At its simplest, Variable Data Printing (VDP) is the use of digital technology to link printing equipment to databases containing content such as text or graphics. During the printing process, computer applications take content from the databases and integrate it into a document according to rules specifying usage. As a result, whether a print run quantity is 10 or 10,000, VDP makes each piece different by changing the information.
The value of Variable Data Printing comes from its ability to support customized printing and make it efficient and economical. Customization increases the document’s attractiveness and greatly improves the effectiveness of the message it contains. Because the database contains information specific to the audience of the printed document, the document is customized in ways that hold special appeal to the audience.
Variable Data Printing today is light years beyond the bland, unsophisticated direct mail of the past. It is much more powerful than it was even a few years ago. Today, it can dynamically assemble four-color images, charts, text, and other objects to create attractive, highly customized documents.
There are three general levels of variable data customization, and all three levels start with at least a basic layout template that is common to all of the pieces. The template defines which elements are static and which are variable. The static elements will remain unchanged across all pieces. The variable elements change for each individual piece, however, as determined by information contained in the accompanying databases.
Basic Customization: The lowest level of Variable Data Printing is Basic Customization. At this level, only the name and salutation of the recipients are variable, and no graphical elements of the printed pieces change between pieces. The “Mail Merge” feature of Microsoft Word which allows users to connect their document to an Excel spreadsheet of names and addresses is one example of basic customization. While the names and addresses change from piece to piece, the layout and content of the message remains the same across all printings.
This most basic form of VDP has been readily available to most companies for several years and produces the lowest response rates of the three levels because of the low amount of customization.
Versioning: The second level of Variable Data Printing is Versioning, and consists of several pre-designed layouts that are selected based on variable criteria. In a national mailing, a unique layout could be designed for each state and the correct layout is automatically selected for each recipient, assuming the database contains the state of residence information for each record. Versioning usually produces a higher response rate than Basic Customization, but lower than Full Customization.
Full Customization: Individual components throughout the entire piece are customized by multiple different criteria, often times contained within multiple databases. Images, text, and layout structure are customized for each recipient in the entire mailing list, maximizing relevancy for the readers, and consequently returning the highest response rates. At this most advanced level, marketers can experience the full potential of Variable Data Printing.
These are the major elements found in a typical variable data printing project.
Database: For most variable data printing, a simple table containing the copy, graphics, and photographs that will be varied in the printed document is adequate. Such database tables are created in applications such as Microsoft Excel. Databases drive the effectiveness of VDP so we will talk more about them in a future article.
Rules: These are rules that specify what variable content to use and where to place it.
Content: Both static and variable content are created with a variety of software: text with word-processing software, photographs (taken with a digital camera or input using a scanner), graphics created from graphics software, and so on.
Layout: The layout for the document is created by using common desktop publishing or word-processing software. It must be designed to accommodate variable text and images.
VDP application: Software that “merges” content and prepares the document for printing.
Output devices: Printing devices that turn the digital files into hard-copy prints
Here at Mediascope, we offer full variable data printing capabilities. Watch for more information on VDP over the next few weeks as we explore the importance of great databases and the benefits of variable data printing in marketing.