Printer Takes Chance on Variable-Data Printing

People thought David Brooks of Brooks Litho & Digital Group was crazy when he plunked down $525,000 on an Indigo E-Print 1000 in 1995. After all, he didn't have any clients who were buying digital printing.

“We had no digital business whatsoever,” said Brooks, president of the North Amityville, NY, printing firm. “It was crazy. You don't just go out and buy a press without having any business.”

This summer he spent an equally large bundle, this time on an HP Indigo Ultrastream 3000 press. Once again, he's taking a chance on a new technology.

Brooks said he thinks he is buying into new technology just as it is about to produce fruit. With his new press, Brooks intends to open new avenues in direct marketing through the use of variable-data printing and one-to-one marketing.

He will, that is, if he can get his marketing clients to come along with him.

Brooks is far from alone in taking up the variable-data printing and one-to-one marketing flag. The concept has generated so much buzz that the Direct Marketing Association is featuring a Digital Print Pavilion, a show within a show, at its upcoming annual conference Oct. 20-23 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Variable-data printing, made possible through digital printing technology, lets marketers vary “every pixel on every part of a sheet” throughout the press run, Brooks said. That means individual mailers can be changed based on information about the individual who will receive it — not just their name and salutation but images and text.

In one example, an image on a mailer depicts a bowl of alphabet cereal with a spoon in the foreground. Suspended in milk inside the spoon is the recipient's first name, written in alphabet cereal.

In a more complicated example, a marketer of farm products varies about 90 elements in a catalog of seeds, including the color of the tractors and the type of terrain depicted in images in the catalog as well as the types of seeds being offered, all based on the farmer's buying history and personal information.

Technology to do this work has been around for a decade but only now is coming to the forefront, Brooks said. For Brooks, it's been a bumpy ride.

When he bought the Indigo E-Print in 1995, Brooks became the first printer on New York's Long Island to install a digital press. Just two years prior a ticket at the industry trade show Graph Expo introducing the Indigo press was a hot item, Brooks recalled.

However, the E-Print suffered from print quality problems, including trouble with tints, vignettes and some solid colors. The technology had difficulty gaining acceptance, particularly among Long Island ad agencies, Brooks said. Furthermore, he was disappointed that marketers weren't using the technology to its full potential.

“People were disillusioned about the quality,” he said. “Too many looked at it only as a way to do short-run color.”

This past year Hewlett-Packard acquired Indigo and released its most current technology, the HP Indigo Ultrastream 3000. This latest generation press has addressed the quality problems and, unlike the first generation presses, is capable of more than CMYK color.

Brooks' model is five-color, which lets printers mix inks to specification and produces spot colors as well. Still, Brooks said he is having difficulty convincing his traditionalist prospects, particularly marketers on Long Island, to adopt the new technology and all its potential. So far he has “three or four” highend variable data projects, which he said he was unable to discuss because of confidentiality agreements, on tap using the new technology.

One sticking point has been cost. A mailer produced with variable-data printing can cost twice as much as the traditional mass mailer.

Another difficulty has been database quality. To make one-to-one marketing work, marketers need accurate and useable data, or all the effort put into making highly personalized marketing material will be for nothing.

Brooks said he insists that marketers look beyond per-unit cost and focus more on ROI. Traditional mass mailers are cheap but average response rates around 2 percent, whereas, he claimed, a variable-data piece could bring a response rate of 10 percent or higher, so the cost per prospect acquired is actually lower.

“These are not made-up numbers,” he said. “The thing that has been the problem in the industry so far has been educating clients.”

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