In recent years the DM industry has experienced profound changes, in part because of the integration of digital technology into production methods, work flows and, especially, marketing approaches and tactics themselves.
One need look no further than the breakneck pace of Web-based push and pull campaigns and the exponential growth of e-commerce to see that today's direct marketing practitioners are conducting business that's far from usual. And it's largely because of the introduction of digital technology to the mix.
A significant development in this area that has, until now, remained somewhat behind the scenes in terms of awareness is the development and maturation of digital color printing systems with full variable imaging capabilities. It's worth taking a closer look at these solutions because, in many real-world DM applications, they have already delivered double-digit responses and conversion rates through highly targeted mass customized materials that were not possible a few years ago.
Defining digital printing. In a nutshell, four color digital printing systems are computer-to-substrate production devices capable of reproducing up to 100 percent variable content. One entry in this field is Chromapress, of which there are hundreds installed worldwide. Initially, these systems were used for short runs of documents, and this remains a core capability. The truly unique characteristic, however, and the one of greatest interest to direct marketers, is the variable printing capability. Although the per-piece costs for such materials are higher than traditional offset work, the potentially far greater impact and response they gain can easily justify this expense. Today an increasing number of DM agencies are discovering how their own creative thinking can combine with the mass customization power of a digital press to deliver breakthrough results.
Push and pull possibilities. Though the application possibilities are too numerous to outline here, strong cases for digital printing can be made in both push and pull situations. In front-end-type push applications, where at least some relevant data about the audience exists, an ordinary mass-produced document can be transformed into a precisely aimed and ultimately more effective selling proposition. Moreover, the design need not be complex to have a powerful effect. The simple but clever representation of recipient's names, locations, affiliations, demographics or interests into the primary visual through variable graphic elements virtually ensures a strong response.
Of course, in pull situations, accurate and relevant data is the rule of the day. When a Web site, telemarketing campaign, or other query-based transaction, brings qualified leads containing individual preferences or desires, these can be incorporated easily into a printed piece that speaks to that person in a highly effective way. Back-end fulfillment of marketing material, customized in four color for maximum relevance and impact, is a common application for digital printing. In some cases, a customized and personalized digitally printed wrap can be added to a standard catalog to increase the acceptance and response. In view of the importance of respecting consumer privacy and the DM industry's initiative toward limiting unsolicited mail, the use of digital printing to deliver specific requested (variable) information on demand will likely find many more applications.
Demystifying the process. There are three stages to the four color variable print process. The first is the preparation of data needed to feed the document the variable content. Data resides in many forms, but the good news is that systems like Chromapress can integrate variable data using standard ASCII flat files, which virtually any application that interfaces with host databases can export. Once the data is in ASCII form, including text fields and images, it's ready to work with. This stage of the process is vital. Those firms that have captured and maintained usable, relevant data are the best candidates for this high-end printing method.
The second phase is the document creation. Because four color variable printing is relatively new, it calls for some very original thinking, and DM professionals are only beginning to discover how to take advantage of it. The most effective applications involve combining target data for personalization, often in clever or colorful graphical ways, with other variable content, such as relevant product information, purchase history, stated preferences, even geographic and demographic data.
To design a document for printing on Chromapress you'd use QuarkXPress in combination with a utility program such as Personalizer-X, which allows designers to work in familiar layout environments while at the same time helps bridge the gap between the worlds of design and database. It's a straightforward process that allows the focus to be more on the actual creative, not on data file filtering, tagging or complex manipulation.
The final stage is processing and output. With Chromapress, the Quark document and the associated data are processed separately, then the variable data is merged on the fly with the fixed page layout and routed to the printer. Because it's a full-duplex, web-fed system, longer documents, accordion folds, gatefolds and banners are possible, adding to the flexibility. The associated advantages of this new technology, such as an all-digital process to connect text and image data to documents, the as-needed, on-demand aspects of production and the ease with which compact digital files can be transported and printed in multiple locations, only add to the benefits.
In a few short years, digital color printing devices have advanced from humble beginnings to reliable, high-quality third-generation systems. The capabilities they offer are more than just ink or toner on paper. They make possible an entirely new method of reaching individual customers. Although the Web has garnered most of the headlines, the emotional and ergonomic advantages of print remain unchallenged. This radical development in print communications, so closely aligned with the evolution in digital technology as a whole and in the marketing techniques of one-to-one companies, offers DM professionals a new tool for today's increasingly competitive marketplace.