The value of personalisation in marketing has been demonstrated many times. Study after study shows that consumers respond more readily to communications that are tailored to their situation, needs and desires than to blanket ‘one size fits all’ advertising. Depending on the vertical sector, personalised campaigns can outperform static ones by a factor of up to 10. While email and other digital channels of communication have been seen as the easiest and cheapest to personalise, print retains a number of advantages: it can convey quality, has permanence, reaches all demographics and cuts through the digital clutter.
The problem with print – until recent years – has been that it could not support complex personalisation beyond simple overprinting of text such as name and address, because of the cost structure of offset litho and other analogue print technologies, which excel at producing multiple identical copies of documents at low unit cost.
Digital presses have changed this, enabling documents to be printed at productive speeds and at high quality while allowing every element of every page to be different, if desired. This makes possible the ultimate in personalisation – a different printed document for every recipient.
This kind of printing is known as variable data printing (VDP) but it’s often more meaningfully called personalisation, customisation, versioning, variable information printing or one-to-one marketing communication.
The idea of VDP has existed for several decades in certain sectors, such as transactional printing of bank or credit card statements, insurance and other financial documents, but these have typically been restricted to variable text, usually in one colour (black), overprinted onto pre-printed stock. The same idea has been widely applied in mail merges, where name, address and a limited range of other text is added to pre-printed promotional material.
A more recent development of this is transpromo, in which marketing messages and offers are added to the transactional documents, sometimes referred to as ‘white space marketing’, since the additional material is often added in the spaces that were previously left blank around the transactional information. The appeal of this approach is that statements and similar transactional documents have a very high open rate, so any additional messages placed there have a very good chance of being seen.
For businesses that don’t have a regular recurring transactional relationships with their customers, this opportunity does not exist and what has previously been done is the mass mailer, in which standardised content is sent to all recipients – a book of coupons, for example – but can be versioned according to postcode or other demographic information. Personalisation beyond this might extend to printing the recipient’s name on the envelope and varying basic information text.
True VDP allows any text or image on a page to be made variable from one copy to the next so that in a marketing context different products and offers can be presented to different customers within one mailing, according to their age, gender, location or other demographic, their previous purchase history, expressed preferences or inferred interests. It can also allow for different selections of pages to be printed according to the same criteria, such as a college or university brochure that only features courses relevant to the recipient.
Better still, it allows the customer to be in charge of what is printed: rather than assembling the print documents from an in-house or commercially sourced database following a set of business logic rules, VDP can enable the customer to indicate what’s of interest via a website form or interactive page, the results can be fed into the VDP page composition system, the customised documents printed and mailed to the customer, together with supporting information and offers. One example of this kind of ‘pull marketing’ is a customised brochure for a motor vehicle, where the customer selects the model, variant, colour, trim level and accessories and a brochure featuring that specific combination is created, printed and mailed.
While print may have strengths that digital channels lack, the most powerful marketing combination is to use it in combination with them, exploiting the strengths of each, to yield a greater number of touches for the recipient and a unified experience across all marketing channels, both on- and offline.
Using print in parallel with other marketing channels is called multi-channel marketing; when the channels provide a degree of interactivity with each other to further engage the customer and support the marketing message, it’s known as cross-media marketing, though the terms are often used interchangeably. An example of media channel integration is the use of QR codes on printed item that link to personalised URLs (PURLs) that take the viewer to customised online content that complements the printed material.