Finding the Full Potential of Variable-Data Printing

Personalized and printable, Big Data isn’t just for the tech geeks.

Variable-data printing (VDP) has been around for a long time and has become a familiar part of our lives. We’re all familiar with inkjet-printed address labels on magazines, bills, and other direct mail we receive, all generated from variable-data fields. These applications took off in the mid to late ‘90s as the first digital commercial presses hit the market, capitalizing on the technology’s ability to combine multiple types of data to create unique final documents with each print.

Today, the primary uses of VDP remain in direct-response marketing, the huge industry we think of as junk mail that is still growing year over year. In our segment of the printing industry, VDP is used far less often, primarily because specialty graphics printers have tended to think of their businesses as commodity deposition of ink onto a substrate. VDP requires a different mindset that owners are beginning to adopt as they realize they are in the graphic communications business and the products they produce aren’t dependent on a specific printing method or process.

VDP offers some very exciting possibilities for even the smallest shops. You don’t need super-sophisticated software. If you just want to personalize soccer jerseys with the team name, player, and number, no problem. You can get great results from the Adobe Creative Cloud (Illustrator, InDesign, etc.), CorelDraw, or even Microsoft Word.

There have been many great examples of graphics that combine variable images and text using direct-to-garment and wide-format inkjet printers. Since images can be merged into the same databases housing the other variable data, you just need to know what you want to accomplish with the finished graphic. You may want to change the color combinations on a graphic depending on the color of the garment, for example. Or you might want to substitute different logos for each team in a league. The possibilities are limited only by your creativity.

Another very popular application is to mass print the static portions of the file and then personalize with VDP as appropriate, using a hybrid of screen and digital printing. Take yard signs you might produce for a high school’s spirit campaign. The school’s basic colors and graphics would be the static part of the sign; each individual sport, club, or other interest would be the variable-data element, customized for each student. In the old days, we would have called this a name drop and produced each variation with a separate pass on a screen-printing press.


Why Use VDP?
One of the main reasons to use VDP goes beyond the graphics or the message – it has to do with relevancy. If you can personalize your graphics, you’ll create a much greater connection and engagement with the viewer or audience. The more intimately you reach your target, the higher the conversion and loyalty will be for your offer. This doesn’t mean you have to be selling something. Your goal could be building community loyalty, as in a school, group, or charitable organization.

Here’s another, more important reason to use VDP: tracking. The old-school approach to printing was to push your message to the masses, cross your fingers, and hope you got a profitable response. There was no way to attribute a customer’s specific sale to their print spend – it was all guesswork.

Digital publishing has changed that. The customer’s perception of advertising has been changed from an expense to an investment. This is hugely important because it finally has created the link between the print spend and ROI. The higher the customers’ return, the more you can charge them. This negates the bidding process, RFQs, and all the other nonproductive efforts that were driven by the old business model. VDP allows us to create tailored images and content that can be directly traced to the purchase.

Here’s an example for those of you who print real-estate signage. Using VDP, you can create yard signs with detailed information about a house or aimed at targeted demographics that might be different for each property. You can print signs with unique QR codes that would take prospects to the specific webpage for that property. You can go one step further and add PURLs – personalized URLs – that would take each viewer to a unique landing page. All of these interactions would be highly relevant, measurable, and trackable.

Variable-Data Options
Like most things digital, there’s a wide range of options for doing VDP work. Let’s start at the bottom and work our way up.

Although I don’t recommend using it, Microsoft Word’s mail-merge feature allows you to create a basic VDP document. Any graphics pro will wince at the thought of printing out of MS Word, but we’ve all done it and for simple VDP tasks, it works very well. The best applications would be things like groups of labels, name tags, or similar items printed multiple up. For example, if you were doing name tags for an event where there would be six groups, each with 10 members, you could set the job up as two columns by three groups and merge the appropriate data into each, eventually printing 10 sheets. It’s not hard to set up such a job; consult the MS Word documentation.

The next level up is where most specialty graphics printers will be operating – at the design software level. You can do VDP work in CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, and InDesign. Create a target document, define data placement areas, and prepare a data document in Microsoft Excel or OpenOffice, as well as any images you wish to data merge into the final piece. I won’t go into detail on the procedures for each program here, but there are some very good YouTube tutorials as well as several extensive courses on Lynda.com.

For this article, I created an example for an event where a race bib was needed for different runners who would be doing a 5K, 10K, or full marathon. Below you can see the bib graphic, done in InDesign and saved as a template, with the variable-data areas defined.

The data file I needed to turn the graphic into a VDP document is shown below. It’s simply an Excel spreadsheet saved as a comma saved value (.csv) file.

Each row of data represents all of the data for that particular runner. The columns have each piece of variable data in the graphic. Note that columns with an “@” sign designate the fields with graphic images. There are rules as to how images are accessed; as you’ll see above, each image is referenced by the file path to where it is located.

When you set up the target template in InDesign, you’ll define how you want the data to be rendered. You can define the fonts, type size, colors, styles (bold, italic, etc.), and location areas where the data will print. Once your variable-data template is completed and saved, you’ll link it to the data set. InDesign provides all the necessary tools in:

>Window>Utilities>Data Merge

Once you have set up the data merge to the correct data file, save it as an InDesign document (not a template). The document will be tailored for this specific data set, with InDesign rendering one page for each record. So if there were 250 runners in this race, the InDesign file would be 250 pages. InDesign allows you to preview and edit the document before you print in case you need to fix anything, and then you simply specify whether to print a page, range of pages, or the entire file to your output device.

To improve the processing speed and file size, you can convert the merged document to PDF/VT, a variant of PDF/X designed to facilitate data exchange. If you are outputting large banners with variable data, for example, this is a much better way to go. The software RIPs the static portions of the image once and caches it. Variable text and images are then merged dynamically and combined with the cached static image, saving enormous disk space as well as the time necessary to RIP each image over and over. Files created this way can be sent to any RIP that supports PostScript and PDF. With PDF/VX, there will be very little difference between a file with 100 records and one with 1000.

Other data languages have been developed for VDP work. In the late ‘90s, the Print Initiative of the Print on Demand Institute combined the efforts of a number of big vendors including Canon, Kodak, HP, and Xerox to create an optimized data-friendly rendering. The result was Personalized Print Markup Language (PPML), still used extensively for very high-speed data merging in applications such as mail-order catalogs and specialty high-value promotions.

Going beyond the design programs, many RIP manufacturers offer VDP options for their software. Besides merging data and images, they can render and merge barcodes, QR codes, and Data Matrix Codes from the file. They also offer the ability to edit and specify output and nesting. Furthermore, since the work is being done inside the RIP software, the resulting files will be optimized for output, color management, and data.

What’s Next?
In order to make VDP a valuable asset, you must understand how it, and you, fit into the bigger picture. Even though VDP has been around for more than 20 years, I feel we’re just at the beginning in specialty graphics. Right now, we’re only skimming the edges of the technology’s potential with simple data merges. The future lies in how multiple, unrelated databases will be filtered, tested, sorted, and merged, going well beyond the work we’re doing today.
To get a picture of what this might look like, consider a large print provider that works with a national home improvement chain of big-box stores. The client is very concerned about maximizing the sell-through of inventory at each location. Their problem is that geographic and demographic variances make each store’s sales unique. Moreover, weather differences by region affect the types of projects that can be done by customers depending on where they live.

The ideal scenario for the client and the printer would be to analyze the sales data for the entire network of stores to determine what is moving and what needs to be featured, discounted, couponed, or coded at each location. The printer would receive a master data file telling them which images and messages are to be printed for each store, customizing the P-O-P merchandising and graphics not just by location, but also by real-time marketing objectives.

Additionally, each display could be printed with a PURL or QR code that would allow the customer to download a coupon, discount code, or bundle offer that could be changed on the back end based on changing objectives. All of this would be tracked and directly attributable to the P-O-P display.
Marketing tactics are changing rapidly, and are increasingly about data and performance. If traditional print is to survive, it must align with the bigger trends that are emerging. The overriding one is “Big Data,” a term I’m sure you hear all the time. Honestly, I don’t know exactly what it means (when does data become big?), but one thing I am certain of is that you will need to understand how to use data to help your customers measure performance, and how to integrate the necessary tools into your workflow.

What drives Big Data is the information that companies like Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Target, Walmart, and others have been using for years – predictive analytics. You see them at work every time you see “People who bought this product also bought this one.” These companies analyze buying patterns to learn how each consumer behaves, what they like, and what they will buy next. The data is now so readily available that consumers are receiving personalized catalogs in the mail, unique to their behaviors that have been gathered without their knowledge. Target got into big trouble doing this a few years ago. (Check out the 2012 article in The New York Times, “How Companies Learn Your Secrets,” to learn more.)

Until a year or so ago, access to this kind of data analysis was super expensive and you needed a PhD in statistics and computer science to make it work. Not any longer. Software and SaaS cloud-based options that are not too expensive are now commonly available. (WolframǀAlpha is just one notable example.) The natural extension of VDP is to combine it with these analytics.

Where to Go from Here
If this is all new to you, fear not. VDP is not another massive disruption like desktop publishing or digital printing – it’s an evolution. Start small. Watch the online tutorials. You’ll find the technology is easy and really pretty cool. Look at your current capabilities and start thinking about how you can incorporate personalization into your offerings. Most importantly, start thinking about how you are going to measure the performance of your work. If you get those two things down, your business will be secure for a long time.
 

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