marketing will define the project's vision, the detailed data requirements for customization will be determined by the design, and in many cases the design will end up driving the project. Therefore, the more informed a designer is regarding the goal of the piece and the data available, the more creative customization can be. Each functional area - IT, marketing and design - depends upon the other, and the interaction of all three is critical to planning a customization project.


Understanding the capabilities. Before starting any customization project, understanding the available capabilities will help in using them most effectively. Knowing the technological limits helps avoid planning for something that cannot be supported. For example, do you have the capability to personalize only black text or can you customize pages and images as well? This information is available from your print service provider and should be obtained early in planning.


It also is important to do a reality check and evaluate the data available against the marketing goal and design requirements to determine that all assets are readily available. It is not uncommon to find that you don't have everything you need.


Data needed to support an idea can be quite varied. For example, you may decide to segment your customer base beyond RFM using demographics, geographics or lifestyle sensitivities. You may also be grouping and sub-grouping merchandise to map to your customer segments. What you choose as the basis for customization will be driven by marketing vision, design creativity and data. If you find you lack the appropriate data, your first project becomes data collection, which will let you support your idea.


Design processes. Assuming you pass the data reality check, the marketing concept and design layout can be finalized. At this point, the specific customization details will be apparent and the design function should take the lead. The following occurs:


· Identify customized assets to be used in the project.


· Prepare assets to fit the catalog's layout.


· Identify and record any conditional logic to manipulate the assets (i.e., under what conditions should certain images be used) to brief your print service provider.


One of the first things to realize is that standardization of product images and descriptions are important to customization. The more you can standardize these assets, the better prepared your organization will be.


Data talk. The actual data that will be required to drive the print behavior can be defined in detail only when the concept has been finalized and the design layout established. The required fields, their contents and the desired behavior can be precisely identified from the design. For example, you may define a merchandise set and a group of messages to be printed for a specific sub-segment. Are all the messages the same, or will there be different messages within the sub-segment? Perhaps their priority is changed by the individual characteristics. You are effectively working out a translation interface between the data provided and print behavior it causes. This is an interactive discussion between you and your print service provider.


The best way to document and communicate your data requirements to your print service provider is by example. Provide a sample database that represents the fields that will drive the customization such as file type, field names, description, type, length, use and any conditional logic. An accompanying hard-copy laser proof of the pages with the variable areas marked and their associated fields identified also helps communicate the placements. If you are customizing more than just variable text, the data sample should contain at least one instance of every data breakpoint, or condition, that relates to your segmentation.


Proof of concept. In addition to the data file, also provide sample files of the design, including images and text blocks, to your print service provider to perform a proof of concept. The proof of concept is the proofing stage for the customization aspects. The marketing concept, the design and the data are brought together to let you check that the results you get from the data driving the content are what you intended and will not break the design or cause surprises. The results should be reviewed and discussed to ensure the customization meets marketing objectives.


Upon review and acceptance of the proof of concept, the job is ready to be scheduled for production.


Those who are producing customized jobs may be skipping the proof of concept. With the hectic pace of production and the evolution of prepress into a just-in-time process, this may instinctively seem to be the way to go. For jobs with text-only changes, or in the case of repeat jobs, that may suffice. However, skipping the proof of concept is not recommended for first-time projects or for more complex personalization jobs with variable images and text within many segments and sub-segments. The alternative is to go into production without knowing the extent of programming and the sustainability of the design.


Other customization tips. Consider the following:


· Be flexible in your design concept. Adjustments to the original design may be needed for it to work in all instances. That is one reason for a proof of concept.


· Remember that all customized elements will be layered on top of the static elements. If you have static elements that are going to be on top of customized elements, discuss this with your print service provider in advance.


· Perform appropriate due diligence to check and cleanse the data you provide to drive the print behavior. The data are job specific, and so there are no general-purpose routines that can find logic errors. If you provide data that describe someone incorrectly, they will get a customized catalog reflecting that categorization.


· The image and text assets as well as the design layout and data files are required earlier in the production cycle than is typical for conventional production.


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