Dimensions of Data Management
Printing started to become what we understand as “data driven” in 1887, the year when Tolbert Lanston demonstrated a hot-metal linecasting machine controlled by punched paper tape. Modern digitized production systems may be vastly more powerful than Lanston’s original Monotype, but they’re still recognizable as direct technological descendants of that ingenious invention.
It wouldn’t be accurate to call data management synonymous with printing, but there’s no disputing that in many if not most of today’s printing applications, the two activities are inseparably intertwined. Nowhere is this clearer than in plants that mass-produce direct mail, bills, financial documents, medical records and other items reincarnated from digital data into hard-copy form.
Many leading practitioners of this kind of printing belong to Xplor International, a trade association that promotes best practices for the design, production and delivery of electronic documents. Skip Henk, Xplor’s president and CEO, defines data management as “the development and execution of architectures, policies, practices and procedures that properly manage the full data lifecycle needs of an enterprise.”
What this means in printing terms, says Christina Esparza, VP of operations at InfoIMAGE, in Coppell, Texas, is doing whatever it takes to “help the client make the most of the data they already have.” That includes acquiring the data, storing it securely, prepping it for output, and entering it into the mailstream (as postal pieces) and electronic channels (as email) for distribution to precisely the right groups of recipients.
‘Sharpening the Proverbial Pencil’
Esparza believes that being able to show mastery of these tasks can be a major competitive advantage for printing businesses. “Clients entrust their data to marketing service providers that are constantly sharpening the proverbial pencil, looking for new ways to make data relevant and bringing new offerings to market,” she says.
Trust has to be the keynote, because the information contained in data-managed printing environments is almost always sensitive.
Based in Morrisville, N.C., AccuDoc Solutions produces up to 175,000 billing and transactional documents per day for health care organizations, hospitals and large medical practices. As such, says Robb Cass Jr., president, the company is the vehicle by which these entities communicate with their patients about payment - meaning that everything it does must be timely, tailored and, above all, accurate.
Maintaining integrity of data is crucial for printers with health care industry clients, agrees Brett Coltman, VP of Direct Technologies Inc. (DTI) in Suwanee, Ga., which serves the country’s top four health care providers. Acting as the data’s “source of truth,” making sure it has breach control against hacks, and shielding it from malware are all part of the assignment, he says.
Trust Is the Foundation
“Your customers have got to trust you with that data” before they will permit you to come near it, insists Scott Stephens, COO of Atlanta-based DATAMATX, which specializes in print and electronic bill presentment for a variety of industries.
Customer-supplied data consists of records coming entirely from the customer or blended with input from external sources such as Equifax, First Union and Jack Henry & Associates. Purchased mailing lists may also be part of the mix, depending on what the customer wants to accomplish. From this raw material, the service provider fashions channels for outreach.
“We receive a portion of the data to score clients that fall within a targeted matrix,” says Jeff Meyers, director of information technology systems for DTI. “These counts are passed to our clients to make direct marketing decisions” about mailings to individuals and businesses.
Data compilation on the provider’s end can be an art form in itself. It is most relevant and effective, says Esparza, “when it represents a handshake between the transactional data provided by the client combined with the resources of data analytics to make the mail piece personally engaging to the end user.”
Although outsourcing data management tasks is an option, none of the service providers quoted here relies on third-party assistance. At DATAMATX, says Stephens, standard operating procedure is to keep as much work as possible in-house unless the customer wants to share data with an outside source. Meyers notes that doing it this way saves money for clients who audit their providers, since the provider’s location is the only checkpoint that needs to be looked at.
Just Too ‘Public’ in the Cloud
The same considerations explain why the providers tend to shy away from cloud storage and computing, preferring to host and process client data locally. A cloud, says Coltman, is a “public domain” where DTI wouldn’t be able to apply the breach controls with which it protects customer data internally. Little takes place in data-driven printing that security requirements don’t influence in one way or another. Assuring security, says Cass, is the reason why AccuDoc Solutions requires badged access to the plant and employs an outside agency to monitor its protective practices.
“Scary stuff” is Stephens’s description of what could be the consequences of failing to comply with the mandates of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard), and the other regulations and certifications that providers like DATAMATX live by. Compliance is expensive, he adds, since the provider has to pay for whatever audits may be necessary.
At InfoIMAGE, says Esparza, “our technology protocols begin at the point of receipt of file, and access is restricted at every touch point to ensure integrity and continuity of the data.” InfoIMAGE certifies these practices by submitting to annual examinations under the rubric of SAS 70 (Statement on Auditing Standards No. 70), a review of data controls and safeguards. Contractually based SLAs (service level agreements) add specific mandates for the types of financial documents being handled.
Security: Almost a Career Here
Coltman says that data security “is almost a career here at DTI,” which also works under SLAs for security along with others for production timelines and data retention and disposition. The HIPAA-compliant company also holds security certification from HITRUST (Health Information Trust Alliance) and undergoes SOC (Service Organization Control) audits for the same purpose. Clients and third-party entities conduct their own audits to ensure that DTI’s network and physical infrastructure are “hardened” to support their missions, Meyers adds.
These tightly controlled environments function as clean rooms for customer data, where mailing lists are purged of errors and optimized for accurate, response-generating delivery. Data hygiene has to be co-equal with security as a best practice, because as Xplor’s Henk observes, “a company’s number one asset typically is their database.”
The cleanliness of the database “can impact the delivery time of a document, when a bill is paid, cash flow and response rates in cross-marketing,” he says. “It is also important in terms of the customer interaction. Customers want to feel you know them.”
Allowing mail pieces to go astray because of poor list maintenance, comments Esparza, “makes the marketing effort irrelevant” and squanders the “mail moment” - the positive, everyday anticipation of mail - that marketers hope to capitalize on.
Henk says providers preserve data hygiene by regularly “scrubbing” address information to ensure it is accurate and complies with postal regulations. In the case of transactional runs, list data may be scrubbed with every batch.
Gaining a Competitive Edge
Efficient compilation, strict security, and scrupulous hygiene are more than best practices for providers of direct mail and transactional printing services: they’re key competitive differentiators.
Cass says AccuDoc Solutions sets itself apart by making sure its database contains everything the company’s health care and medical customers need to keep their billing communications as efficient and responsive as possible, including online tools that enable customers to make some of the updates themselves.
Along with presenting the highest credentials in security, increasing deliverability to physical and electronic mailboxes is the number one objective for mailers that want to lead the field, says Stephens. If this means, for example, switching a digital recipient to paper mail until a corrected email address is found, then that is the right step to take.
“Data management and personalization can take on many characteristics that will help a direct mailer make a difference to their customers,” notes Meyers. DTI, declares Coltman, is not in the business of churning out postcards “for 10 bucks a thousand:” it’s committed to differentiating itself from the competition on the basis of the data management services it provides.
Transforming a static transactional mailing into a campaign that is both creative and targeted is where the special value of data management comes into play, according to Esparza.
“When our documents provide the information and tools to support the client’s financial goals and dreams,” she says, “we’ve had a great mailing.”