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Forecast: Variable Winds

(October 2008) posted on Thu Oct 30, 2008

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

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By Stephen Beals

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.