Variable printing: time to get personal?

With paper prices on the rise and postal rates likely to follow suit next year, more catalogers should be looking into variable data printing, according to panelists at the American Forest & Paper Association’s Annual Paper Week conference, held last month in New York.

A comparison of response rates among personalized print media, including catalogs as well as other direct mail, suggests that creating smaller, more efficient mail pieces may be the way to go in the next few years, said Michael Jackson, senior vice president of pulp and white paper for Federal Way, WA-based paper manufacturer Weyerhaeuser Co. Citing statistics from New York-based Direct Marketing Association, Jackson noted that the average response rate for mass-marketed direct mail is 1%, while the average response rate for personalized print offers is 14%. The higher response to personalized mailings, Jackson said, likely reflects that younger shoppers are accustomed to highly specialized customer service.

Dr. Frank Romano, professor emeritus at the school of print media at Rochester, NY-based Rochester Institute of Technology, projected that by 2010, up to 30% of all catalogs would be personalized versions of the main book. After next year, he said, companies will increasingly slim down their catalogs in favor of “smaller, more targeted pieces as a way of keeping costs down.”

According to “Variable Data Printing 2005: Publishers,” a study by New York-based market research company TrendWatch Graphic Arts, 7% of catalogers see variable printing as a sales opportunity, and 17% say that their use of the technology is increasing or staying the same. This is part of a larger trend toward adoption of variable printing: 28% of commercial printers are doing variable printing inhouse; 40% say they are doing it via outsourcing.

Among shops with four-color, toner-based digital presses, the percentage offering variable-data printing inhouse rises to 58%. Even creatives are starting to embrace variable data, with 38% saying they have produced a variable-print job in the past 12 months; of these, 49% have produced a full-color, variable-text, variable-image job.

Getting emotional

Not surprisingly, panelist Ronee Hagen, president/CEO of Boston-based paper manufacturer Sappi Fine Paper North America, said that reducing the size of the print catalog through more-targeted offerings is far preferable to eliminating the catalog altogether. But she wasn’t speaking merely from self-interest; she had data to back up her opinion.

According to a survey from Chapel Hill, NC-based marketing consultancy Yankelovich, “print does a better job of capturing emotion, moving readers to action more quickly, and translates into higher brand awareness and loyalty,” Hagen said, “and it’s not as intrusive as radio, TV, or pop-up ads.”

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