THE NEWS FEED
In this age of information overload, consumers are savvy and selective about what gets their attention. Customized and targeted direct mail campaigns can be more relevant, and perhaps increase their chances of avoiding the trash bin.
Enter variable data imaging. Variable data imaging is used to create print jobs that can range from basic mail merge applications ("Dear John ...") to mailpieces with varied content and images depending on things like a prospect's demographics or past purchase behavior, to complex, high-value transaction documents such as bills, statements and invoices.
To Vary or Not to Vary
One of the key benefits cited by variable data imaging proponents is
its ability to create targeted and more relevant campaigns, which can lead to
Carolyn Valiquette, general manager of digital print industry consortium PODi, says that it's difficult to put a figure on how variable data imaging affects response rates, because many companies do not report their base lines. However, the response rate information PODi does get, though anecdotal, is good. "Everyone's quite confident about the lift in response rates overall, in general," says Valiquette, "but there isn't a definitive study on that as of yet."
Variable direct mail gets prospects' attention and provides them with more of what they're looking for because it's speaking directly to them. "The idea is that it's fulfilling a need for the recipient as much as it's fulfilling a need for the sender," says Holly Muscolino, director of the Production Workflow Solutions consulting service at InfoTrends/CAP Ventures.
According to Valiquette, the two key value propositions of variable data imaging are increased effectiveness through relevance and decreased costs through automation.
"You have the same design template, the same basic layout of a document, but then you have variable text and imagery that fall into place properly," says Valiquette. "This all happens in the same print stream."
While on a piece-by-piece basis, variable data imaging is more expensive, Valiquette says the costs have been coming down over time. She adds that the benefits outweigh the initial cost difference, since you are more likely to end up with better response rates, better qualified leads and more satisfied customers because you're addressing their individual interests.
Another benefit is a streamlined production process that eliminates the storage and waste of preprinted forms. According to Barb Pellow, CMO, Kodak Graphic Communication Group, often a portion of printed documents produced on long runs using traditional offset print technology need to be inventoried. With variable digital printing capabilities, however, "I'm going to produce five, 10, 50, 100 [documents] when and where I need them for what-ever target market I want to reach," says Pellow.
The targeted element of variable printing also often means shorter print runs. Mark Egeling, market development manager, NexPress Solutions Inc., says that the idea is in keeping with the 80/20 rule that says 20 percent of the customers are delivering 80 percent of the profits. "A lot of times that, in effect, defines the shorter run. It's a smaller subset of people, but if you can maintain those individuals with new communications and cross sell and upsell other products and services, a lot of companies are finding success with that as well," adds Egeling.
The Various Variations of Variable
Direct marketers can find a plethora of direct mail applications for variable data imaging, from the very basic, personalization style mailing in which a recipient's name and/or address is altered one or more times within the copy, to mailings that incorporate varied text and images or photos that reflect the demographic, psychographic or geo-graphic attributes of each prospect. These sorts of mailings most often tend to be done on postcards rather than envelopes, due to the waste associated with post-press finishing.
Variable charts and graphs injected with personalized and customized content is a method commonly used by financial services companies in transactional documents like statements and bills, but some companies have begun using this customized information to promote upsells.
"A lot of people are catching on and are looking at that data as more than just a cost center where they need to report to their customers what their holdings are," says Nicholas Brusco, president of APT Digital Marketing Solutions. "They're literally looking at it as opportunities to market their services."
For example, Standard & Poor's, provider of investment and financial research, data and valuations, unveiled earlier this year a personalized education newsletter for retirement plan service providers called the Individual Retirement Planner, aimed at increasing participation and contribution rates.
The four-page newsletter, which was developed with and printed by APT Digital Marketing, contains charts and content customized for plan participants and is sent in a #10 double-window envelope.
Adding a customized URL (e.g., www.XXX.com/abnysanticola) to a mailpiece is a cutting-edge application of variable data imaging that recently has landed in the Who's Mailing What! Archive. The personalized URL drives recipients to individual landing pages or custom Web sites. This keeps that personal experience going on the Web. Companies using this technique can offer prospects more information, as well as join their direct mail and the Web in an effort to drive response.
All About the Data
The process of launching a variable data direct mail campaign begins with information that can be mined to pinpoint the targeted customers. The message then is created, and it is determined what will vary from piece to piece. While it's of the utmost importance, oftentimes getting reliable data can be, as noted in PODi's "Best Practices in Digital Print, Fourth Edition," one of the primary barriers to creating personalized communications.
According to Bryan Johnson, editor-in-chief, Standard & Poor's Financial Communications, the format of the data feed used to create variable charts and graphs is very rigorous, and its consistency is imperative. However, something he says tends to be more of an issue when creating Standard & Poor's newsletter is the inability of even Fortune 100 financial services companies to mine their data. Though there are 20 data points in the newsletter, large companies often can supply only enough data to fill 10.
While having the right data is crucial, the information does not need to be very complex to be effective. "It could be very basic customer information stored even in an Excel type of file, all the way to a sophisticated CRM program," says Muscolino.
The key is leveraging what you do know. Brusco tells the tale of a mom-and-pop pizzeria that knew only customers' addresses and order habits. With that information, it looked at each customer's preferencesay, pepperoni pizzaand sent a coupon for that specific order, with great success.
On the flipside, Brusco says he's seen companies go to great lengths
to design documents with variable images, but then combine it with the standard "Dear valued customer" salutation. To get the full benefit of variable data imaging, it's necessary to set goals, know the information you need and where you want to put that information in your mailing.
Muscolino adds that the most effective programs involve a feedback loop, where the data is updated with every customer interaction. That way, each progressive campaign becomes more information-based.
From concept to delivery, the time that goes into a variable campaign can be greater than that of a static project, notes Brusco, since gathering data,
determining what and how much is going to be variable, and then programming it all, can be an involved process. However, once a template is created and the information mapped to the proper fields, it takes little time to implement new creative in the system.
Test, Test, Test
If you determine that variable data printing is right for you and initiate a variable data direct mail campaign, don't forget to test and measure your results. Those tried-and-true direct mail best practices still apply.
"When we have a client who's starting new in this," says Brusco, "we always suggest they do a control. Do a message in a similar sized piece and try to match the variable one as closely as you can to the static message, and track both."
Brusco adds that tracking is necessary due to the increased initial costs.
"When you're doing something like this, you're going to lose your job pretty quickly if you can't show that there was a benefit, there was a reason to do [variable imaging] ... the cost of the piece can sometimes be so much more dramatic that you need to know from campaign to campaign, are you doing better or worse?" he says.
In the end, whether varying charts and graphs, copy and images, or even Web pages, the key difference between a variable campaign and a static one is that you're speaking to each prospect individually instead of as one general audience.
In an effort to maintain your customer base, especially those customers who are most profitable, variable data imaging can offer that targeted, relevant touch.