Printing Technology Update: Small Victories
When asked what's new in printing technology for companies that use direct mail, the immediate observation of many direct marketing industry veterans is, "There's nothing revolutionary out there right now."
That may be true, but it doesn't mean the printing industry is at a standstill. To collectively meet the needs of the end-users of print productsthat's you, the direct marketerprinting companies and manufacturers of printing presses and print production software have banded together to deliver small innovations that can deliver big results.
While very few printing companies have been investing in new or upgraded machinery, many have been tweaking existing equipment and software tools to enhance workflow and get better press performance. Printing companies also are leveraging their knowledge of the mail distribution process and market performance to help clients mail smarter.
Increased Automation Through Workflow Tools
The cost per direct mail piece remains a significant concern for companies that market via this medium. In the past few years, speed-to-market has joined cost as a top concern, with marketers feeling pressure to get their offers into prospects' and customers' hands before their competitors do.
A boon for printing companies and their direct mail clients are software tools that automate workflow. Increasingly, printing companies are creating password-protected sections of their Web sites that provide clients access to print jobs for the ability to route proofs among key staff members working on a campaign; make changes to files up until press time; check inventory levels on components that are warehoused for ongoing jobs; and perform other time-sensitive processes faster and with more accuracy.
Jay Garner, executive vice president, sales and marketing at CC3, a full-service direct marketing company headquartered in Ivyland, PA, affirms that the need for Web-based workflow tools to enhance production processes will only increase with time. Launched in 2001, CC3's online suite of workflow solutions recently was upgraded to offer more enhanced search functions for proof sign-offs and inventory control, as well as to provide thumbnails for stronger visual identification of campaigns.
Another area of print production that depends heavily on streamlined workflow is digital printing.
"Converting from analog [production methods] to digital has been challenging for direct marketers and printing companies alike, because of the cost in handling files," says Walt Sledzieski, worldwide sales and marketing manager, Digital Publishing Solutions Group of Hewlett-Packard, the Palo Alto, CA-based provider of information and imaging solutions.
But, he adds, Hewlett Packard and other supporters of digital printing have been making progress on cutting costs, by creating software solutions that automate manual functions for more streamlined introduction and management of jobs in the print shop.
For example, says Sledzieski, one innovation is that of digital job tickets (which contain all of the intelligence about a particular print job) that can be read by computers, eliminating the need for a person to enter this information and speeding the job through prepress. Taking this one step further, Hewlett Packard is developing a system to control the finishing process of digital campaigns by intelligent job tickets as wellpieces won't have to come off the production line to be finished, resulting in faster turnaround times and even reduced costs.
For direct marketers who want to use digital printing for ongoing, standardized print needs, Xerox Corp. developed easy-vi?, an information- and workflow-management solution that allows users to facilitate the creation, ordering and purchasing of digital print campaigns.
According to Diane McGarry, chief marketing officer at Xerox Corp., a provider of document imaging, software and solutions, headquartered in Rochester, NY, easy-vi is best suited for industries that rely heavily on nationwide dealer networks, but need centralized control over brand management, such as insurance, automotive, retail and financial services.
The solution is customized for each installation, including document templates, rules-based workflow, automatic pricing, data uploads and more. Finalized documents are ready for production on one of three Xerox digital presses.
Pushing Press Performance
Currently, gains in workflow automation come more easily off the press than on. But, there have been some printing press enhancements that benefit direct marketers, says Mark Redshaw, regional manager for Banta Corp., a printing and supply chain management company in Menasha, WI.
Large-volume, one-to-one direct mail marketers can take advantage of high-speed ink-jet printing that images at 1,000 feet per minute on inline, duplex, black-and-white jobs.
Four-color ink-jet printing also is faster these days. Most presses could only image 300 feet per minute, while the new and improved presses can handle 500 to 1,000 feet per minute.
To counter the continuing arguments against the cost and slower speeds of digital presses, manufacturers continue to tinker with their products to meet the needs of mailers.
McGarry points out that the image quality of work created on a digital press is on par with jobs produced via Web printing and offset printing. Further, the quality and variety of substrates that can be used on digital presses has been increased to offer direct marketers more choices.
These advancements are positive steps for direct marketers, but Sledzieski explains that digital press manufacturers realize the end-users of these presses still require the lowest cost per piece. And the biggest driver in lowering costs is volume.
To address this need for speed, Hewlett-Packard introduced a new press earlier this year. The Indigo w3200 is designed to be running continuously, handling 8,000 variable images per minute.
While the adoption of digital printing technologies has been a slow process, both Sledzieski and McGarry see more movement in this direction by direct marketers and general advertisers alike.
Many of the metrics traditionally used by advertising agencies to gauge success are changing, says Sledzieski. "They're moving away from brand awareness and preference to return on investment. This change will help drive digital production and customized communications."
McGarry adds that another trend is that of companies' marketing and operations departments working together. Their goal: to revamp and improve workflow and customer contract strategy to create a more streamlined process and more integrated, versioned retention efforts (such as customer newsletters and account statements) that provide more impact.
Regardless of whether a direct marketer chooses digital, ink-jet or another method of printing to create customized offers, the key to making this kind of campaign work comes from a strong understanding of your company's data and how to apply it to the marketing process. It's the message, not the method, that is most important.
One of the ways direct marketers are making their mail pieces stand out is with special finishes, such as interesting die cuts, unusual folds and scratch-off treatments.
Steve Weisman, vice president and general manager of Delta Graphics, a printing company in East Brunswick, NJ, that specializes in direct mail, points out that finishes and involvement devices are not brand new, but are staging a major comeback. The use of more intricate direct mail packagesa favorite approach of sweepstakes marketersfaded after sweeps took a beating from Congress a few years ago. It appears to be back on mailers' radar.
Banta's Redshaw also has noticed a growing interest in direct mail finishing. With heightened demand for these extra processes, Banta has upgraded its finishing equipment and processes to handle more of this work by automation. The goal, he says, is to cut down on hand assembly, so jobs can be kept in the plant and processed at high speed.
Weisman agrees, explaining that the more processes that can be accomplished inline, the better for printing companies and direct marketers.
For example, Delta Graphics just completed testing of a new process that performs inline insertion of CDs and DVDs into catalogs, magazines and envelope packages. As marketers seek to leverage the relationship between consumers' usage of online and offline media, Weisman thinks that more and more direct mail efforts will carry CDs and DVDs.