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Forecast: Variable Winds

Tackling variable data? Be sure you know your shop's capabilities.

Variable-data printing has always been a specialized field, but today it’s more specialized than ever. If a service provider is asked "Do you do variable printing?" today the answer is probably, "Yes."

But that answer could mean totally different things. Anyone executing digital printing can easily produce "one-off" prints and call this "variable printing." But that might not be what the questioner had in mind. In fact, it most likely is not. After all, simply putting different addresses on a printed label is certainly an example of variable-data printing, but your customers can do that easily enough on their desktop computer with a very basic mailing program.

We really need to find out what the question is before we can answer it, and before we can find out what services we can provide as print providers. What does the prospective customer mean by "variable printing?"

These days, there are several unique categories and subcategories of variable printing, each requiring its own unique infrastructure and capabilities. The software and hardware needed to create different types of variable-print output also run the gamut, which is a major reason print providers have sought specialized niches in the marketplace: It’s simply not cost effective for small and mid-sized print shops to try to be all things to all people.

The economics of variable success
The key to success in variable print is economics. Two essential economic factors come into play here:

The first factor is the cost of delivering the client’s message: the base cost of time, materials, assembly, storage, and shipping costs. Rising real-estate and transportation costs have had a significant impact here. Companies simply don’t want to print large quantities of printed materials and store them for future use. The Internet has helped escalate the demand for timeliness and quick turnaround as well. As a result, it’s little wonder that press runs continue their downward spiral. But short-run printing and cost savings found in digital production doesn’t necessarily mean that every piece needs to be different. So this economic factor alone does not necessitate investing in a variable-data workflow-but it does provide the digital-workflow backbone on which a variable solution can be built.

The second economic factor is the impact of the printed piece. In this regard, variable print has a clear advantage. Study after study has clearly shown that a variable-print piece has a far greater impact on the recipient than does a static piece.

Breaking down the marketplace
Naturally, the first item needed for variable print is a digital workflow and a digital output device. But also understand that the farther you go down the list that follows, the faster and more powerful the RIP that sits in front of the output device must be. At one end, you can feed simple variable text to a low-output laser printer or inkjet device, and just about any RIP that will feed the device will be able to keep up with that kind of data. Once you get to the point of fully variable images and so on, it takes state-of-the-art hardware and software to keep up with high-end digital presses.

And there are a few other things to consider right off the bat. Not only do you need to know how the data will come in, you also need to know how the templates are coming in, and how much control you have of the templates themselves. Will the customer be working in Microsoft Word, Quark XPress, Adobe InDesign, or something else? This is one reason many software makers have opted to standardize on PDF for variable data: It’s universal and it’s a format they have learned how to work with well.

What follows are four levels of variable-data management, from the simplest to the most complex:

Baseline variable: This is the most basic level of variable-data management and is simply printing templates with different text in different places. Much of the document might be exactly the same, with only a name or address inserted here and there to "personalize" the piece. For these kinds of pieces, a mail-merge program or a Quark or InDesign plug-in might be sufficient. There are many suppliers of such programs and the learning curve isn’t terribly steep. They most often accept database files from Microsoft Excel without much need for tweaking.

Level 3 variable: At this point, some interesting things begin to happen. We’re still dealing here only with variable text, but, for example, you may need a program that can handle a variety of data formats from different types of data bases. And you may find you have a variety of lengths in the data fields that can play havoc with your page design. That could call for software that will automatically resize the type to fit the given area. You may want to be able to control just how much the type can be resized (you don’t want 4-point type for personalized content!) Don’t worry, there are still lots of relatively inexpensive programs that can handle it. But the more sophisticated the software, generally the more it’s going to cost-and the more training and experience your operators will need.

Level 2 variable: Many print service providers are being called upon to be data managers; they need to be able to take in virtually any kind of data format and work miracles with it. In many cases, there are missing fields or missing data. How does the system handle it when a piece of critical data simply doesn’t exist? How does the printer know the job will work before the printing process starts and that every piece will print correctly? There comes a point in every production workflow where the demand will exceed the capability of the software and hardware. To stay profitable and please the clientele, it’s absolutely critical that the print service provider knows very well the limits of his hardware, software, and the capabilities of his employees.

Level 1 variable: At this level, everything in the document can change: images, texts, everything. An example might be a piece for a college that depicts the major that a prospective student is considering-perhaps with a liberal arts default for undecided students-with the appropriate headline. A biology major might get a picture of the biology lab while a dance major might see a shot of the latest dance production on stage. In fact, even the length and size of the document might change according to the recipient’s likes and dislikes.

Web-to-print, transactional, and multimedia
A trio of other types of variable work can have an impact on digital print service providers: Web-to-print, transactional, and multimedia.

Many companies have already moved into Web-ordering services. Web-to-print can be done in a workflow that is sometimes referred to as "lights out printing." The ideal scenario is a printed product that is entered, printed, packaged, and shipped through a fully automated system. Although most Web-to-print workflows have at least some operator intervention at some point, in theory a Web-to-print production plant could be fully automated. And these are not all print-on-paper items-the process is being used for advertising specialties, high-end art prints, and many other printed forms.

Transactional or transpromo production takes variable-data services to a whole different level, and in most cases requires a very high level of IT expertise. The essential idea is to take the normal transactional products businesses have used for decades to bill their customers, notify them of changes in their accounts and so on, and leverage those mailed communications into advertising promotions. Companies have begun turning these communications into very sophisticated promotions, often using full-color messages and images, and increasingly using Web-based tie-ins to increase response and lower costs.

Even small companies are beginning to see the value of turning their invoices into promotional events, adding coupons, personalized messages, etc. Print providers might be able to open a lucrative market for handling small-business accounts and providing their transpromo expertise, digital workflow, and mailing services to an entirely new group of customers.

Variable data does not, of course, end with the printed piece. Software is also available to merge specific text and graphics, reformat them, and create a personalized URL (Uniform Resource Locator) for the Web, also known as a PURL. The software can create the PURL and send out an e-mail with a link, and it can all be set up to launch (to continue with our college analogy) the day the student gets his or her admissions packet. There’s no need to stop there. Perhaps when our mythical student prospect goes to the website and checks out their favorite sport, they’ll receive by return post a poster with their name on it along with the appropriate college sports team. The e-mail list, printed pieces, and PURL all create a dynamic interaction on a very personal basis.

One size does not fit all
The bottom line is that variable is as full of exceptions to the rules as its name implies. There have been some horror stories of companies that have tried to jump in with both feet without the vital IT infrastructure and technical expertise to operate at the highest level. Determining your limitations and not trying to exceed them can make or break a variable operation.

But the good news is that there is money to be made at any of the levels. It doesn’t take high-end equipment and powerful hardware to get into the entry level. It’s just important to have a realistic view of the level of capabilities your customers are looking for and you are comfortable with providing.

Freelance writer Stephen Beals is based in Seneca Falls, New York.

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