Point: Print, mail firms excel at different things

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Full-service printing companies have begun offering mailing services to their direct mail customers in recent years while direct mail firms have begun adding digital, full-color variable data printing as well as print brokering. Printing and direct mail appear to be morphing into one industry.

But printers and direct mail companies operate from different business models that require distinctly different knowledge and organizational skill sets. I maintain that printers who offer mailing services to their customers do them a disservice, except when the pieces being mailed require only a simple, static mailing file. Anything more than this, and printers get involved in the intricacies that experienced direct mail marketing firms have spent years learning and honing.

The mailing challenges of a direct mail campaign are as complex and varied as the aspects of printing a high-quality, high-print-run catalog or brochure. Those of us in direct mailing services are as concerned about the quality of data being used to address a mail piece as printers are about the quality of paper used on a five-star resort's brochure. Direct mailing pros want the data in a mailing file to be as close to 100 percent correct as possible, so we need to achieve exacting standards in addressing database quality and list hygiene issues.

Direct mailing companies know what to look for in these issues. When we get a job, we check whether there's any complexity in the data being used; we also check the potential for duplicates of a piece to go to a recipient; and we ensure that mailing addresses are current. It's all about having the technical know-how to ensure that the right piece of mail - and only that one right piece of mail - reaches the correct recipient.

Direct mailing companies are also versed in postal regulations. We can make suggestions on mail-piece design for postage savings.

Having a knowledgeable, experienced direct mailing partner is even more important with the advent of digital, full-color variable data printing and the ensuing demand among marketers for smaller-quantity campaigns with customized messages for different audiences. Suddenly, there's a way to raise your response rate by using the dynamic files in your database to produce smaller campaign runs where each piece can include full-color images and text specific to the recipient, and each piece can be printed and addressed in a single run. Can your print company offer such highly customized printing and mailing capability with the level of accuracy you require? Unlikely, unless it has shifted its business model.

Print companies are geared up with machinery for large mailings of high-quality pieces. It's expensive capital equipment that needs to be kept running for printers to be profitable. If they want to respond to the demand for smaller-print-run, customized pieces - often postcards and other self-mailers - they must alter their infrastructure by equipping their plants to accommodate the most common types of direct mail. When they do, they'll learn that marketers who send direct mail usually demand competitive pricing and acceptable print quality, all at the lowest possible postage rate. This can be a rude awakening for printers used to selling only their high-quality printing capabilities.

But adding VDP to a direct mail marketing company's services is a natural. Though a learning curve is involved before a direct mail firm can promote its new capability, it doesn't require a huge shift in skill sets nor the financial risks required of a printing company that wants to offer both VDP and direct mailing services.

Print brokering is another service that direct mail marketing firms can offer effectively and at little risk. When VDP isn't the best solution for a campaign, then direct mail services firms can save their clients the time of finding the best printer for the job at the best price. Acting as print brokers, they have the resources to seek out comparisons for printing.

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