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Getting personal

Nov 1, 1996 12:00 AM

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Printers can help their clients get the most bang for the buck when using ink-jet personalization

Customization has been around a long time in the printing industry. Who hasn't received a catalog "personally" addressed using ink-jet technology? Remember the little thrill you got seeing your own name on that mass-produced piece? Did it make you more likely to order?

More recently, how did you react when you flipped through the latest newsmagazine to discover exactly how your local Congressional representative voted? Did it make you want to renew your subscription?

The bottom line is, do you still get that little thrill after all these years of receiving these customized pieces? Scores of printers, publishers and ink-jet manufacturers are betting that not only do consumers still get a jolt from personalization, but that this extra attention will translate into dollars added to the bottom line.

"Ink-jet allows a merchandiser to have a mass marketing approach with a personalized touch added to it," offers Roy Bergquist, vice president of operations for Webcraft (Philadelphia). "It provides our customers with the kind of response they probably can't otherwise achieve."

Indeed, in today's information-rich world, magazine publishers and catalogers are pressured more than ever by competing media (i.e., the Internet, cable television, etc.). Thus, it's vital that these printed publications find a way to differentiate themselves, maintaining their role as vital information sources.

"In the old days, people would receive a magazine or catalog in the mail and slowly look at it over the course of a week," points out Lance Haut, corporate finishing, Quad/Graphics (Sussex, WI). "Unfortunately, most peoples' schedules simply do not allow for such leisure time today. They would rather turn on the TV or access a Web site to get what they want when they want it.

"This is where ink-jet personalization can help the printed piece," he continues. "It allows publishers to send people information they want, rather than waste their time with things they couldn't care less about."

In addition to simply touting specific products or services to a particular customer's interests, ink-jetting also can be used to make the ordering process simpler for catalog customers. "A perfect example is a recent Christmas catalog in which the customer's name and address were imprinted on two attached order forms," notes Tim Lindquist, product manager for Domino Amjet (Gurnee, IL). "The catalog also included two fax order forms, as well as another card requesting a catalog to be sent to a friend. It's all part of using ink-jet technology to make ordering easier for the customer."

According to Haut, Quad customers report substantial benefits from using ink-jet customization, experiencing anywhere from a nine percent to 30 percent increase in response rate. In addition, the printer has conducted studies with customers, testing ink-jet-personalized response cards against blank ones. The result: a four times higher response rate for the ink-jet cards.

"The drive to differentiate yourself today is more intense than ever," agrees Richard Wyandt, manager, imaging products, Scitex Digital Printing (Dayton, OH). "For example, the forms industry, which is a declining market, is coming on strong with ink-jet because it offers a real way to provide value-added. Instead of printing bundles of blank forms that are inventoried, forms printers can produce customized forms with variable data such as bar coding, localized return addresses, etc."

Although the idea of a custom printed piece targeted to individual tastes has been a winning sales formula for many, the market isn't exactly booming. Even though single-color customization has been utilized for years, many merchandisers have become disenchanted with the results. Thus, the use of this method has flattened recently.

According to William Lamparter, president of PrintCom Consulting (Charlotte, NC), use of personalized text on the back panel of catalogs has been declining for the past five years. Why hasn't ink-jet customization created the pull some advertisers had expected? There are a variety of theories. "PrintCom surveyed approximately 3,000 catalog merchandisers and found many were cutting back on ink-jet personalization. When we went back and asked them why, the answer was fairly elementary: 'It doesn't work.'

"We couldn't understand why this was the case, since the common belief is that personalization pulls," he continues. "Thus, we went back and examined some of these catalogers' products and found that the messages weren't truly personalized, but rather were generic imprinted messages. Catalogers explained that their database limitations prevented them from doing anything more involved. Additionally, even those that did have good databases were failing. Although they may have had a wealth of information about their customers, they didn't really know how to use it to get people to buy something."

The key to making ink-jet personalization for long runs a success, all agree, is having an extensive, complete databases to draw from. However, even those firms with fairly substantial databases often do not provide their printers with the proper ammunition to get the job done.

"If you look at what typically arrives in your mailbox, it's obvious catalogers are not using ink-jet imaging to its fullest potential," comments Julie Tobias-Wagner, business manager for Videojet Systems (Wood Dale, IL). "At least 70 percent of catalogers don't make use of data as a tool; they use it as a vehicle to get their catalog in somebody's mail box. The companies doing more are the ones that have established large databases.

"These need not be intrusive preference-type databases," she continues. "However, they at least should track the customer's last purchase, as well as issues that relate to events or things that the intended recipient is going to remember, i.e., birthdays or anniversaries. These types of messages are what bring a sterile publication closer to a person, creating the image that a company cares enough to know something about its customers."

Tobias-Wagner also stresses that the message must be written in a non-threatening manner in order to achieve desired results. "Many catalogs typically have printed messages such as 'If Joe Smith doesn't order this product by January 1, he will lose out on this special offer.' This negative approach simply isn't effective."

In addition, PrintCom's Lamparter points out there are few print buyers who understand how to use variable printing effectively. "Cost effectiveness does not necessarily mean that the printing must be low-cost; rather, it means that the end result must create more volume and profit than would otherwise be generated," says Lamparter. "Outside the direct mail business, attempts to discuss variable imaging, particularly in process color, often create blank stares.

"Many catalogers remain skeptical," he points out. "Putting a variable message in a catalog takes up a certain amount of valuable real estate. Many believe they can generate more sales by putting an attractive picture of an item in that space rather than using it for personalization."

Convincing customers of the potential benefits of ink-jet personalization for long runs is a major challenge printers must face. "When a printer gets into long-run personalization, management must determine exactly how it will be used," stresses Jim Harvey, vice president of Graphics Communications of America (Alexandria, VA) and director of Spectrum Operations. "That's an integral part of the sales pitch, and it's up to the printer to paint the picture for the customer of how ink-jet personalization can be viable.

"Printers typically don't have any problem selling the technology," he continues. "However, the challenge is figuring out a solution for a client's business issues. That means printers need to understand their customers' and their customers' customers' operations better than ever. That's an approach many printers are not accustomed to."

"Ink-jet customization will not create the pull catalogers and publishers want unless the message is effective," offers Domino's Lindquist. "Often, these customers are just beginning to utilize ink-jet for long runs and don't know how to effectively take advantage of it. They are increasingly relying on their printers to give them direction. That's why it's so important for printers to understand their customers' businesses, so they can help create effective messages, get more response and, thus, garner more business for ink-jet.

"However, printers are in a tough situation," he continues. "Ideally, they would like to use their customers' success stories with customization to sell other potential clients on the technology. Unfortunately, these customers typically are pretty close to the vest with that type of information and often won't reveal their response rates. They don't want their competitors to know how successful or unsuccessful they've been with these types of marketing programs."

Another reason often cited for some customer trepidation regarding the use of ink-jet is a misconception regarding print quality. "Many people started out using an industrial ink-jet, which is a very low-resolution, coarse dot pattern," points out Scitex's Wyandt. "This low quality turned a lot of people off, although we still see some of this in the addressing stream where it's just adequate enough to put an address on a magazine. However, today's graphic ink-jet technology, with resolutions as high as 240 dpi, is starting to positively impact usage. Customers are more responsive to messages printed using this better technology."

"Ink-jet today is far more attractive," agrees Quad's Haut. "Good systems can print a nice left-hand justification, and you can do creative little things with fonts between each line. Messages really can be jazzed up now."

As effective as ink-jet personalization can be, however, simple mistakes can spell disaster. "When personalization is done poorly, you actually would have been better off not attempting it at all," relates Ray Schulz, editor of Direct magazine (New York City). "People can see right through a half-hearted effort. For example, if the name printed on the catalog is wrong, or if Mr. Smith is referred to as Ms. Smith, the whole intent is ruined. This insults the intelligence of the audience, and consumers aren't likely to take your products seriously."

Long-run personalization utilizing ink-jet technology obviously is fraught with benefits and pitfalls. And yes, although it may seem like a cliche, it falls on printers more than ever to get the inside scoop on customers' businesses and goals in order to sell the technology effectively. With the proper cooperative approach to creative usage and effective messages, ink-jet personalization can be a successful tool for printers and clients for the "long run."