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Digital Marketing - Data into Dollars

February 2001 By Mark Smith
Variable-data printing has been championed by some as the future of the graphic arts industry, and derided by others with charges of being a white elephant. Even though it is a distinct market subset with unique characteristics, variable-data printing's standing has shared the fortunes and misfortunes of the broader digital printing market and technology.

To borrow Alan Greenspan's signature phrase, it is fair to say there has been some irrational exuberance in forecasts for digital printing as a whole. As is typically the case, though, the true story is somewhere in the middle. With a dose of marketing savvy and client research, profitable applications can be developed.

The mix of opportunity and challenges in variable-data printing was precisely what led Michael Nelson and Joel Hoefle to found Digital Marketing in 1994. With its emphasis on marketing expertise and services, the management team believes "agency" is a better label for the Minneapolis firm, but it does have in-house color and black-and-white digital printing capabilities.

"What has always made us different from other agencies is that we are not focused on brokering media time or print production. We take responsibility for the entire program," Nelson says.

The company helps its clients develop and execute personalized/ customized marketing programs through the use of direct mail and Internet-based vehicles. Digital Marketing can handle the entire process, from building business rules and doing database development to providing design/creative services, print production, e-mail marketing, Web-based response vehicles, document distribution, response tracking/reporting and inventory management.

The co-founders discovered they had converging business goals and complementary expertise when they first met in Minneapolis. Hoefle had recently moved to the area, after leaving a large, Washington, DC-based communications company. While there, he had been involved in producing one-to-one marketing and small-run projects for associations using one of the first networked Xerox DocuTechs ever installed, says the now-executive vice president of Digital Marketing.

At the time, Nelson had been doing direct marketing on the agency side of the business for about 20 years. His work had evolved to the point where he was trying to produce more targeted content, but still using conventional printing technology. This primarily involved doing black plate changes to create different versions of marketing materials. "I was somewhat frustrated at the state of the industry," recalls Nelson, Digital Marketing's president.

When Hoefle shared his experience with doing variable-data printing on DocuTechs, Nelson says the co-founders immediately saw the potential in applying the technology to marketing applications. From the beginning, they've stayed away from doing short-run production of static documents, or commodity printing work, which was the more typical application for early adopters in the printing industry.

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