Success with Variable-Data Printing Is a True Life Lesson

Success with Variable-Data Printing Is a True Life Lesson

Leininger, John

Most people over forty can identify with teaching a teenager how to drive. You can tell them everything they have to do before they start the car the first time, and have them repeat it back to you twenty times. Still, when they first get behind the wheel, they shift wrong, brake too hard, or have a hard time staying in the center of the lane. When I taught my first son to drive, I kept telling him he was not in the center of the lane. He asked me how to do it. I honestly did not know. I had to get back behind the wheel of the car and figure out how I stayed in the center of the lane. It was something I did subconsciously, and I had to reflect on exactly what I was doing. For those too young to have taught someone to drive and too old to remember your first driving lesson, you can also think about the first time you hit a baseball, a tennis ball, or went swimming. What does this have to do with working with variable-data printing (VDP)? Until you actually experience VDP you are only talking about it. Just like when someone learns to drive or hit a baseball, with experience, you get better everyday.

Learning VDP

You can go to a session on variable data at a trade show, attend a monthly meeting for the printers in your PIA affiliate organization, download the ABC’s of VDP from EFI’s Web page ( variable.fhtml), or even hire a consultant to come in and preach to your production and sales employees. The reality is that until you sit down and create your first real VDP product, all the talking is just a discussion with no application. Another analogy that relates well to being successful with VDP is learning how to water-ski. First, you have to learn how to get up and out of the water, and then you have to learn how to stay up. If you prefer snow skiing, it is learning first how to start down the hill and then realizing you should have learned to stop first.

With variable-data printing, you have to learn how to design a piece to use VDP properly, and then properly prepare the data to be brought together with the design to create unique printed pieces. But there’s still more. You have to identify the mailing costs and be concerned with all of the rules of the USPS as they affect your mailing. It is not a question of logic and common sense; it is a question of following the rules exactly the way the USPS sets them up. And to make it more frustrating every year they change the rules at least a little bit.

Many printers that have tried variable data printing have found themselves being fined or billed for improperly prepared mail. For some companies, one bad experience can turn them off to the opportunities of VDP before they really get started. For those people the lessons learned are avoiding risk and only working on the “safe” jobs. They reject variable-data printing as not being cost effective. For the other printers, they quickly learn that it is not easy, mistakes are costly, and they need to control the process better and maintain a high quality level. These companies recognize that if it were easy it would become a commodity, but if it is difficult and demands high quality levels, only the right companies can produce effective variabledata printing. This makes it a significant value-added service that can return a significant profit for both the customer and the printer.

To Be Successful

To be successful, you need to understand the design elements and how personalization can be brought in to make the piece more meaningful to the receiver of the printed piece. You need to make sure the data is cleaned up and properly addressed so there are no doubles in the mailing or errors that would negatively impact the recipient, thereby nullifying the value of the printed piece. One such example might be addressing the piece to Miss John Leininger, not Mrs. John Leininger, which is acceptable in mailings to people who are married and in their 60s or 70s. Miss John Leininger is definitely wrong. Many people remember the Johnny Cash song about a “Boy Named Sue,” but when have you ever met a woman named John? Once the data is clean, the merge of the design and data needs to be constantly monitored so that a field is not accidentally dropped, resulting in names and addresses that no longer match (or one of a dozen other merging errors). Companies that are the most successful put check records in the data at specific numbers so that the press and postpress operators can monitor the accuracy of the merging of data. Although the mailing is the last step, the planning for it has to start back at the design stage to evaluate the weight, size, address/barcode placement, the folded edges, the need for envelopes or tabs, etc.

The last step most printers still leave out (except the really successful ones) is measuring the results in a way that the customer receives a fair comparison to what would have happened if the piece had been printed as a static image. You cannot compare the results of one mailing to another one mailed a previous month, or with a different design. If you do not randomly select a small percentage of the actual mailing (e.g., 5%) and create a static piece of that mailing you will never truly know what type of difference it made for the customer. Some people avoid measuring the results because they do not know how to measure them or they do not want the customer to find out it did not make a difference. More often than not, if the results were measured, the customer and printer would actually be quite pleased with the positive impact of VDP, and would get valuable feedback for use in planning future projects.

Who Needs to Know What

Is design, data, merging, printing, and mailing what you need to focus on? Who needs to understand what part of the process? Should the press operator care about the design, or the folder operator about the data records? Everyone involved in the sales and production of a variable printed piece should understand the entire process and how critical their role, no matter how small, is to the success of the entire process.

Now that the process is on the table, how do you go about educating your employees on the variable-data printing process? You need to “make it real.” If you are going to bring everyone into a company meeting and develop a philosophy, make it real and not just a conceptual plan you got from an article in a trade publication. Two examples of “making it real” that have been used to educate groups on the value and reason for VDP, along with the care that must be taken to do it right, are the VCD (that stands for variable cookie demonstration) and the personalized M&Ms.

The of Personalization

In the variable cookie demonstration the people in the room fill out a data sheet of how they would most like a cookie personalized. They are given a choice of ten ingredients that can be mixed with the cookie batter (example: raisins, chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, mini-M&Ms, nuts, etc.). They can pick three that can be either put on top or mixed into the batter. Half a dozen people are selected to have their perfect cookie made right there in the demonstration room. This Ls done right in front of the participant and then baked in a toaster oven. When the people receive their cookies and milk (you’ve got to have the milk-it is the added material that goes along with the variable-data printed piece) they receive exactly what they ordered, the “perfect cookie.” While generic cookies made prior to the presentation are “good,” they don’t have the same impact as ones made according to their specific desires.

The other example was used to make the sales force a believer in variable data. The manager was going to hold a sales meeting the day before and asked the salespeople what their favorite candy bar was, so he could plan out the refreshments. The manager purchased everyone’s favorite candy bar and passed them out at the beginning of the meeting, telling them they could not eat it until the break. Prior to this he also went to the M&M Web page and ordered some personalized M&Ms ( Yes, you actually can do this. You can have eight characters on two lines to create your message. The manager spent $150.00 to get all of them personalized M&Ms. When he got to the break, he passed out the M&Ms and then told them they could only keep one or the other-their favorite candy bar or the personalized M&Ms. Every sales person kept the M&Ms. They had made a conscious decision, based not on taste, but on what was on the M&Ms. They quickly learned the power of personalization at a personal level.

It is also important to recognize that VDP is not only used in direct mail applications. It can be used to print membership cards and certificates, thank-you notes, employee benefit books, insurance coverage booklets for employees, etc. Teaching the concept of VDP is only the first step. People need to actually experience how the design is planned out, and data is controlled and merged. Let the employees come up with a VDP example for a mailing to their families for an open house or maybe a large company picnic. If you have a VDP employee coordinator, they need to get everyone to develop a real job that will not create an excessive amount of cost. They need to monitor every aspect of the job from the first sketches to the procedure of producing the final results.

The Importance of Training

Why does everyone need to be trained for this variation on something they have been doing for years? Because it has to loe perfect. One mistake at any stage can cause a serious problem-whether it’s a data error, printing error, or folding error as the cause, you don’t want problems at the post office. This is most likely not a situation where you can expect a planned percentage of waste that the bindery operator is used to with static printing. Being perfect is a service for which printers can charge a premium, but only because when done right it creates the right increase in response rates that the customer expects. One mistake can take down the entire job. Everyone has to double-check the work done before they receive piece, as well as doublechecking their own work. The sales force has to sell differently and most companies have a different compensation plan for the sales people in variable data.

You may detect a slight “learningby-doing” bias in the comments above, and that has to do with the long-standing educational philosophy of the department of graphic communications at Clemson University. The mission statement for the department of graphic communications is, “To develop dedicated, practical problem-solving people for the printing, publishing, imaging, packaging, and allied industries. ” At Clemson, we are working with variable data from a hands-on approach. With the support of twenty companies that have sponsored our Variable Data Hands-cm Training Consortium, we have taken that idea on the road and travel around the country, with twelve laptops training printers, designers, customers, and print buyers around the country on actually doing variable-data printing. We start with managing the database; then merging/purging the data and propping the data for mailing; constructing the variable-data document; outputting a sample job; and finally, the prep of the printed pieces for the USPS. The training is done around the country with a faculty member and one of the students studying variable-data printing. To date there have been forty-three one-day training sessions training over six hundred people. To find out more about this hands-on VDP training solution, check

Clemson University is also starting to run a benchmark study of variabledata printing. The actual study is explained on the Web, and printers are now being contacted to participant in the study. If you are interested, contact John Leininger at The study is designed to look at the different rates of responses that you can measure for a static piece, a printed piece with only variable text and a block that has full variable data. The results will be statistically analyzed to take out any observer bias. The goal is twenty to thirty companies supplying sample work, resulting in at least two hundred sample jobs. Learning to measure the success of VDP is just like learning to drive or hit a baseball.. .1 guess that will have to be covered in another article.

by John Leininger, Professor, Department of Graphic Communications, Clemson, University

John Leininger began his teaching career in 1978 and has been at Clemson since 1986. He has taught courses in flexography, lithography, digital printing, inks, and substrates, as well as the department’s management class dealing with estimating, planning, equipment purchasing, cost analysis, and plant layout. In 2004, the Electronic Document Systems Foundation recognized him as the “Educator of the Year.” To leam more about the Clemson University Graphic Communications program, visit You can reach John at 864-656-3447 or at

Copyright Graphic Arts Technical Foundation Oct 2005

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