Especially For You

EmailNo longer the domain of corny leaflets with your name in huge letters, variable data printing has grown up, as Drew Turney discovers.

Advertising and marketing is, in it’s purest form, a conversation. Your work has to talk to customers. Traditional advertising was a broad model. In the newsprint and television ages, you had to talk to thousands or millions of people at once, and you had no choice but to say the same thing to every one of them.

Variable data printing (so specialised as a science it has its own acronym — VDP) is a way of talking to similarly large numbers of people, but tailoring the same basic message to each potential customer.

Technology has fine-tuned consumer modelling like never before. In the mass media age neither product manufacturers nor advertisers had much of an idea what people were buying except for vague stock records from retailers. When it came to telling potential customers about your product, the approach was like the throwing of proverbial excrement at a wall to see what stuck (a term that best describe a lot of TV and periodical advertising, incidentally).

Today, every time you swipe your credit or ATM card in a store, sign up for a free email newsletter or use a rewards card a snapshot of your buying habits slowly builds up somewhere, the nuances of your consumer choices forming a sort of cyber-you just waiting to be put together.

The public might hate such 1984-like practices but consumer profiling’s a gold mine to marketers. VDP is just one of a myriad of technologies that leverage the power of such targeted knowledge because marketing material can be tailored personally for your interests, past buying habits and other demographic information.

VDP is made possible by what’s called the ‘print stream’. Instead of a single, static image that contacts paper stock or some other substrate again and again — as it does from the metal plates of the offset print process — a print stream is a continuous stream of electronic data sent to your device that changes critical elements of the output on every unit.

Evolving technology

How is this possible, you might ask? Each colour in a print job must have a mirror image to contact the stock, and surely it’s not feasible to produce four mirror images (one for each process colour) for each printout?

The answer’s actually right there on your desk. The technology that drives your $59 Officeworks digital inkjet printer is put to use in exactly the same way in industrial inkjet printing, albeit on a much grander scale.

It’s possible to attach inkjet print heads to a traditional offset process so you can still take advantage of the volume savings offered by four colour printing. It works by having the offset process produce the static parts of the image as normal while the inkjet component overprints the variable text or images.

Or you can run an entire VDP job on a digital inkjet press. Like all digital printing the cost is coming down fast, destined to render four colour process as obsolete as the wire telegraph and steam train. With no film, plates or other offset pieces the ink is (as the name suggests) sprayed straight onto the print surface with a jet. As the data stream comes down the line, the device reassembles the image each time to reflect the information that will change from page to page.

One of the unexpected but very cool applications of inkjet technology is that with no plates or ‘go-between’ pieces the system isn’t restricted to just ink and paper. Way back in February 2009 (Remember Me) Desktop reported on a business card printed on a peanut. But that’s only the beginning. As the technology becomes more precise, printed messages on everything from food to clothing will become easier and cheaper. Imagine a future where a packet of Tim Tams plummets in price when Arnotts starts selling advertising space on every biscuit…

At this point you might be wondering why there’s been no mention of laser printing. After all, it offers as much precision, if not more. It’s actually just as capable with VDP from a technological standpoint but the cost per unit is substantially higher, so the industry as a whole has looked instead to cheaper, faster inkjet.

A world of applications

When CGI first went mainstream in movie production, the result was a rash of movies like Twister, Volcano and Armageddon, flashy action thrillers with pat heroes and terrible dialogue that audiences went to see for little more than realistic, global-scale destruction. The subsequent backlash against such empty, two-hour effects show reels eventually taught Hollywood that digital effects were just another tool in the director’s kit rather than creative expression in themselves.

VDP first appeared around the same time, and like CGI in movies, early attempts were cheesy and often ugly attempts more to show it off than to market better. You remember the ones — A4 letters full of drab text and a huge red ‘Just for you, Joan/Steve/Rachel’ at the top. The usual response was to feel like some marketing agency was trying to trick us into feeling special. The silly thing is that the technology that allowed VDP hasn’t fundamentally changed, and the capability for so much more than awful ‘Hi there, ‘ gimmicks has been there from day one — marketers and designers simply didn’t know how to leverage it.

In actual fact your entire design can be variable. Text can be changed according to what customers bought before. Photos can be changed to reflect their local area. Prices can be altered to target wholesale instead of retail customers. Anything you can think to change about your design to suit a customer can be sent to your device in the print stream.

Do a quick experiment. Think of a product or service you want to sell — maybe you should do a special on designing business cards or it’s time to market to resources companies to do their annual reports. Look through your address book at all your clients and quickly sketch a dummy brochure or leaflet to advertise your service to them. Now imagine what you’d change on each copy of the brochure depending on each clients’ size, how much work you’ve done for them in the past and what business they’re in. You’ve just done your first in-house VDP methodology.

Today the full potential of VDP is being plumbed thanks to one of the strange marriages we sometimes see in the business world, that of designers and database specialists. Most of us know databases from their role in active web content, but the fact is databasing is as old as computing and has a language, science and massive investment of expertise behind it. The first iteration of databasing many designers saw in action was web cookies, where a software add-on in a user’s browser reports back on their habits and movements online. Such records contribute to the profiles now in use for VDP.

In larger organisations of today, IT and marketing departments are working much closer together to produce the datastream that goes to the output device, producing up to tens of thousands of pages of forms containing variable data. And it’s not just advertising — in the case of phone and utility bills, automated systems have to pull your address from one database, your power or phone usage from another, your account records from another and mesh it all together in lists and graphs to come out on the accounts department stationery.

What does it cost?

The first thing to keep in mind about the cost of VDP is to let go of the old plate-change pricing model, where any change to the image means a change of plates and in effect a new job. VDP is like having completely virtual plates that can be reassembled on the fly for every output.

As in any printing comparison, digital still can’t compete with four colour process when it comes to volume. The reason it’s said to cost thousands of dollars to even switch a printing press on is because the business model provides for jobs worth hundreds of thousands of dollars going through the business. It’ll be a long time before New Idea or the Big W catalogue are printed digitally.

So unit for unit, you’ll pay more for VDP, but that’s not taking the most important consideration into account. Studies have shown that personalised marketing gets a lot more attention. Not because it’s got a huge ‘Hey, Jo!’ on it, but because your system has told you what interests the customer. When they see such content on a piece of mail they’ll take more notice than they would a generic catalogue. Hence VDP costs more, but it’s also more cost effective.

In fact, the Wikipedia entry on VDP says it generates 10-15 times the return on investment as a broad, untargeted campaign. So the question isn’t about what it costs (cost per piece), but what it returns (cost per response).

Using VDP

To put VDP into action you need to think beyond mail merged document and multiple pages in InDesign files. There are far more specialised tools around which make mincemeat of combining designs with database content.

Start your search for a solution that suits your needs with these products;

PrintNet Communications Suite

The GMC PrintNet Communications Suite is used by customers worldwide to develop promotional, transactional, transpromo and on-demand publishing applications that normally achieve ROI in 6 to 12 months, with up to 60% reduction in programming time and job turnaround improvements of up to 400%.


PrintSoft creates and implements software systems for transforming raw data into fully personalized print and electronic communications. We are globally recognised as the pioneer of PC-based high speed variable data composition technology and systems solutions. PrintSoft offers innovative Variable Data Printing (VDP) solutions designed to meet a broad range of business requirements with speed and efficiency.

xPression 3 Suite Components
EMC Document Sciences

xPression 3’s service-oriented architecture sets the bar for dynamic content publishing technology available today. Based on standards like Java EE, XML, Web Services, JMS, and MS .Net, xPression provides a comprehensive set of components for document design, assembly, composition, output processing and delivery. These components are organized in a layered architecture, as shown in the diagram below. The server components are enabled to be integrated within an Enterprise Content Management (ECM) infrastructure.

DOC1 Composition
Pitney Bowes

Whether you’re dealing with simple letters, full-colour mailers, statements or messages within statements, the CCM document creation solution helps you quickly develop documents, collaborate with other users, reuse content and maintain consistency throughout the organisation. Create interactive documents in print or electronic formats and deliver them across multiple channels — web, fax, email and print — including highly-customised correspondence for specialty industries such as insurance, healthcare and government.


Pageflex enables companies across the globe to communicate their marketing messages more easily and effectively. The award-winning Pageflex product line sets the standard for excellence and innovation in targeted marketing and brand management.