Broader Interest in Digital Growing Over Personalization?

By | February 26, 2009

After following the digital printing / 1:1 (personalized) printing industry since 1993, not much surprises me these days. But something has been surprising me.

In my Marketer’s Primer Series, I have four reports: digital printing, personalized URLs, 1:1 (personalized) printing, and Web-to-print. Digital printing, both as a technology and a marketing strategy, has been around for a lot longer than the applications that it drives. Especially in this environment of “everything personalized,” I would expect the greatest interest to be in the reports on personalized URLs and 1:1 (personalized) printing. Yet, sales and hits to the “Digital Printing: Transforming Business Models and Marketing” page far exceed those on the reports on personalized URLs or 1:1 (personalized) printing, or Web-to-print.

This was the case last year, and that trend has been continuing—even with the release of the new report (personalized URLs).

It’s not a matter of presentation. The website pages look nearly identical. The marketing copy is set up the same way. There is something about the topic of digital printing itself that people are still primarily interested in—more so than the narrower, more specialized applications, even though those applications are the headliners for keynote speeches and Webinars. I’ve raised the topic elsewhere, and some have suggested that far more people are printing static jobs than they are 1:1 jobs, whether personalized URLs or something else — the business model for 1:1 is so new.

I’m having a hard time with this. The whole “digital printing as a business model” discussion started more than a decade ago. It’s not a new discussion. 1:1 printing has been around in a pretty healthy way since the mid-1990s. Just look at the PODi case study archives.

That digital printing — as a topic — would be outselling and out-hitting these “hot” topics is really interesting to me. Who asks writers to cover the subject of “digital printing” anymore? It’s always the latest in 1:1, personalized URLs, or Web-to-print. Yet, when I look at the counters on the Digital Printing Reports website, it is clear where the trend is. It’s digital printing itself. Somehow, despite its long tenure in the marketplace, the broader topic of marketing and selling digital printing is still far more relevant to people than the narrower applications.

I don’t know if y’all are tracking with me on this one, but I find this fascinating. Maybe it’s just me.

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14 thoughts on “Broader Interest in Digital Growing Over Personalization?


    Lot’s of very interesting capabilities with 1 to 1, but when you look at clicks and paper tonnage utilizing color digital, including books, I would put industry volume at 60% static color, 25% versioned color and 15% 1 to 1 color. I have no scientific data to support this. Most of my analysis is just from discussions with digital equipment manufacturers and users.


  2. Wayne Lynn


    Speaking from the perspective of a relative newcomer to digital printing and a participant in a top 30 market, I am not at all surprised by what you are seeing. I feel there is enormous latent demand out there but that’s the key, it’s in a latent state. Most agencies we deal with don’t get it yet and I think they don’t want to because they’re afraid of it. The reason they are afraid is because of their fear of loss of control as the “channel captain” as they have historically seen themselves.

    The overwhelming majority of printers are not marketers and they don’t get the true nature of the opportunity yet either. The fact that you are now seeing so much interest in the more basic writing you have done is a testament to the decline of offset volume that is forcing traditional printers to reconsider their futures and what they need to do to survive.

    We have been in the digital market for two years now and are still “demand building” by continuing to educate customers to the possibilities. And, frankly, I think we are further up the curve than competitors who bought digital presses 3-4 years ahead of us in our market. We get it. But, it takes a lot of work and, candidly, a lot of courage to really for the true potential of the technology and the market.

    Enough rambling! That’s my two cents.


  3. Wayne Shipman


    Perhaps looking upstream for the sources used to ‘feed the beast’ will yield some clues. I would guess that- beyond name, address and ZIP- 1:1 job ***creation*** is a much bigger deal for print buyers. They don’t have access, motivation, or resources (money, data, boss’s permission) to expend money up front. The print buy exists as a compartmentalized commodity.

    Investment into the database, then harvesting the data reliably, is not a typical print buyer function. With corporate silo-ing it makes it hard to share the data, even for a good cause. IT is now often outsourced, so data mining, processing, etc is an extra billable item – a ‘luxury’.

    Small businesses don’t have the bandwidth to create those data connections with customers, so data drives merchandise or marketing decisions, not 1:1 projects. It takes a big investment, mentally, chronologically and financially, to get to that “first print”.

    Businesses are also reluctant to show how much they “know” about customers, fearing a backlash or legal problem. Psychological barrier perhaps? Is 1:1 just too ‘creepy’ for people?

    So, don’t blame the vendors as reluctant… it may be the customers need to be pushed into the water, or that data mining gets taught as a regular component of a marketing curriculum. Tools won’t build a house – you need an architect, carpenter, plumber, electrician, etc. It’s just not that easy to pull all that together in today’s business environment. Skills, money, etc are all factors.


  4. Brad Lena

    The digitization of print on a commercial scale, in contrast to past print manufacturing enhancements, had both a manufacturing impact and a marketing impact. More printers can utilize its short- run or static capabilities than the marketing application. One of the reasons is that in the short-run static market, printers function in their traditional manner; responding to market requirements/demand for printed products. Whether they are making any money at it or just cannibalizing their offset business is another question. In the 1:1 or personalized market it requires a new different, proactive business model for which there isn’t much precedent in the printing industry. Coupled with the emergence of other digital marketing channels, it doesn’t surprise me that sales/inquiries of business model related content is greater than 1:1 or personalization as that has become just one of several options/channels.

    Brad Lena

  5. Stan

    1 to 1 printing, personalization, mail merge whatever you want to call it is considered a marketing “cheap trick”. Do you really read more carefully and respond better to a letter with your name on it. Come on, does anybody actually think this person knows or cares about them. Putting your name in a graphic image, wow…………….. oh yea – “cheap trick”! I think we are intrigued by the technology but the actual cost benefit ratio is out of line.

  6. Heidi Tolliver-Nigro Post author

    I’m not sure I agree that 1:1 is a cheap trick. Successful, long-term programs don’t rely on name personalization for their success. They rely on the marketer’s ability to use its data to create relevance to the recipient. There are applications for which name personalization helps. For example, I just switched from a basic text email blast to my newsletter subscribers on the Christian publishing side to an HTML-based email that allows me to personalize the newsletter to them by name. Does the name personalization help? Yes and no. It doesn’t sell things, but it does create a deeper bond between me and my newsletter subscribers because it lets them know that I care enough about communicating with them to make the extra effort. Over the long term, where I will REALLY be able to grow the business is in creating sub-target groups to which I can blast different emails about different products over time, depending own which books they already own. That’s about relevance — and when 1:1 printing is successful, it’s about relevance, too. Until the industry gets its mind around the difference between relevance and personalization, it’s going to be a tough road.

  7. Harvey Hirsch

    Heidi, you know how I feel about 1:1. It is the future of marketing communications. Everybody wants to feel special and you can’t do that with offset. In the hands of a skilled marketing person, 1:1 multi-channel programs will deliver more quality responses in a predictable way than any mass communications endeavor. It’s more than just putting a name into the copy, however. The hard part is making creative people change their static message thinking. We have had some of the highest recorded response rates to our 3D-VDP pieces which allows us to minimize client budgets and cut out unproductive media. Stop thinking like a printer! It’s 21st century marketing, stupid!

  8. Heidi Tolliver-Nigro Post author

    Hi, Harvey.

    Yes, I DO know how you feel about 1:1.

    There are two things that have to be kept in mind. First is how things ought to be or what potential they have. Then there is the way things ARE, which is often very different.

    That was one of the fun things about working with TrendWatch GA/The Industry Measure. I cut my teeth on data with Dr. Joe, who always built questions into the survey to doublecheck the reality of what printers were reporting. For example, in the very early days of 1:1 printing when a high percentage of printers were reporting that “variable data printing” was a top sales opportunity, but the percentage of printers citing “database marketing” as a top sales opportunity was in the single digits! Clearly, there was a disconnect there and gave us real ammunition in explaining why the rhetoric didn’t match the reality on the ground.

    Something similar is happening here. My observations have nothing to do with the way things ought to be or the potential of these applications. I’m just observing and reporting on what I’m experiencing — not making a value judgment on it. I think this is where a lot of marketers disconnect. When the experience on the ground is not what they think it ought to be, the next question that must be asked is, why? What’s actually happening and why is it happening this way? This often provides great insight into what needs to be done in order to move “ought to” into “is.”

    That’s why I’m asking the question.

  9. Diane Dragoff

    As a buyer, I am part of a cross departmental team working on the digitalization of collateral. The team consisting of folks from Marketing, Design and Business Integration, and also consults with IT, Development and Finance/Accounting. Interest in Digital Print occured along with a shift in who controls the data. That is, many moons ago, we’d have to rely on the printer to maintain the data files and the know-how. Today, with more and more reliance on inhouse folks to maintain our knowledge base/CRM, we add to it based on the information we obtain that suits our needs, rather than allowing a mailhouse to provide information that may be too generic for our needs. Additionally, we are shifting to holding corporate knowledge in our systems rather than in specific peoples’ heads. Also, we find that we need to be more nimble in responding to what is happening in the world. Holding stacks of preprinted shells that are too costly to dump when the world’s economic conditions change did not allow us to reach out and touch clients with the immediacy of the moment with printed literature. We are blogging, working in our website, emailing and reaching out through our social networks and want to do the same with printed materials. Digital is the avenue for this sort of work now that digital pricing for small lots is about the same as static print and imprint.

    By the way, I dislike pURLs. I thought they were really clever when the first two or three postcards with pURLs came to me. After the stack of postcards grew to about 3 inches, I dismissed pURLS as a gimmick. The only people that I got them from were printers trying to sell me this enhanced service. Since its possible to look everything up on Goggle these days with about 4 keystrokes and a click, why would anybody spend the time, entering by hand, a long chain of digits and letters I see them as not applicable to most businesses.

    We’ve recently prepared a presentation on distributed print. It will request approval of our management to forge ahead with a distributed print program which will save a significant amount of money over a traditional print and distribute program.

  10. Patrick Henry

    Could part of the answer be that in this new day of social media and viral marketing, 1:1 personalized printing just isn’t the compelling proposition that we thought it would be?

    Jim Calhoun, a columnist for Adweek, puts his finger on it in a piece called “Cracking the (Social) Code”:

    “The concept of 1:1 marketing (between a brand and its consumers) feels shockingly dated in our brave new media landscape. The future of advertising will be shaped around a new mantra: 1:1:n marketing.

    “In this world, for example, brands must enable choosy moms (who once chose Jif) to start a cascade of social capital transfer around the best toothpaste for toddlers. They must make it easy for the 100 million Americans who know someone getting married to be the ‘last mile’ in helping brands target these couples—and to catalyze that dynamic.”

    The present challenge for print, digital and conventional, is to demonstrate how it can help to drive the “cascade of social capital transfer” that Calhoun writes about. 1:1 personalized printing may have a role to play here. Or, it may not.

  11. Bill Strobridge

    First off let me commend Heidi for her provacative question and second, let me commend Diane Dragoff as a buyer who ”gets it” as far as digital printing is concerned, at least in my estimation. As a marketing services firm we spend no small amount of time promoting true personalization asociated with digital but very little time promoting digital for it’s own sake, sizeable mistake I think, based on Diane’s comments. We have discussed it with clients and prospects but not really pushed it as the true value it really is. Thank you Diane for your comments, you have given me more ammunition,if you will, to bring to the attention of my marketing clients and prospects.
    Moving on to personalizaion, I find that many prospects know very little about this great tool especially if they have been under the care of an agency as it seems most of them don’t get this technology or don’t want to embrace it for whatever reasons as someone else alluded to. I think that Heidi is headed down the right path when she mentions the word relavance. It’s not just about the person’s name on the piece. It is totally about how much we are able to connect with them. For example, if mailing to a large age range of people that may all use the same product do you use several different images to match the ”life positons” of the audience? Does your text vary again addressing specific concerns of that particular demographic. Do you call them by first name or use Mr., Ms. or Mrs.? And of course this all ties back in to the list itself and how much information it provides you based on what you know to ask for or have as a consideration. We have conducted five to ten of these type of campaigns for multiple different clients and in all but one case the results were considered well worth the effort and expense with results being well above average. We used personalization in 2-3 locations along with some or all of the ”relavance” factors listed above. Personalization, versions of text and images, excellent creative, accurate data mining and intelligent offers that are both creative and pertinent pay off. I hope my competitors are not listening.

  12. Kevin Trye

    I’ve been doing variable a long time. It started with just a person’s name, which initially had good response rates, but as most of us have long discovered, the name and even a purl with a name isn’t enough to ensure campaign success. It may get their attension, but not enough to follow through to a sale, which is the only criteria companies will care about.

    Relevance really is THE key and very few companies have enough information in their company mailing database to provide it. i.e. a knowledge personal details, past transactions and/or buyer preferances.

    Certainly those consistently doing double-figure sales response rates (like Rafi Albo) have demonstrated in hundreds of campaigns that it’s always a blend of this expert database mining plus huge emphasis on the creative side. Adding in that WOW factor. Just adding in the persons name in the offer is 12 pt text isn’t enough today. (Was it ever, unless linked to something personally specific, like a birthday or special event?)

    Certainly from my experience, when these database factors are discussed with business owners and marketers, the interest and understanding is high. It seems totally logical and they want to learn more.

    Unfortunately, this enthusiasm in databases isn’t widely shared (or encouraged) in the old fashioned ad agency or creative sectors that drive most marketing campaigns. I’ve yet to find a creative ‘Mac’ person or agency that didn’t despise databases or PCs, being where most of these nasty files come from.

    It’s really a project management issue. Setting up a structure or company where these two very diverse skillsets can live happily together. Where each is respected for what they do. An opportunity there I think…

  13. Rod Key

    Rather than 1-2-1 or digital printing and getting tied up in technology, results are what matter. Digital printing has enabled us to deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. Adding just a name is not going to cut it. The difficult part is the strategy and that is the key ingredient.
    Digital print is growing and will be a critical ingredient in tomorrow’s marketing communications.


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