SPECIAL REPORT VARIABLE DATA PRINTING -- 1-to-1 Drives Campaigns
Robin Williamson might have needed to get past some old preconceptions, but now she is completely on board with the art of variable data printing (VDP).
It was just three or four years ago when Williamson—the director of print for the Dallas office of Rapp Collins, one of the largest direct marketing agencies in the world—was up to her eyes in conventional printing. But a creative director from the agency had just returned from a digital conference in Arizona, raving about the wonders of digital printing incorporating personalization.
Williamson, a seven-year veteran of the company, was a little skeptical. But given what she'd heard about how variable data had made inroads for the point-of-purchase environment, her curiosity was also piqued.
"Being the print snob that I was at the time, I said, 'Hey, come on now, they're just copy machines,' " Williamson recalls.
But before she could attend the next conference on the subject, Rapp Collins secured an assignment for a VDP-driven campaign. So Williamson spent the next six months immersing herself in all aspects of variable data printing.
"I just fell in love with VDP and think it's awesome," Williamson says. "Especially for a marketing agency like ours, it's such an incredible tool. Now I spend about 75 percent of my time working on this."
Hitching a Ride to VDP
Rapp Collins, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year by being ranked No. 1 for direct marketing agencies by Ad Age magazine, came into its own on the VDP landscape two years ago when it landed a critical automotive account. The result was a brilliant one-to-one marketing campaign that relied on a deep level of personal information. Thus, the agency not only put its creative skills to the test, it made Rapp Collins develop talented data engineers.
The results have been astounding, according to Williamson. This campaign mails on a monthly basis and, each month, Rapp Collins pores over the sales analysis. The agency has helped its auto client exceed a very aggressive ROI by almost 100 percentage points. Rapp Collins has created similar VDP programs with other clients, both in the automotive and entertainment industries.
While Williamson did not have any hard figures, other experts note that a typical response rate is 3 percent to 5 percent for a for a static direct mail piece with little to no personalization. By contrast, response rates of 20 percent to 25 percent have been realized from VDP-based programs.
"VDP isn't for every one of our accounts," Williamson cautions. "We look at a client's business model to find out what they want to achieve from their direct marketing efforts. We do a lot of focus groups—really look at the companies before we approach them or design a program for them. If we don't feel it's right for them, we won't take them down the (VDP) path."
It is more expensive than conventional printing, and there are some compromises that need to be made, such as size, she adds. "Most importantly, that client has to have a product or service that can absorb the slight increase in cost per piece. They get the value on the back end, when they're increasing sales or services. You have to be able to provide that ROI to them. Otherwise, it doesn't work."
The market types that are initially most favorable to VDP-driven programs, according to Williamson, are loyalty-based campaigns, including automotive, casino/gaming, alcohol and tobacco. Loyalty retention is a critical aspect, as is a budget to support the campaign. High-volume mailers who are used to getting their goods for a mere pennies per piece may find this commitment impractical, even with the cost savings accrued because of less waste with VDP.
Due to the complexity and precision of variable data jobs, Rapp Collins is very demanding of its digital print vendors. Williamson has qualified a handful of printers and triple bids out all VDP jobs, regardless of whether they're ad hoc or continuous work. With an ongoing program, Rapp Collins needs the stability of a yearly contract.
"We have several vendors that we use, but once we set a program with someone, you almost have to let it run on a year's contract," she says. "You don't want to be pulling this work around from shop to shop. Otherwise, you won't be able to gain efficiencies."
Know Your Customers
And, in an age where many printers are boasting the same high-powered equipment and capabilities, Williamson stresses that printers must know the buyer's business inside and out, know the data and understand how in-depth they want to go with that data.
"Relationships are very important, as is getting the best prices for our customers," she notes. "We have a strenuous bidding program, an RFQ that's about 10 pages long, for all the criteria that has to be met.
"We need 100 percent security for all data. We carefully check and manage our vendors, and work closely with press manufacturers. I make it my business to know where facilities are opening up, who's running them and how much experience they have. We do a lot of background work."