A Horse of a Different Color?

By | September 20, 2010

Is the use of color really that different in transactional and graphic arts print environments? Or do expectations and unique application characteristics drive the perception of color quality and the choice of color technology?

In my experience, the lightning rod for differentiating the two comes down to five key questions:

  1. What drives the use of color?
  2. How do you define color quality?
  3. How much color is enough?
  4. How critical is color quality?
  5. What is the acceptable cost of color?

Let’s start with transactional environments where applications are fairly predictable from month to month and are printed in significant volumes in highly compressed windows. Here, as with direct mail, color may be used to maintain corporate branding, to induce an action, enhance understanding or just to get attention. Color is also being used in transactional environments to gain the operational efficiencies of a white paper environment and increase the potential for postal savings. As for color quality, in transaction environments the focus is on striking a balance between the cost of color and the quality required to fulfill the purpose of the application – typically directing attention to or highlighting key information on a page like an amount due or due date. More and more, those responsible for transaction documents are looking at the cost-benefit equation related to promotional messages with varying levels of color – but not at the level of color quality associated with graphic arts work.

I’ve never met a print provider who doesn’t expect and produce the best quality- including color reproduction. But we have to be careful to put color quality in context. Is it something that we recognize when we see it? Is it the quality we see in annual reports, photo books or brochures? The ability to reproduce corporate colors within 1 to 3 deltas of the target PMS or Pantone color? I contend that it is some of all of these things. But there are trade-offs in digital (and offset) printing such as throughput, machine settings, supply costs, use of specialty supplies versus standard supplies, and paper costs that can be chosen to manage the resulting color output.

As for transaction and transpromo documents, print providers are more likely to select low-cost commodity-grade papers, manage supply costs by choosing designs with low coverage and optimize throughput to satisfy short print windows, and may not even print at the full resolution that a device is capable of. While willing to make some concessions on quality in return for cost savings, in transactional environments, month-to-month consistency is critical to ensure that the look and feel of the documents contributes to a uniform and consistent relationship. So at any color or resolution level, color management remains critical across these high-volume runs.

Contrast this with how color is used in graphic arts environments. Here, job mixes tend to be more unpredictable, varying from day to day based on what customers bring through the door – or web portal. Turnaround ranges from same-day to more than a week. Volumes run the gamut from very short to very long. The amount of color coverage is driven by the job, but with a difference. Applications tend to be photo- and graphic-intensive and therefore color-intensive – with more frequent use of full color in jobs like direct mailers, photo books, brochures and catalogs. Instead of highlighting data to drive a message, the graphic or creative does the heavy lifting, supported by the message. Consequently, quality is as important – if not more important – than cost. Poor color reproduction of images, especially of people, can result in a failed communication.

This focus extends to the reproduction of product images as well. In graphic arts applications, reproduction of corporate colors is very important, and the trade-off with cost is minimal. Corporate colors must approximate the specified colors and must be produced consistently within a job and from job to job. To achieve these results, we wrestle with the conundrum of process standardization versus manipulating the process to modify print quality (often on the press). This practice isn’t ideal and is often discouraged. However, the point is that print providers who produce graphic arts applications know that skin tones must be accurate, neutrals must be neutral, and products like textiles must look realistic. Graphic arts print providers are highly sensitive to these requirements and will customize the print process to ensure that customer requirements for quality color reproduction are met. There is a strong focus on high screen rulings to achieve better image fidelity, using the best quality coated papers, using extended color gamuts and specialty colors, disciplined color management, emphasis on contract proofing and on-press approvals.

In both environments, when it comes to costs, the numbers tell the story. For example, the cost per page of an inkjet printer producing transpromo documents with limited color is far less expensive than a toner-based digital color press producing image- and graphic-intensive brochures with extensive color. As you can imagine, applying the cost of producing a color brochure to transpromo documents would be cost-prohibitive when you’re producing millions of customer communications per month. So, there are trade-offs. That said, I am increasingly impressed with the image quality, fidelity, and consistency of inkjet technology. Likewise, toner-based systems deliver outstanding color quality for many traditional graphic arts jobs. Either way, the application and business requirements drive the use of color and emphasis on quality vs. cost. From the perspective of a graphic arts guy quickly becoming immersed in the world of transaction printing, the two environments are similar, but with key differences.

What do you think? I look forward to your feedback and would love to continue the discussion at Graph Expo. I’ll be in the Océ booth (#1217) October 3rd through 6th.

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2 thoughts on “A Horse of a Different Color?

  1. Howie Fenton


    Great post. And this reminds me a post I made in June to the Digital Nirvana. Here it is again

    I think its fair to say that just like in the toner based printing world the image quality from different inkjet presses will be different and different across the different technologies. To be candid I have not seen all the devices or their print quality yet. I have seen the Oce, Riso and HP, but not the Kodak, Screen or Xerox devices. However, I think its fair to say that just as there are image quality differences across different toner based devices there is also going to be image quality differences across different inkjet devices.

    But regardless of the manufacturer or printing technology a more important questions is how does image quality effect response rates. In other words if we did a side by side comparison of the same exact piece printed using variable data – would different image qualities result in higher or lower response rate. One of the comments that has always stuck with me was when someone said in a presentation that promotional pieces with the most impressive design or done with the most elaborate printing were held and admired and never motivated a response. But that’s another story.

    Changes in response rate based on image quality and / or printing technologies is uncharted territory. There is very little research on the effectiveness of different image qualities. The only study I know of is the study by the market research firm INTERQUEST. They compared the response rates of inkjet and toner-based on a 10K postcard mailing that invited recipients to take a survey for a $20.00 Amazon gift certificate. In this study they reported that response rate was similar or about 75% for both. They also reported that the cost per piece and cost per response were about 2.6 times higher for the toner based pieces.

    But this is just one study. What do you think? Will image quality effect response rates?

  2. Francis

    Howie – I believe that image quality can impact response rates, but I consider the actual print quality to be only one piece of the puzzle. Really there are three overarching factors:

    First, the message (good copy with a compelling offer). Second, the creative (which is affected by print quality). And finally, the target (the right list, up to date and properly segmented). When you have all 3 of those right, you can drive your response rates up.

    To get them right, marketers need to define their objectives. What is it they want to drive and who do they want to drive it to? Then, they need to utilize their database of target prospects that fit the objectives. The data should provide insights to how a specific customer likes to learn, the language and images that are appropriate, what offers they might respond to, and how to actually reach them. Last but not least, we should understand that sometimes a single vehicle or campaign element is not enough (even if relevant and personalized) and an integrated campaign is important. The data should tell us how many different vehicles will be needed to generate a response, what the vehicles should be (DM, email, telesales, etc), how often the customer should be contacted, etc.

    At Graph Expo 2 years ago I addressed a contingency of paper manufactures and told them that today I (Marketers) don’t care about the creative, the media, the print quality, etc. I was exaggerating a bit to drive home the point that all I cared about was the response and that we all need to change the conversation to reflect this. Creative, offers, and copywriting are an art that is very much appreciated but lack merit without supporting analytics to know what works. Today, Marketing Managers need to spend less time on “how cool things look” and spend more time on driving results. Image quality can only tip the balance on response rates if it is presenting the right message to the right person at the right time.

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