Technology Guides

Determining the Best Way to Produce a Variable Data Print Project


Determining the best production method for data-driven print communications can be challenging.

I love a debate.  One that is often tossed around in the print production community is the best way to produce printed pieces with variable text and imagery.  Before we go any farther, let’s do a little glossary to make sure this is easy to understand.  At Mail Print these terms mean the following in relation to printed output:

  • Variable data: contains information or imagery that changes from piece to piece. These are truly personalized to each recipient.
  • Versioned: a single strategy translated into several static versions.  These are not personalized, but grouped to improve targeting and relevancy.
  • Static: each piece output is the same for the entire print run (the only exception often being the recipient address for a mailing.) Everyone receives the exact same piece.

When producing a project where the output is not a static piece, there are three options:

  1. Produced using variable data printing on a digital press
  2. Versioned pieces using offset printing combined with digital or inkjet printing
  3. Multiple static versions printed on a traditional offset printing press

Why does it matter which print method you choose?

Let’s look at a few real blunders that have resulted from applying the wrong method to a project:

  • A variable data project without “real” variable data is less costly to produce as a versioned project.
  • A company’s advertising agency spends countless hours creating versions for a job that should have been printed as VDP (variable data printing) delaying a time sensitive project by five days.
  • Because of the intricate nature of an offer strategy, a database analyst spends extra hours reviewing each data set of the segmentation because each segment will be produced separately as versions.
  • Worse yet, because the data set is separated, incorrect, irrelevant offers are distributed, ruining the impact of the piece and destroying the ROI.

Choosing between Variable Data and Versioned Print

So how do you know if your data-driven project should be produced using variable data or versions?  In my experience this check list holds the answer to the debate:

  • How many varying text fields and images are you using?
  • Do you have any variable information within another variable field?
  • If you produce it by versioning, what would the total number of versions be?
  • What is the total quantity for the project?  What are the quantities for each version?
  • Does splitting the data into multiple groups introduce risk into the project or increase the data processing cost?

One last word of advice… your printer can be a vital partner in helping make these types of decisions.  Engaging them early and often gets the debate over and done with before unnecessary personnel and production costs come into play.

Intro to Auto-Triggers for Sales and Marketing

Businessman with dominoes

Auto-triggers allow marketing and sales to turn routine, manual touch points into automated, highly-effective communications.

From a simple email auto-responder that thanks web visitors for downloading a whitepaper, to a multi-touch, multi-channel campaign initiated by a customer behavior, organizations are discovering the benefits of auto-triggered marketing and sales communications. Here’s why:

Auto-Triggered Communications…

  1. Increase the efficiency of your Sales team
    Automatic responses and follow-up messages can replace many routine sales communications, freeing up your Sales reps for higher-leverage communications.
  2. Make your marketing more effective
    Auto-trigger technology allows marketers to target prospects and customers that are already in motion, moving them further through the sales funnel with relevant, perfectly timed communications.
  3. Provide your prospects and customers with more timely and relevant information
    Put yourself on the other side of the equation; would you rather receive a generic, mass-delivered communication, or one that matches your recent behaviors (such as a purchase, lapsed membership, or request for info) with a timely, relevant response or offer?

Which Communications Should You Automate?

So you’re ready to institute auto-triggered communications into your sales and marketing processes. But which of your existing manual touch points should be replaced, what additional automated communications do you need, what mediums should be used, and how quickly should each response follow the action?

A good place to start is by asking yourself these questions:

  • What self-created standard responses are your sales reps already using (by copying and pasting from a document on their desktop)?
  • What behaviors indicate a lead is ready for immediate attention?
  • What behaviors indicate a current customer is unhappy?
  • When does up-selling make sense in your sales process?
  • What information do your prospects need to see or hear to make an informed buying decision, and when do they need to receive it?
  • What can be done to turn current customers into advocates?
  • When your website or email campaigns generate a lead, does anyone follow up, and if so, how quickly?
  • For each of your automatic communications, which medium will be the most effective for direct communication?
  • What action should be taken with prospects or customers who:
    • Report and email hard bounces?
    • Unsubscribe to your email list?
    • Never open email?
    • Never respond to direct mail?
  • Which of your current marketing touches would be more effective if they were sent in response to a customer behavior?
  • Which of your common sales follow-up communications would be more effective if they were delivered more quickly?

If you want more information about automating your sales or marketing communications, add a comment to this post, or give Mail Print a call at 800.660.0108.

Q&A: Cynthia Artin on QR Codes in Direct Marketing

QR Code

QR Codes are starting to show up everywhere from direct mail to billboards in Times Square. Photo Credits: QRiousCODE

As we discussed recently in our post Guide to QR Codes for Direct Marketers, 2-dimensional barcode technology is making inroads into the United States after becoming mainstream in Asia and Europe. For direct marketers, these mobile-friendly codes offer a new way to integrate offline and online communications. Direct mail, print and TV ads, business cards, billboards… anything that can carry an image can now serve as a link to a response page, purchase page, contact information, video, or any other online content.

To help us stay on top of this ever-evolving technology, we recently interviewed Cynthia Artin, a thought leader in the QR Code community who helps organizations integrate QR Codes into their communication strategies. With Cynthia’s permission, we’ve included her responses below…

Q: How did you first become aware of 2D Barcodes and their potential use in direct marketing?

I began studying mobile codes two years ago, when one of my clients who made a substantial investment in the area asked my opinion on how the economics might play out. After spending time researching through the many special interest groups around the world as well as reading up on all the companies offering readers, platforms, campaign managers, campaign creative and more – I was hooked!

Q: What’s the most exciting use of QR Codes you’re seeing right now?

Embedded enterprise applications – B 2 C – which are tightly integrated into existing information systems, such as marketing, CRM, Point-of-Sale, publishing, ticketing, couponing and redemption.

Q: The U.S. has lagged behind Europe and Asia in use of QR Codes; when do we catch up?

We catch up when mobile devices come pre-loaded with readers that scan every type of code and when the applications become more useful and less “flash-in-the-pan.”

Q: What are the big hurdles you see towards QR Code adoption in the U.S., and how can they be changed or overcome?

Open vs. closed systems work – and they always win out. As long as we have providers whose mobile codes work only when scanned by their readers, we will continue to frustrate consumers and deliver poor results to marketers.

Q: Is standardization of 2D Barcodes necessary? If so, which one will win out?

Standardization is an often subjective term! Open is necessary – decoding is key. The winners I am seeing in the market are delivering readers that read all of today’s codes – and tomorrow’s. Ultimately all codes could work if code providers agree to open decoding. At that point, the best codes will win – those which are most intuitive, those that are most easily and quickly read by the cameras, those that do not destroy graphic design integrity.

Q: What companies do you see as leaders in their use of QR Codes?

    Google Favorite Places

    Google's "Favorite Places" campaign sent out more than 100,000 store-front stickers to businesses across the country. When a user takes a photo of the personalized QR Code using a QR Code reader, they're directed to a description and reviews of the store or restaurant.

  • The leader in integration is Mobile Data Systems.
  • The leader in creativity is Renu Mobile.
  • The leader in cross-platform campaigns and luxury goods is Tappinn.
  • The leader in retail is Launch Media.
  • The leader in coolness is QM Codes.
  • The leader in support and documentation is Microsoft (though I am not happy about their attempting to perpetuate their closed system – they will not monopolize this industry!)
  • The leader in innovation is Packrads.
  • The leader in friendly, accessible solutions for small to medium businesses is Unity Mobile.
  • The leader in attracting awesome brands is JagTag (though their technology is dated).
  • The leader in getting global traction is ScanBuy.
  • The leader in having established the IP In the first place is NeoMedia.
  • The leader in tier one operator business models and services is Brand Extension Mobile Solutions working with Telefonica.
  • The leader in social networking is Facebook.
  • The leader in creating mass interest in mobile codes is Google, with Favorite Places and more.
  • Finally, the leader in working to ensure mobile codes work at scale and sustainably – is Neustar. I have lived through history with Neustar: interconnects, number portability, short codes. We have seen this movie before, and we know that in order for any new mobile capability to “move into the millions,” utility partners are essential.

Q: So let’s say a direct marketer is ready to get their feet wet; what are simple, low risk ways for them to start using QR Codes?

Add a mobile code to a direct mail piece with a simple, compelling call to action that immediately “gives back” a coupon, a virtual prize, something cool! Pick a great company, such as those in the above list, and have them walk you through the process – it is so easy, and the feedback is immediate!

CynthiaArtin e1289318779388 113x150 Q&A: Cynthia Artin on QR Codes in Direct MarketingAbout Cynthia Artin

Cynthia Artin, President of ArtinArts, has been helping companies grow through sound investment, strategy and market positioning for 30 years. She supports a range of companies, from start-ups to multi-billion enterprises, in positioning mobile innovations and solutions, including mobile codes. Her primary passion is identifying and developing mobile applications that help people live happier, healthier lives – at scale, by bringing together teams from for-profit companies with teams from non-profit organizations to create communications and service delivery channels on a global scale.

To learn more about Cynthia or connect with her, visit her LinkedIn Profile.

Guide to QR Codes for Direct Marketers

Business people using smartphones

Mobile web usage grew 110% last year (Quantcast). QR Code technology is helping direct marketers bridge the gap between traditional channels and the increasing number of smartphone users.

What’s black, white and read all over? It’s not the newspaper anymore; it’s the square 2D barcodes called “QR Codes” that have already taken over Asia and Europe, and are making strong inroads in the U.S.

Unless you’re looking for them, there’s a chance that you may have overlooked these small squares filled with seemingly-random black and white pixels. However, QR codes represent a lifeline for direct marketers looking to connect with an increasingly mobile, online audience.

What Are QR Codes?

In short, a QR code is a two-dimensional (2D) or “matrix” barcode containing data that can be read by scanners and mobile “smart” phones with cameras.

Some quick facts about QR Code technology:

  • QR Codes have a higher data capacity than other barcodes.
  • QR Codes are often used to convey tracking information, urls, text, and other data.
  • QR Code technology is public-domain, leading to many innovative uses.
  • QR Codes are one of more than forty 2D barcode types, however today they are the most common for consumer uses.
  • QR Codes are showing up on everything from billboards to business cards, and a lot of unexpected things in-between (like cupcakes, scarves and temporary tattoos).
QR Code Structure

Standard structure of a QR Code. Attribution: Richard Wheeler (Zephyris) on Wikipedia.

How are QR Codes Used in Direct Marketing?

While initially developed by a Toyota subsidiary to track car parts, direct marketers overseas, and then in the U.S., have quickly learned to use QR codes to add depth to their marketing communications.

QR Codes can be easily generated, and then printed or embedded on direct mail, email, landing pages, catalogs, postcards and more. Here are some of the many ways you can use QR Codes in your direct marketing:

1) Share Data

QR Codes can contain more than 4,000 characters or 2,900 bytes, giving you plenty of room to embed information for use on your target’s mobile device, such as:

  • A sales rep’s contact information
  • Calendar items and event information
  • Product information
  • Directions to your brick and mortar locations

2) Enrich Offline Experience

One of the most common data contained in a QR Code are web URLs, which serve as conduit between a static piece and an online, interactive asset, such as:

  • A landing page with additional information
  • A personalized response page, such as a PURL
  • A product demo or video

3) Generate Sales

QR Codes can be used to provide immediate shopping and purchasing. For example, when someone is viewing your catalog, postcard, print ad, including a QR Code can link them directly to:

  • An online purchase page or shopping cart
  • An estimate request form
  • An on-screen coupon that can be scanned when purchasing at a store

4) Collect responses and track behavior

Generating and tracking responses is crucial for direct marketers, and is often done by using unique response pages and phone numbers for each marketing campaign. Similarly, actions such as a webpage visit and online purchase can be easy traced back to an individual QR code, allowing marketers to compare the effectiveness of different ads and channels.

QR Code leading to

Got your mobile phone handy? Scan the image above with your QR Code reader to be directed to

Try QR Codes For Yourself

Since QR Code technology is in the Public Domain, there are many different QR Code readers and generators. While some smart phones now come equipped with QR code readers, users can also easily install QR Code apps on their phone.

Popular QR Code Scanners/Readers

Popular QR Code Generators

How are you using QR Codes? What tools do you recommend?

Please join in the conversation by adding a comment to this post.

9/24 UPDATE: The Challenges of Using QR Codes

There are some great insights in the “Comments” section of this post about the issues involved with QR Codes. I highly recommend checking them out and adding your own thoughts!

Powerful Data-Driven Charts for Mail and Email Marketing

Dynamic chart and graphData rarely gets to be the star of the visual show. It takes people who are both creative and data-savvy to conceptualize how data points can be translated into visual appeal.  Today’s marketers are increasingly in-tune to both left-brain and right-brain thinking, which makes this the perfect time to consider what data you have and how you are using it.

I recently wrote a report on using Data-Driven Charts and Graphs that is filled with examples, and also contains guidance on  addressing common implementation challenges. This report is my attempt to help agencies and marketers plan how data-driven graphs and charts can be employed to make their direct marketing more relevant, more engaging and ultimately more effective.

You can download the report at  I’d be delighted to have your feedback.  Please feel free to email me directly at rhondab(at)mailprint(dot)com.

Download Data Driven Chart Report

New Aberdeen Research Shows Print On-Demand Improves Customer Retention

According to new research by Aberdeen Group, Print On-Demand (also called POD, web-to-print or print automation) provides a dramatic improvement in customer retention and ROMI (Return on Marketing Investments). As an underwriter of Aberdeen’s research, we’re pleased to provide exclusive access to their findings.

CustomerRetention 198x300 New Aberdeen Research Shows Print On Demand Improves Customer Retention

From research by Aberdeen Group: Users of Print On-Demand achieved a 42% higher customer retention rate than non-users.

Among their findings was a correlation between companies that use a Print On-Demand solution and a dramatic improvement in customer retention. In an economy where every customer counts, a 42% higher customer retention rate among Print On-Demand users is more than noteworthy. But what’s the correlation? How does POD impact on customer retention so significantly?

Three Reasons Print On-Demand Improves Customer Retention

  1. More timely – With on-demand printing, written communications and printed materials get in the hands of prospects or customers more quickly, as the materials are produced and delivered immediately, instead of waiting weeks to be batched with other orders.
  2. Improved relevancy – Printed materials can easily be customized to be relevant to the recipient using a Print On-Demand system. For example, cross-selling, new customer assimilation, and segmentation strategies can all be applied, one customer at a time.
  3. It builds better relationships – By empowering true 1-to-1 communication, personal communications can be customized to come from their sales or customer service representative to the intended recipient.


Follow this link to download a free report including additional findings from Aberdeen: Print On-Demand: Driving Efficiency and Revenue Growth with Organizational Print Portals.

Additional Benefits of On-Demand Printing

Many times when a company moves to a Print On-Demand or web-to-print solution, another significant shift happens. They move from static off-set printing to digital printing. Several years ago many marketing professionals questioned the quality of digital print. Today, to the naked eye, it is practically impossible to tell the difference between commercial off-set printing and digital.

Using advanced digital printing and marketing automation technology, the delivery of printed materials becomes as easy as sending personalized, triggered email.  In fact, the use of both mail and email together becomes fast, efficient and very impactful.

Many companies have found it helpful to integrate their Marketing Asset Management solution with email and automated print deployment, making the creation and execution processes streamlined and efficient.  In fact, in addition to improved customer retention, many companies save hundreds of thousands of dollars by moving to an integrated POD system. (See case studies at

Thanks to the Aberdeen Group for investing in the research that quantifies what was previously suspected: POD improves customer retention and bolsters ROMI by putting a serious dent in marketing execution costs.

Using Marketing Automation Without Compromising Your Data Warehouse

duplicate data 300x199 Using Marketing Automation Without Compromising Your Data Warehouse

Duplicate prospect and customer data is a nightmare for IT and Database Marketing departments, but a requirement for some direct marketing systems. The solution? Integrated systems that use live data feeds.

There is no doubt that an enterprise data warehouse has helped countless organizations consolidate their information into one central database allowing for better analysis and use of the data.  This has certainly been the case for improving targeting and segmenting of direct marketing efforts. It has also been a boon to being able to use varying messaging, imagery, offers, and even formats to improve relevancy to the targeted audiences.

Increased availability of data has lead to the usage of 10s, 100s or 1000s of variables within an individual campaign.  It has also lead to a new level of complexity for automating a successful ongoing campaign that uses these variables.

Good direct marketing service providers, whether it be print, email, text messaging or direct mail, can work magic with the data… after all the data is brought into their system via a data pipe or XML stream.  This often causes IT departments and data analysts to cry “Foul! You just created redundant data from what was supposed to be a single data warehouse.”

So what’s the next step in email and print automation to make sure that redundant data sources are not created?  Creating a live feed that continually calls to and from your data warehouse.

We have a client who utilizes a proprietary segmentation model, as well as geographic overlays, and purchase history to determine the targeting of direct mail and email campaigns.  After combining this with localized ordering, they have a wonderfully targeted, relevant communications strategy that works like magic.  And best of all, their data and segmentation resides with them.

Building a continual data retrieval system is not the easiest way to feed data for automated marketing communications, but is the best way to maintain the integrity of your data warehouse.

A Creative’s Guide to Personalized Database Marketing

Neon Brain

Successful personalized marketing mixes right brain logic and left brain creative.

Highly-personalized marketing with relevant messaging, images and offers dramatically increases response rates… everyone agrees on this now, right? I mean, we’ve all read the case studies and white papers that prove it.

So why isn’t everyone doing it? For one, creating a highly-personalized marketing piece requires a creative staff brave enough to reach into the cold, sterile world of databases, segmentation and matrices, and then blend the two together. This is a serious feat of right brain/left brain, inspiration/intel, balance that can be difficult to achieve. But, as the research shows, double-digit response rates are attainable….

So I cornered several of our clients that create and produce highly-personalized marketing campaigns, and asked them for the top things they’d tell creatives about creating relevant, database-driven communications.

Here are their top five suggestions, ready for you to share with your design and marketing creatives:

1) Intimately know the data fields, segmentation and models available to you.

Get a sample of your marketing database, and review all the options available to you. A good database could include information about their purchase history, preferences, and demographics; all info you can use to make your piece more relevant. Even simple databases can be segmented to create versioned messages and images; try region, number of employees and industry.

2) Make sure your design works for both “Matt” and “Madeleine”

When adding variable fields to your designs, it’s important to know just how long – or short – the text may be that pulls in for each field. Ask your database team for a report of the longest and shortest entries for each variable field, and then proof your designs with these extremes included.

3) Go beyond the name game

Splashing your recipient’s name across your creative can definitely capture their attention, and can be done very creatively and effectively. But some of the most effective personalized communications include hundreds or thousands of variables. If you have a strong database, some internal expertise, and a good partner, it’s time to test an intensely-variable piece.

4) Know your workflow

Sooner, rather than later, call the Variable Data Printer, email service provider or direct mail marketer of your choice : ), and grill them on the process your creative will go through to be produced. Chances are, there are choices you’ll make that could negatively or positively affect the resulting pieces. Special Note: Make sure to ask them the best file formats for their workflow!

5) Start simple.

As you can tell, there’s a reason personalized marketing isn’t used by all of your competitors: it’s hard. But, it’s a lot easier once you’ve done it a few times. So start by working a couple of variables into piece before advancing to that dynamic, 1,000-variable piece you’ve been dreaming of. Starting simple will also ensure your process and hardware is correct and will prevent a server meltdown (ask me about that story sometime).

Haven’t read one of those reports about personalized marketing improving response rates? Let me recommend this case study or this white paper. Want to know more or add something to the list? Use the handy comment tool below.

Photo credits: / CC BY 2.0