Variable data printing is the place where the digital world meets the real world in an explosion of marketing genius ... if you do it right.

So what exactly is variable data printing? Digital printing brings a number of different capabilities that traditional offset printing lacks. Offset is a mass-production process. The more you print, the cheaper each impression is. On the other hand, in digital printing the costs are more fixed on unit-cost basis. While you'll see some savings on larger runs, the savings aren't nearly as high as they are with offset printing.

However, as a mass-production process, offset printing falls short in customization. Digital printing, and more specifically, variable data printing, gives us the ability to change each piece on the fly and customize it based on who the recipient of that particular piece is.

My favorite example of how this can be used to a marketers advantage uses a fictional real estate firm. Lets imagine you own a real estate company that has a database of prospective buyers. For each buyer you have a few key pieces of information: Age, marital status, and whether or not they have children. Your firm is pretty large so your database contains a few thousand names. For you to go through each prospect and individually market to them would be prohibitively time consuming. This is where variable data fits the bill.

In our example, we're going to break age into three groups: Under 35, 35-55, and 55+. This gives us a total of 12 possible combinations. In reality, we can probably simplify this further by doing things like combining the under 55 with children group and the under 35 with children groups, and assuming that 55+ with children are likely to have those children not living with them anymore to treat that group the same as the 55+ without children. For arguments' sake, let's say we have 8 total combinations.

What this means is that we can design eight targeted marketing pieces for our database of 3,000 names and be reasonably confident that the recipient is going to receive something completely relevant to their situation. Our unmarried-under-35-with-no-children group is going to see the one-bedroom apartment on main street that's walking distance from all the local bars and restaurants. Our 55+ group is going to see the condo in the retirement community, and our 35-55 with kids group is going to see the 3-bedroom ranch on a half acre with the swingset that's next to the park in the great school district.

Now obviously in the real world we'd also add income into this equation but you get the idea. With minimal investment in graphic design we've come up with a highly targeted direct mail piece that comes off the press already addressed to the recipient. This is just one simple example of the power of variable data marketing.

Where most people fall short in variable data marketing is in the data. Your data has to be rock solid to execute this strategy at a high level and most small businesses aren't willing to invest the time and effort required to gather and store that much data, and to continue to keep it as accurate as possible.

It's essential that you leverage your digital assets like your website and/or your CRM system to capture and maintain accurate data. It's also key that your employees understand how important accurate data is to your business and it's objectives so they assign as much value to entering and scrubbing data as you need them to. Once you have a solid data strategy in place you can send your marketing into hyperdrive and you'll be amazed at the results you can drive without changing your marketing and advertising spend.

Chris Searles is President of Searles Media and specializes in helping small businesses maximize their available resources to market themselves effectively using a wide variety of media. Visit Website

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