Variable data printing makes its mark

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Variable data printing makes its mark
Variable data printing makes its mark

Using variable data printing (VDP) to create personalized marketing pieces has typically been favored by niche direct marketers over national brands. This may be changing, however, with the growing sophistication of the technology, which is increasingly adept at processing large amounts of data, resulting in high-quality, highly relevant marketing materials that are grabbing the attention of such big names as Time Inc., American Express and women's basketball team The Liberty.

In its first VDP effort last April, The Liberty mailed out over 15,000 postcards to previous buyers of individual tickers and season subscribers who hadn't renewed, featuring a team jersey hanging on a locker with the recipient's name printed on it. VDP offered the opportunity to create that kind of campaign, says Amy Scheer, SVP, marketing and sales at The Liberty.

“It really resonated with the brand's sense of community,” she explains. “It is much more compelling to receive something personalized versus something that is stock off the shelf.”

However, just being able to personalize a postcard wasn't enough. Since folds and shadows would appear in a piece of clothing hanging in such a way -- including in the name that appears on it -- it was important to The Liberty that the end result be realistic looking. “The end result had to have that polished look we want everything from The Liberty to have,” said Scheer. “If it didn't look like we wanted it to, I'm not sure it would have been worth the expense.”

Over the past few years, the hardware and software capabilities used for VDP have improved, as well as the Internet, which is used to transmit the data, says Val DiGiacinto, VP, sales at printer The Ace Group, which produced The Liberty project. Taken together, he explains, these refinements have brought VDP to a new level.

“If you had told me three years ago that I could produce 31,000 32-plus page personalized magazines in a seven-day process, I wouldn't have thought it possible,” says DiGiacinto, referring to Mine, the custom consumer magazine launched this spring as a test by Time Inc., American Express Publishing and Lexus. Those who signed up for the free biweekly filled out a survey in order to receive content picked from different Time and American Express titles, intended to meet their interests.

Not too long ago, it would have take so long to produce a high-quality image like the one used in The Liberty campaign or to create a personalized magazine that it wouldn't have been worth the effort, DiGiacinto explains. This is one of the reasons why digital print still only accounts for less than 10% of overall print volume.

Another is that there is a significant learning curve in the marketing community when it comes to VDP, he continues.  “Marketers don't know what's available” when it comes to digital print's capabilities today, he says. “It can be used in such a way that the imagery and message will make someone stop and take a look.” The Ace Group works with HP's Indigo presses for its VDP work.

Scheer had never heard of VDP before a year ago, but saw an example of it and asked The Liberty's creative agency, The Watsons, to check it out. “As e-mail has grown, we haven't relied on snail mail the past several years,” she says. However, when The Watsons presented an idea for a personalized postcard campaign that would speak to buyers based on their experience, Scheer loved the idea.

The messaging on the postcards for past individual buyers revolved around the idea of “having you back again and again.” In addition to the recipient's last name appearing on the jersey image, his or her first name appeared in the headline. Non-renewals received postcards that said, “It's time to make a comeback.”

“We wanted to re-engage buyers with something that was personal, spoke to the community sense of the brand and was compelling,” says Jennifer Williams, managing partner at The Watsons. The effort was supported with e-mail and telemarketing as well.

The postcard was a winner. “It was the best piece we've ever done” from an ROI perspective, says Scheer. “When you got it in the mail, you felt the connection with the brand.”

As a bonus, the production “was super easy,” Williams adds. Instead of having to give the client a blueprint, the proofs showed the final product -- one of the advantages of digital print.” The Ace Group even ran a proof with Scheer's name in it, so she could see what the experience of the recipient would be.

With a limited budget, however, The Liberty won't be repeating its foray into VDP this year, at least. Instead, it will focus on event-based marketing as it tests new strategies. “VDP is something we will recommend doing again, perhaps next year,” says Scheer.

This is something that DiGiacinto sees happen a lot. “One marketer jumps into VDP and another jumps out,” he says. In fact, the company's overall VDP volume has remained pretty much constant over the past decade.

However, as more efforts like The Liberty's postcard campaign and Mine come to market, “it gives everyone the confidence to move forward and try new things,” he adds.  “We could easily see a ten-fold increase in the number of marketing people who actually jump on VDP and make it happen.”

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