The Variables of VDP

Variable data printing (VDP) is hardly a new concept. A couple of years ago we did a VDP cover of Quick Printing that had the individual subscriber’s name, the outline of the state where he or she lived, and the approximate distance from there to Graph Expo in Chicago. Creo set up the variable database and the covers were output on a Konica Minolta 6500 by the staff at Jim and Judy Brumley’s PIP Printing in Greensboro, NC. The covers were then married with the rest of the magazine at Publishers Press in Kentucky and put into the mail stream.The question, of course, is if VDP is so cool, has better response rates, and offers the opportunity for higher profits, why isn’t it more prevalent in our industry segment—other than in applications such as mail merge?

“VDP services could make money for printers,” says QP columnist and industry consultant John Giles, “but they have to take time to learn how to do it. It requires integrating data and database programs with design programs and output devices. The most typical VDP jobs being done by small shops are simple mailing projects from simple databases.”

According to Giles, the scarcity of more sophisticated one-to-one messaging can be attributed to a few basic things. The first is the customer who “knows how VDP works, but doesn’t have the database necessary to take advantage of the service.” Added to that is the reluctance of some printers to deal with data files because they are too complex or time consuming.

“Another issue is software,” says Giles. “It takes time to learn it, and it can be considered expensive by the small printer. Printable’s Fusion Pro is an inexpensive and easy to use solution, but there is still a learning curve.”

Then there are equipment considerations. “The big digital printers are fast with robust RIPs to give the printer the processing power to do VDP. The smaller, slower digital printers are capable of doing VDP, but they require the more robust external RIP to be practical in production,” according to Giles.

Last but not least, VDP won’t sell itself. “While many printers have the capability to do VDP, they fail to get out and sell the service to their customers,” says Giles. “Without an outbound sales program that explains the benefits of VDP to customers and helps the customer prepare a good data file, a printer must wait for someone to come in and ask for the service and hope their data files work. A printer has to make a conscience decision to sell VDP services.”


Asking Questions

We decided to ask some printers about their experiences with using and selling VDP.

“We are doing variable data on envelopes and matching to personalized letters,” says Marion Gordon of Yippie Print and Marketing in New York. “We use our Xerox DocuColor to accomplish this.”

“We do lots of variable data, but much of it is very simple (e.g.: addressing),” according to Richard Dannenburg of AlphaGraphics in Macon, GA. “We’ve had a difficult time getting PURLs to catch on in our small southern town. At this point, it’s hard to justify the added time and expense against the limited and unpredictable increase in response. Another problem we face is customer reluctance to commit to repeated and targeted campaigns. They’re much more likely to want to send a one shot mailer than a series of targeted messages. Then they want to complain about poor response.”

Says Sherry Baker of Sterling Printing Company in Greenville, SC: “We aren’t doing much because the software we got with our digital press is having issues that even their programmers can’t figure out. In all honesty, I have more luck with InDesign’s simple mail merge for variable data.

“I also think most people are more annoyed at [‘your name here’ style] mailings, thanks to campaigns like Publisher’s Clearing House, but we have done some subtle customized mailings that were less obvious. For example, if we sent them a postcard reminding them of our specials, it would have a photo of ‘their’ sales rep on it with a personal note from them regarding their very last order, or we would do a year’s worth of personalized birthday greetings and hand them off to a receptionist to make sure they were mailed timely by date. The skyline on the front would be of their city—not some generic ‘Anytown USA’ stock image. Subtle, but effective.”

“I watch this stuff very closely (VDP, cross media campaigns, QR codes, mobile) and understand it pretty well,” says Scott Cappell of Sorrento Mesa Printing in San Diego, CA. “The funny thing about VDP is that we have all the tools and capabilities. I’m just not selling to it much. We do a ton of static color and this is extremely profitable. I need to be more diligent in the sales process to sell VDP so I can then actually do it.

“I think one of the limitations we face with this type of work, is that our mid-level production machines (Konica Minolta 6500’s) don’t have the ability to duplex heavier stock (14 pt.) for the mail stream. One of the biggest considerations in our next color machine would be to be able to duplex so we could do variable on both sides.”


Starting Out

Most quick printers start out their VDP operations with simple mailing services. One reason is that the majority of VDP jobs will have some mailing component. Also, mailing services customers are prime candidates for more sophisticated VDP applications.

“In my opinion you need to get into mailing first,” says Brian O’Day of ePrint Online in Portland, OR. “It is easy variable data. Yes, the post office has rules, but most of the variable printing you do will be mailed.”

O’Day agrees that a good RIP and the ability to handle databases, along with programs such as Fusion Pro, are essential, but “now you still need to go out and find that customer, which is why I say you need to start in mailing. Mailing customers are easy to find. After you get to do their mailing then you can talk them into variable data.”

Sometimes, however, the issue is not equipment or databases—it is imagination. Where do you look for examples of success stories, whether they are called VDP, personalized printing, or one-to-one marketing? Fortunately, there are places printers can find ideas and information, among them is Adobe’s Variable Data Publishing Resource Center. Also, as visitors to Quick Printing’s website probably have noticed, since the first of the year we have been running monthly case studies from PODi, which have real-world samples of digital, on demand printing involving VDP.

In the end, it is safe to say that at this juncture, the use of variable data printing by quick and small commercial printers, well, varies.