Variable Content Promotions: A Printer's Primer

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The Internet's interactivity has spawned a new type of customer who is not merely accustomed to personalization, but who demands it. This new customer has less patience for being "mass marketed to" and expects companies to know and present him with what he, personally, is interested in.


Marketers who speak directly to the needs of this customer will raise response rates, boost brand loyalty and realize increased return on marketing investments.


Concurrently, technology for the printing industry has undergone profound changes. Digital printing has evolved to where it closely approximates the quality of traditional four-color process offset printing.


Advances in variable-printing software let marketers change images and text based on each individual customer's profile. Now, not only can marketers speak one-to-one with each customer, they can produce professional-looking pieces while they do it. Best of all, because highly personalized promotional pieces return a higher response rate and are now cost-effective, these efforts yield a higher ROI.


Here are some popular ways that DMers use cost-effective variable printing in their campaigns:


· More testing. Because the economics of digital printing are so favorable, marketers are segmenting the list in more ways and changing variables more frequently to test different targeted approaches. They're also using high-impact images more frequently to catch the attention of prospects.


· Creating personalized brochures using interactive campaigns. Car dealerships, for example, send customers to customized URLs where they fill out information about their "dream" cars. Each customer then gets a high-quality brochure featuring a striking photo of the car they designed.


· Combining it with customized URLs and e-mail to create invitational - as opposed to intrusive - interactive campaigns. To create a fun atmosphere and build booth traffic at a trade show, one marketer developed a direct mail piece featuring a selection of candy and chips. The piece invited prospects to sign up for their snacks of choice at customized URL sites, where they also were asked to provide profiling information. The targets then got a follow-up e-mail reminding them that their snacks were waiting at the booth.


However, using variable-content marketing with digital printing requires forethought in design and strategy. A marketer must consider many elements, such as the condition of his database, the business rules that will be established and creative considerations.


The database. In-house databases are likely to contain a wealth of relevant information on customers' purchasing history, interests and other data that could be used to develop variable content. Though data in rented lists are more general, information such as geographic location, gender or SIC codes could be used to create a campaign with some degree of personalization. Regardless of the types or combinations of lists used, it's important that they are cleaned as best as possible before sending them to the printer.


Because most problems occur with in-house databases, it makes sense for the corporate IT professional to speak with the printer about the appropriate list format before the database is created. Likewise, it's wise to provide files in a simple and widely compatible format, such as comma-delimited ASCII text files, rather than Excel files.


Business rules. Another major consideration is determining the "business rules" - or what will be variable - for the mailing and communicating them to the printer. The printer should be briefed on the promotion's strategy and purpose so he can make suggestions or catch potential problems. Also, establishing upfront a "proofing database" - a subset of the data that includes all combinations expected to appear in the final run - will help when it comes to proofing variable-content output.


Creative considerations. Designing for digital printing devices as well as for variable content differs from designing for four-color offset presses. Here are suggestions that will smooth the printing process:


· Don't worry about designing with toner on a fold line. The most sophisticated digital output devices on the market press small toner molecules into the paper at such high heat that the toner on the crease won't crack after it's scored.


· Define black as 100 percent black. Don't use rich black or super black.


· Expect PMS colors to look like the CMYK equivalent.


· Don't use very small knockout type because it isn't always clear, particularly if you are knocking out type from a PMS-equivalent color.


· Try to avoid large areas of flat tints. Add texture to a large area of color or consider using a duo-toned image. Avoid pastels and gradients because they don't reproduce well on digital printing devices.


Using variable imaging and data techniques available only through digital printing, marketers can create more relevant, targeted campaigns. They can increase response rates exponentially and cost-effectively, as well as enhance relationships with customers. Working closely with the printer during the planning and implementation of these campaigns will guarantee smooth mailing.


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