Friday, November 16, 2012

Data: Is it the Printer's Nemesis?

I've long advocated that printing companies need to acquire IT capabilities to remain competitive. MIS systems, WebToPrint, and data handling skills have long been key to running a printing business.

All of a sudden, they are also an important part of a big segment of our product mix. Marketing materials targeted at specific consumers have been around for many years. VDP (Variable Data Printing) software coupled with digital printing took off way back in the early 2000s. Print personalization, which was once the wild frontier of technology for many printers, is now becoming obsolete. There are to big reasons for this: data and measurement.

The biggest problem for print service providers is data. In a world where it's important to know "everything" about people, the only people who know that much are the search engines, and "big data" providers. Print is not part of their offering. Print might be considered competitive to their offerings but, because it doesn’t compete well, it isn’t perceived as a real threat. VDP stands for Variable DATA Printing… if you don’t have access to data, you can’t do it effectively.

It’s well understood how Google’s Adwords technology (just as one example) can deliver an audience to a marketer in an easy, cost effective way. Google approaches the marketing world in a way that is almost entirely different from a print marketer. It’s an algorithmic approach based on collecting and analyzing data. It starts with the data, not with creative. In fact, display advertising is a relatively recent addition to Internet advertising, which is somewhat incredible to imagine since the growth has been so meteoric. Such technologies are becoming ever more sophisticated.

Print media publishers can only offer marketers audiences based on their limited content. Golf clubs sell to people who read Golf magazines. With digital advertising, context matters less than tracking consumers wherever they go. That kind of tracking is the reason, for example, a shoe ad appears on and also on a local blog.

Certainly many companies know a lot about the behavior of their customers, but many today are trying to create a strategy and framework to manage the data around it, primarily so they can participate in online marketing more effectively. Again, print isn't competitive in most cases. Print is being deployed via traditional methods, in what might be described as a “shotgun approach” versus the laser-guided smart bomb that is the Internet.

Furthermore, there is no real reason a marketer at any company, small or large, would trust the average Print Service Provider with access to their data. From security and privacy standpoints, “most” printers will not pass muster at corporate IT departments when they are audited. It’s also very often the case that the person the printer is calling on is not the person with access or control over the data, which results in barriers to selling VDP. Ironically, this has always been a barrier, and some have overcome it, but more have failed.

With digital advertising, you now know what advertising and marketing initiatives you are running are working, and can change your campaign in real time to match customer behavior and results.

With print, you have to wait until the next “cycle”, whether it is the next issue of the magazine or the next mail drop. The only real way to determine the ROI of a print campaign is cumbersome testing that takes way too much time to implement and execute. The only real measurement of the effectiveness of a campaign is increased sales.

One impact the Internet has had on everyone is that we’re all incredibly impatient. We want information now, not a week or a month from now. When there are large amounts of money at stake, we get even more impatient—and advertising and marketing is the lifeblood of most companies.

Sounds really negative, doesn't it? Make no mistake: the days of "Dear Chuck" on a postcard are over. The good news is, there are still many applications where print personalization can play an important role. The adoption has been so limited, the sky is the limit for creative and technically savvy print service providers to succeed with these products.

But you've got to know how to use the data, and measure the results.