By Olivia Cahoon
Digital printing technology and variable data publishing (VDP) software help print providers cost-effectively produce fully personalized materials and communications. Market trends like digital transformation, increasing amounts of data, and the need for enhanced customer experiences shape VDP software improvements.
Before selecting a VDP software provider, print and marketing service providers should consider whether the solution is designed for ease of use and fast turnaround. It’s also important to determine if a standalone solution or an integrated option works best for the shop’s particular needs.
Above: Variable data communications produced with the XMPie Platform. Meadows Publishing Solutions developed the Engage IT VDP software and INDesign plug-in exclusively for Konica Minolta.
Utilizing VDP Software
VDP software is commonly used for mass personalization, targeted applications, and to stand out among the increasing amount of digital communications.
Due to increased adoption for digital delivery communications, print providers expand service offerings to offset declining print volumes and to become communication partners that offer both print and digital delivery options. “By changing their strategy and offering more value-added services, they are hoping to enhance their value in the eyes of their clients,” shares Warren S. Lederer, COO, Madison Advisors.
One method of accomplishing this is utilizing VDP software, which directly takes client data and performs a document composition process to produce the final output in both print and digital formats—benefitting both clients and print providers. According to Lederer, clients that wish to outsource non-core business functions—like document generation—can outsource to a trusted partner. As a result, print providers receive unlimited pre-composed print files and offer additional value-added services like personalized communications, data analytics, and preference management tools.
The ability to mass personalize printed products is a primary reason for VDP’s popularity. Today’s definition of personalization is increasingly complex and goes beyond customizing letters or business cards. “It really is about personalizing everything from books to calendars to promotional items,” comments Greg Salzman, president, Aleyant.
Alongside mass personalization, VDP software is becoming more interactive with enhanced design options, flexibility, and targeted campaigns. In fact, recent VDP industry research indicates that more than two-thirds of campaigns target either an individual or audience segment, and the complexity of personalization is increasing, shares Elisha Kasinskas, marketing director, Rochester Software Associates, Inc.
Many users, including in-plants, utilize VDP tools to reduce graphic designers’ workloads and bring outsourced products in house. “VDP software can also produce fully imposed print-ready files that can then feed automated workflows and further reduce manual steps and turnaround times,” she adds.
VDP software is used for a variety of products from business cards and flyers to brochures, posters, and stationary. Currently, printers are mainly utilizing VDP software for three applications—direct mail, PVC printing, and personalized packaging. The most popular of the three is direct mail, which includes both bulk and triggered personalized mail pieces. According to Dmitry Sevostyanov, CEO, Aurigma Inc., direct mail is one of the fastest growing product categories in today’s market.
The second biggest variable data category is PVC printing for products like badges, gift cards, ID cards, and loyalty cards. “This was the initial application of VDP software in the printing industry and remains in high demand,” shares Sevostyanov.
Comparatively new, customized packaging is quickly growing in VDP software usage as more companies use digital equipment to stand out from the competition. For example, subscription box services, online retailers, and even local businesses. Ayelet Szabo-Melamed, VP marketing, XMPie, says that with VDP software, service providers create convenient, online web to print (W2P) experiences for customizing and producing short-run branded packaging jobs like event-driven and seasonal packages. “If these packages include digitally enhanced features such as quick response (QR) codes, near-field communication, or augmented reality to bring customer experience online, well that is even better.”
Today’s VDP software capabilities are vastly different from even several years ago. To enable targeted campaigns and personalization on a mass scale, its use and advancements evolved primarily in editing and data management.
Variable data traditionally entailed printing a recipient’s name and address and has since grown to fully customizable printed pieces. “Digital consumers are changing the rules of the game,” comments Mike Zink, senior marketing specialist, software partner solutions, Canon Solutions America. “They turn brands and services across all industries that offer choice, convenience, and personalized service.” For example, print provider Shutterfly now sends personalized and printed abandoned cart postcards to customers that create a project that wasn’t purchased. Online retailers create personalized catalogs based on a customer’s archived shopping habits and retail locations send postcards to recipients with personalized maps from their house to the store. “The options are endless and brands and print providers who get creative will stand out,” offers Zink.
To enable this level of creativity, VDP software evolved in three key areas—editing, data, and online ordering workflow. The type of variable fields that are editable is now increasingly complex with the ability to change text, images, backgrounds, and QR/barcodes. “Customers want to be able to change almost every element of the initial template design,” says Sevostyanov.
To enable further editing, the manner in which customers work with data also advanced. Today, customers upload and edit variable data or connect to their own data source. According to Sevostyanov, it’s essential to give clients the ability to carry out these functions online, as well as to create and edit designs within the web browser.
The online ordering workflow is another new development in the VDP market. “There are plenty of desktop VDP applications that are not necessarily W2P solutions, but lately the two are becoming more integrated and functional,” he adds.
VDP software advancements are a direct result of market trends, including digital transformation, enhanced customer experiences, and increased automation needs.
Digital transformation is one of the largest trends affecting the VDP market. As variable data print volumes decrease in several areas—depending on region and application—print providers are pressured to find additional value-based revenue streams. Darren Collins, product marketing manager, service providers, Quadient, says that many that find digital communications provide those revenue streams as they realize it is not just about converting a print image to a PDF attachment, but that fully interactive digital communications create opportunities for the print provider to help reach a client’s business goals. “This is helping print providers reposition themselves as valued business partners rather than as lowest-price commodity print suppliers.”
Alongside digital transformation is a new focus on customer experience. “As consumers obtain more capabilities to conduct business from the comfort of their own mobile device, tablet, or desktop, the differentiating factor is often their experience in doing so,” comments Collins.
Customer experience is increasingly important in all aspects of business, including utilities, insurance, and even finance. As a result, many businesses realize good customer experience is essential to retaining customers. With this, Collins believes that print providers capable of delivering clear communications through digital and print channels to improve the consumer experience are quickly becoming valued business partners.
Increasing amounts of data and active devices also drive VDP software improvements. “With so many active devices, the ability to collect data can be overwhelming,” admits Jane Frances Nerf, senior marketing specialist, product focus certified product manager, Canon Solutions America. Today’s companies are becoming smarter with data and developing better methods to create effective buyer personas to create specific messaging and communications.
Workflow advances are another trend. According to Nerf, variable data workflow providers are upping the ante and building workflow solutions that drive large print runs from complicated data sets. With these improvements, workflow automation informs users how to construct the document based on the data values retrieved from data sources and can inform both content and design.
Trends that affect the VDP market are also application-specific. For example, fully automating the page production process is increasingly important for catalogs and brochures. “Hand-crafting every page is no longer viable for most companies,” reveals Tim Hennings, president, Catalog-on-Demand. “The old ways are too expensive, slow, and prone to error.”
In contrast, page automation is less costly and provides faster turnaround while eliminating errors from manual changes. According to Hennings, this trend appears to be driven from the top. “CEOs are reasonably asking why they should spend so much time and human resources on producing print publications.” As a result, full-page automation offers precise control that is less costly and faster than manual processes.
VDP software should first support the basics, like variable text and graphics, rules-based processing, copy fitting, imposition, and optimized print output format. Beyond this, print providers look for key features and tools that promote ease of use and faster turnaround.
Most print providers take on as many applications as possible, therefore ease of use and the ability to rapidly onboard new applications is paramount. Features designed to rapidly onboard new applications help print providers achieve a faster time to market while also minimizing design costs, says Collins.
Ease of use ties in with the ability to ingest data and format documents from a range of sources while also automating the process for efficiency. “It’s key to helping the print provider meet the demanding needs of its client base,” shares Collins.
To help accelerate the communication’s speed to market, many look to retain control over key elements of their content. According to Collins, items such as marketing messages, terms and conditions, contract points, and calls to action are often managed directly by the business’ subject matter experts, rather than the print provider’s design teams through change control requests. “Variable data software should flexibly enable the right content to be managed directly by the most appropriate people and ensure that correct processes are adhered to for both proofing and approval.”
To easily integrate into e-commerce, order management, and reporting solutions, print providers seek cloud-based VDP solutions with an open architecture. According to Salzman, cloud-based software helps create a seamless automated print workflow that increases overall efficiency and reduces manual touches and errors. “Print providers want a solution that is easy to use, so that customers can quickly and easily create documents.”
Omni-channel capabilities are also critical. They allow communications to be created across print, email, web, video, and social media—delivering a single and consistent customer experience throughout the campaign. “When each communication campaign is created, the creative content, data, and logic are used in real-time to create the personalized touchpoint with no pre-processing steps that inevitably cause inconsistencies,” shares Szabo-Melamed.
Standalone vs. Integrated
VDP software is available as a standalone solution or an integrated option. Standalone solutions are typically better suited for low volume print providers with limited design software while integrated options offer greater flexibility for graphic designers.
The main benefits of standalone VDP software is that it does not require Adobe InDesign, it’s a low-cost solution, and it’s better suited for low-volume environments with minimal composition or production. “A standalone solution can be attractive because it is ready to be used immediately and the result is a print-ready PDF that can be printed almost anywhere,” shares Peter Mierau, CTO, PrintUI.
However, most of today’s graphic designers and print providers utilize some form of design software, with Adobe InDesign being the graphic arts industry’s standard tool. For this reason, integrated VDP solutions are often selected for InDesign compatibility.
“A VDP tool that incorporates plug-in technology is able to take advantage of all the built-in design, styling, and typography features that are provided by InDesign,” says Jerry Modugno, product marketing manager, solutions, Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., Inc. It provides greater flexibility than a standalone VDP tool and doesn’t restrict the graphic designer. “They can continue to use all of the tools that they are used to with virtually no limitations on design.”
This includes new styling and layout features, alignment and placement, and typography options. For example, when InDesign released the type-on-a-curve feature, standalone VDP software users could not take advantage of it because the feature was not supported. However, designers using plug-in VDP products used the new feature immediately and moved on to incorporate more advanced features such as variable transparency effects, variable drop caps and shadows, and variable image runaround, comments John Kriho, president, Meadows Publishing Solutions. “There are virtually no design or styling limitations, which translates into complete freedom for the VDP graphic designer.”
Integrated options also help with training employees, as the products behave and look like InDesign applications. For this reason, graphic designers already familiar with InDesign are immediately comfortable using the plug-in because the same design and layout tools are utilized. According to Kriho, this means that a designer is not forced to learn a completely new layout application, which is typically required of standalone solutions.
Today’s VDP software is designed for enhanced personalized communications, data analytics, and preference management tools. While the software should first support basic functions like text, graphics, and imposition, it’s important print providers consider ease of use, cloud compatibility, and omni-channel capabilities.
May2019, DPS Magazine