Variable Data: Make It Personal

There have always been hot topics in the printing industry, and for the past couple of years one of them has been variable data printing (VDP). Driven by the capabilities of today's digital printing equipment, vendors have rolled out many VDP software and service solutions. Some are well known names in the industry, others are not as well known. Also, VDP can crop up in unexpected places. For instance Adobe InDesign offers VDP capability "right out of the box," according to QP columnist John Giles.

However, despite all the attention VDP has received and the many possibilities it offers, it has not penetrated the quick and small commercial industry as fast and as deeply as some predicted. We went to several of the players in the VDP arena to get their take on just where this technology is, where it is headed, and how it can benefit the typical quick and small commercial printer.

Michael Watts, North American president of GMC Software Technology, says "Many small or quick printers have already invested in digital printing equipment. As a result, they are poised to take advantage of the latest technologies for developing, managing, and producing variable data documents."

That said, this interest does not necessarily translate into active involvement in VDP in its more sophisticated forms.

"Every year I see more and more customers jumping into VDP," says Ari Shapiro, solution manager for CREO Branded Products (which were used to create QP's VDP cover last October). "Even though there is an increase, the majority are not doing any VDP, and the main reason is they think it is more complicated than it really is."

Objectif Lune's Mike Beard agrees that there is a lot of interest. "But I think there is a large gap between what printers use VDP technology for and the real capabilities," he says.

Noting that VDP "continues to be a great way for a business to set itself apart from the many competitors," EFI APPS Division product marketing director Gerald Walsh also sees a "lack of experience and a perception that personalization campaigns are difficult or complex."

John Foley, president of interlinkONE also sees unfamiliarity as a barrier for translating VDP interest into VDP action. "A lot of times this is because of apprehension—some are intimidated by having to play more of a role in dissecting the data and helping to figure out how a piece can be personalized, based on the data they may have."

PrinterPresence president and QP columnist Tawnya Starr puts the dilemma more succinctly. "Print providers are overwhelmed and don't understand or have the skill set to sell, implement, and manage VDP."

The Basics

So, what are some basic things printers need to be aware of? "There are three things to keep in mind when offering VDP—data, design, and production," says XMPie product manager Phil Rose. "These are three factors of success for any provider."

Gavin Jordan-Smith, Xerox VP for commercial print and prepress, agrees that data is a key to success. "Data mining and taking advantage of postal discounts are vital to planning any variable data print job. Usually, small and quick printers are very good at the creative side and have a great knowledge of a design tool, but incorporating the right data is what will make the campaign successful."

Starr is in wholehearted agreement. "Good data is the key to personalization. It is a behemoth. After all, the data is what makes VDP work. If print providers do not recognize that, they are headed for disaster."

Learning Curve

Other than such obvious sources as printing trade associations, where can printers turn to learn more about variable data? One source most often mentioned is PODi, the Print On Demand Initiative. "PODi has a lot of great success stories of people doing variable and getting good results," says Jordan-Smith.

Other sources abound. "Virtually every print and graphic arts industry conference features educational sessions concerning VDP, presented by leading VDP service providers, as well as VDP software providers," notes Rose.

Watts points to a few specific shows of value. "Those interested can attend any one of a number of related conferences, including Xplor's Global Conference, PODi's App Forum, or the On Demand show."

Noting that many digital equipment manufacturers offer business building programs, Beard also points out that, "There are tons of information on the Web on VDP."
Adds Walsh: "Read as many articles and attend as many webinars related to VDP as possible. Even if the webinar is for a product you don't plan to purchase, the real value is in the ideas offered."

Getting Started

Foley offers solid advice for beginners: "It certainly is a great idea to start simple," he says. "We highly recommend starting small and starting at home."

"A great way to begin is to do an internal personalized campaign for clients and prospects," says Walsh. "This is a great way to show off your printing talent while grabbing attention."

"I always recommend that the first job the customers do is an internal job," says Shapiro. "Take a list of your customers, which is really a database, and create a piece that advertises this new service for your current customers. It is a great way to build confidence and to work out all the production kinks."

Says Watts, "I would caution any printer to start with something simple that contains a smaller amount of variable data, such as direct mail, color postcards, personalized calendars, or print-on-demand marketing materials."

Perhaps Jordan-Smith sums it up best. "It's imperative that businesses walk the talk before they talk the walk."

The "take it slow and start in-house" approach also is a good way to market VDP as printers start down that path. "The beauty of VDP is its ability to reach the right person, with the most relevant messages, generating maximum results," says Rose. "A simple way for quick and small commercial printers to convey that to their clients is by using VDP to market their own offerings."

Looking Ahead

Obviously, this article barely scratches the surface of VDP. The hope is that it will spur printers who have been reluctant to get involved in VDP to start learning more about it. Why is that important? Despite the somewhat slow penetration of VDP into the quick and small commercial market, the consensus is that it will eventually become a standard part of the job mix.

VDP Vendors at On Demand
Company Booth
DirectSmile 2612
GMC Software 1937
InterlinkONE 2623
Meadows Pub. Sol. 2234
MindFire 2517
ObjectifLune 2636
Pageflex 2417
Printable Tech. 2645
XMPie 2316

"As more and more printers increase their revenue opportunities by offering marketing services, VDP will become more and more a standard offering,"
says Foley.

"Because VDP has the potential of moving promotional pieces from the realm of junk mail to the level of high impact, lead generating media, it will become an important part of most business plans," says Walsh.

"Personalization will definitely become an industry standard across the board," agrees Jordan-Smith. "It's all about personalization."

"As adoption continues to grow," says Rose, "VDP will become more and more of an expectation on the part of clients."

Beard says VDP is a natural progression "simply because we are starting to live in a personalized world. If a printer does not go there, the one down the street will."

"Long runs of static printing will decline," says Watts. "We believe that will drive smaller runs of variable data and on demand printing into the hands of those quick and small commercial printers who have made the necessary investments in technology, equipment, and education to take advantage of this trend."

Does that mean becoming a VDP provider will be essential to success in the future? Probably, but not everyone will go about it the same way says Starr. "I don't see that every printer will manufacture in-house. I think some will get it, see the opportunities, and drive it. Others will partner with a provider. My guess is that most will have to partner."

That said, there is no doubt that VDP is here to stay. The only question is how fast will it grow into a mainstay for quick and small commercial printers?