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Is VDP Falling Flat?

Like most consumers of the past decade, by now I’ve seen my name personalized online and appearing on direct mail pieces on just about any object that one can imagine -- from champagne bottles to cloud- and sand-writing; even a pretend tattoo on a shapely female derrière. Such over-use begs the question: If people have grown tired of seeing their names printed on “everything,” is variable-data printing and imaging still effective?

“It is almost to the point of being over-personalized,” said a graphic designer who wished to remain anonymous, “which means it really isn’t personal any more. Mine is just one name on a list of a million others. I don’t have a problem throwing away something that has my name on it,” she added, “because everything has my name on it!”

Kurt Konow, director of vertical marketing at Ricoh, and John Henze, VP of Fiery marketing at EFI, agreed that personalization has become an expectation among today’s savvy consumers. “Most end-consumers have become desensitized to personalization,” observed the Fiery marketing lead, thanks in no small part due to unwelcome “email spam and [chatty] telemarketers.”

Added Konow, “Variable data is kind of stuck where static direct mail was 10 years ago” Konica Minolta’s Dawn Nye, solutions and services manager, remembered those as the “spray-and-pray” days of the late 20th century.

“I’m kind of tired of seeing my name in the clouds,” Konow admitted. He cited an example of health-club renewals at this time of year, with direct-mail offers featuring personalized images of weight plates and sporty jerseys. “A lot of companies use easy methods like adding a name, a paragraph, and a personalized image.” Most consumers can see right through these tactics, almost to the point of becoming suspicious. At some point we have to ask ourselves whether these VDP techniques are indeed adding value or, in fact, backfiring and yielding diminishing returns, he noted.

Yet Konow and Henze also are among those VDP evangelists who believe that “getting personal,” when done correctly, still can be the best approach for print customers to improve their customer satisfaction levels as well as their financial success. “Personalization is stronger and more powerful than ever,” said EFI’s Henze. The key, according to his counterpart at Ricoh, is to innovate with highly targeted and one-to-one marketing. “Relevancy is a key consideration,” Konow continued. “Relevancy really is the difference between falling flat and not adding value as opposed to netting benefits from a cost and financial standpoint.”

Giving Customers What They Want

After running variable-data print applications for the past 11 years, Canon user Walter Kohn has no doubts that personalization still can be extremely effective, boosting direct-mail response rates into double digits. “But our customers are wanting us to blend the relevant data history of tracked buying preferences into the VDP,” explained the president of Spectra Communications, Columbia, SC. “This way, we can bring in unique variables,” Kohn said, which allows Spectra to transform pertinent data into thank-you notes and more relevant offers.

“We not only know their names, we [also] know what they purchased,” Kohn pointed out, “as well as when they bought it, what they paid, and where they bought it.” Where could mean from an installer or an automotive parts store for some of Spectra’s aftermarket parts distributor clients. This detailed information allows the PSP to offer “something of value to entice the consumer through targeted VDP,” he explained: a consumer rebate program for a national automotive parts manufacturer is one example.

The revealing data feed comes from many sources. Spectra’s clients use everything from Microsoft Excel spreadsheets and FileMaker Pro files to more sophisticated VDP programs such as FusionPro from PTI, according to Kohn. “Data folks don’t understand the printing industry,” he noted matter-of-factly, which is why Spectra has hired “smart people from within the industry” who have the skills to pick up the data side of the VDP equation. “We have a marketing division that understands the relationship between VDP and relevant offers,” he added. “We do relevant [customer] mailings on a regular basis, but it requires almost an ad agency mentality. It’s like the left-brain side of the business [is] driving the right-brain side.”

The marketers at EFI and Ricoh contend that 2014’s smart consumers actually want more relevant marketing offers. “It’s the proven strategy of telling them what they need before they need it,” Konow explained, “by employing data management and data mining. You want to be the first ‘in their face’ when they ask for something.” But to do so, customers need to be aware of their demographics, he noted.

The folks at Konica Minolta also concur with this assessment. “We have evolved past variable data. Consumers want you to know them and their buying behavior,” Nye said of K-M’s customers. “So it comes down to tailoring the message better, which is where using the database comes into play. Printers need to be marketers and help manage data and interactions, not just print what clients give them.”

Make it Easy

Ease of use can be critical to variable data/imaging success. “Implementing VDP can be overwhelming for non-experts,” Henze noted. “They need to be able to treat it like they would a Postscript or PDF document.” He added that variable print software from firms such as GMG, Pageflex, PTI, and XMPie can be the ideal complement to the Fiery FS100 Pro front-end server. “The transition needs to be seamless,” he said. EFI’s latest version includes PPML support, open-standard PDF, and an even faster HyperRIP. Of course, robustness is a necessity, as well, “to handle multiple tens of thousands of records,” Henze noted. “You don’t want to bring a digital press to its knees.”

For in-plant print shops incorporating VDP elements, ease of use and an intuitive user interfaces also are critical components. “Our goal is to reduce the amount of graphic design and layout work by using templates for direct mail, such as newsletters and enrollment cards,” explained Vince Tutino, senior web-to-print product manager for Rochester Software Associates (RSA), which caters to enterprise sales groups. “The ability to make changes is key,” Tutino said. “A campaign has to live more than one day,” he added, especially when dates need updating for a new year or when more complex alterations, such as HIPPA regulations regarding medical privacy, are required. Nye of Konica Minolta had similar longevity advice for all VDP users. “Design a communication style that is not just a one-time hit,” she said. “The conversation is most important,” especially when it comes to developing customer content that drive big results – every time.

Because of data technology, “targeted, personalized messaging has greater importance and is a greater opportunity than ever before,” EFI’s Henze concluded. “In today’s marketplace, you have to prove that it is successful,” he explained. “To get clients to pay a premium for relevant VDP, it has to be measurable.”

Print Plus

Connecting print to multiple media channels is VDP’s latest step, according to Ricoh’s Konow, including online and social media platforms, of course. “This is how the connected generation coming out of college communicates. These young people represent the next buying population, and we don’t want to lose them.” Hans Sep, VDP product line manager at EFI, agreed. “Variable-data print and imaging is an old topic, but successful customers have found that it needs to be a part of multichannel campaigns,” said Sep, including email, PURLs, QR codes, and social media.

Konica Minolta’s EngageIT is a program geared for cross-media applications. MindFire is another vendor that can add the personalized URL (PURL) element to integrated marketing. One cross-media application example comes from marketing service provider CustomXM, North Little Rock, AR, which used software from MindFire, Objectif Lune, and PrintShop Mail along with a Xerox 770 Digital Color Press to produce student recruitment materials for a liberal-arts college. The campaign, for Lyon College in Arkansas, led off with a personalized postcard, designed to look like an iPad, that directed recipients (high school seniors) to their personalized URL. At the campaign microsite, students could provide information about their interests and enter themselves into a drawing for an actual Apple iPad tablet computer.

A subsequent mailer was personalized based on each student’s response and included an augmented-reality trigger as a fun way to engage students, introduce the college president in a new way, and show off a campus activity. This innovative combination resulted in a 76 percent increase in applications compared to the previous year’s marketing effort, making the small college admissions department very happy.