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Tribune Direct : The Magic of Technology

May 2012 By Erik Cagle, Senior Editor
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There is an old baseball adage aimed at underachievers who have high opinions of themselves: It is said of those people that they are born on third base, yet believe they hit a triple. But, not everyone takes good fortune for granted.

Case in point is Tribune Direct, the direct mail printing offshoot of the Chicago Tribune Media Group, perhaps best known for its venerable Chicago Tribune newspaper. It has been a fixture of the Windy City for more than 160 years. And while Tribune Co. formerly owned the Chicago Cubs, its direct mail progeny is anything but a petulant braggart riding its parent’s coattails into third base. Tribune Direct may be a fortunate 20-year-old son, but “he” doesn’t boast a sense of entitlement.

“We have a great brand name, a trusted name in the marketplace that is steeped in tradition and history,” exclaims Tribune Direct President Lou Tazioli. “We have a national footprint and the ability to work with national marketers in a more cost-effective way. Tribune Direct can bring together all the elements that are critical to making a direct marketer successful—the agency expertise, the variable color production expertise and the technology to manage that environment.

“Anyone can run a color printer. But mailing a million pieces—where each piece is unique to the individual, where you’re dealing with 1,000 or 2,000 unique art files, along with the different segments, micro segments and offers in a seamless, easy-to-digest way—that’s the magic of the technology and how we deal with the data workflow.”

Young Veterans

Though Tribune Direct has been dealing in technology magic since just 1991, it has racked up a good deal of mileage—manufacturing and mailing more than seven million pieces of direct mail per day, backed by a team of 300 employees based in its native Chicago and facilities in Los Angeles; Dallas; Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale, FL; Hartford, CT; and Allentown, PA.

Tribune Direct prides itself on addressing the needs of local and national clients, the largest vertical of which is retail—grocery, pharmacy, apparel, department stores and automotive. Telecom and financial customers have also enabled Tribune Direct to boost its 2011 revenues to nearly $100 million.

One of its cornerstone offerings is shared mail, “Trib Local Values,” a twice-a-week saturation program in the Chicagoland area that is delivered to non-subscribers of the Tribune newspaper. The advertising vehicle features promotions from local grocery stores, retailers and service firms, and reaches 3.2 million homes during the week and 2.1 million on the weekend. In 2008, Valassis Communications merged its RedPlum ad mail program with Trib Local Values to create a co-branded mail package.

Of all the adjectives that could be used to describe Tribune Direct, “structured” is certainly accurate. It has in place a number of programs designed to make life easier for the client, as well as tools to monitor campaign effectiveness and increase response rates. As Tazioli alluded to, Tribune Direct’s value proposition is a three-pronged attack: direct mail strategy, program management and creative development. Here’s a sample of its wares:

• Gift card marketing program. A card-and-carrier marketing piece that bolsters response rates and ROI. The cards are wallet-friendly, personalized and produce trackable information.

• Check Tracker. The proprietary response system enables marketers to capture, process, warehouse and analyze direct mail responses via the Value Check. It is a coupon consumers use to redeem offers in-store, but it goes through the federal banking system to capture responders’ information.

• On the analytics side, Tribune provides the Execulytics tool that enables clients to locate and target their most responsive prospects. It provides geographic, psychographic and lifestyle traits of consumers. 

Be it small or large campaigns—Tribune Direct gets its share of both—full-color, variable data pieces have proven to be a boon for clients and have ratcheted response rates to another level.

“The concept is using the variable color output that we have and taking that to another level,” Tazioli notes. “It’s about being able to produce matched, multiple pieces in a single mail package that are all tied to the same individual household, all variable imaged in full-color, whether it be a pocket mailer, gift card concept, letter envelope or a booklet. 

“We’re really trying to stretch the investments that we’ve made in developing unique applications that are going to create that wow factor with the consumer, and that will get opened, looked at and responded to. At the end of the day, it’s all about driving results for the advertiser.”

In an effort to remain marketing channel agnostic, Tribune Direct integrates direct mail with electronic solutions including e-mail, PURLs, micro sites and quick response 2-D codes. But, make no mistake about it, the electronic solutions act in a support capacity for traditional print vehicles.

“We’re focused on the integration of different electronic channels as opposed to a standalone channel,” notes Tim Klunder, vice president of sales and client relations. “Our aim is to discover how they all work together and find out what the client is trying to accomplish. Then, we develop that integrated, cross-channel experience based on what the customer is trying to achieve.”

Prosperous Addition

Tribune Direct recently installed a Kodak Prosper 5000XL inkjet web press to complement a pair of existing NexPress printers in its litho-less pressroom (which also includes a Xerox DocuColor 5000). The Prosper configuration includes an in-line InterFlex UV coater to make substrates “bulletproof” from a physical standpoint in the USPS mailstream, according to Tim Street, director of operations for Tribune Direct. What made the Prosper press stand out from other machines that Tribune Direct auditioned was its ability to print on coated stocks, particularly postcards, along with offset-like output of up to 175 lpi. Fully customized direct mail at a lower price point, clearly, spoke to the needs of the printer.

“Customers were saying they wanted to present full, variable color in the products they presented to their customers,” Street notes. “They want the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese box to look like the real thing. So, we knew we needed to come up with a solution to deliver millions of pieces in a short period of time.”

The InterFlex UV coater, aside from protecting the pieces from scuffing and rubbing, can make a satin, gloss or matte stock really pop, according to Street. Also adding heft to the line—near-line, specifically—is an assortment of Standard Horizon finishing equipment, including an AFC-744AKT folder and a Standard Hunkeler CS7 rotary cross cutter. Also new to the mix is a Tecnau Dynamic perforator.  

“We have the ability to take the 25.5˝-wide web and do a variety of different finishing, from variable perforating—like a T-perf—across the whole wide web, and then be able to go through different cutting and folding systems,” Street notes.

The Prosper press-led capex initiative is tailor made for the evolving needs of Tribune’s clients. Klunder points out that the trend is toward more relevant and targeted direct mail campaigns—smaller runs done more frequently. As Tazioli observes, the new system allows for greater volume with a significantly lower per-piece cost than traditional cutsheet digital color. Future investments will revolve around bolstering the finishing aspect to get more traction with unique mail formats.

The days of the vanilla advertisement for the masses appear gone, and now the objective is to devise campaigns of one, so to speak, based on geography, demographics, past purchase behavior and other factors that can be mined from customer data, Tazioli believes. And, while the future will include more and more digital integration, through PURLs, 2-D codes and e-mail, Tazioli sees a long and healthy future ahead for direct mail.

“Direct mail is not going away; it’s a healthy industry and will continue to be relevant for many years despite the bad press about the U.S. Postal Service,” he says. “It’s up to us to find ways to integrate the digital and print worlds, and get them to work harmoniously.” PI


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