Understanding Databases For Personalised DIrect Marketing and Variable Data Printing

Published: 05th February 2017
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All forms of one-to-one marketing require information about customers and their interests, in order first to identify those who are likely to be interested in the product or service being offered and then to personalise the promotion in ways that are likely to be attractive to each customer.

This information may already exist within the client company, as a result of sales calls, customer surveys and other market research or disclosed during previous transactions, or it may be purchased from commercial data providers. To support an effective personalised marketing campaign, the data must be both relevant and complete.

Analysis of credit card purchases might indicate that a customer has children and shops regularly at a particular children's clothing store, for example. The card company could use that information to build loyalty by offering discounts for children's clothing or toys. As long as customers feel that the offers they receive are appropriate and helpful, they will be satisfied that the information collected about them is being used for their benefit.

There is a delicate balance that marketers must maintain between collecting information about customers and giving the impression that they are spying on them. There are also legal restrictions on what data may be gathered and how it may be used. These vary by country, even within the EU, and it is the laws of the country in which the recipient is located that generally apply. It is the responsibility of the 'publisher', which is usually the printer's client, to ensure that these laws are complied with, but printers who plan to hold or develop databases for their clients should be aware.

The customer information is stored in a database, which might simply be an Excel spreadsheet, a desktop level application such as FileMaker Pro, a larger corporate resource such as those from Oracle or SAP or a customer relationship management (CRM) system. The data may be entered manually, or from other computerised operations such as call centres, websites, field service or sales activities.

Databases are composed of records, one per customer, which contain fields corresponding to individual items of data such as forename and surname, address elements, phone or email, age, gender, previous purchases and any other information that could be useful for selecting customer types. Product information may also be held in a database: a car dealership might keep a database listing the cars in its inventory, along with the model, year and features of each. Relational databases allow links to be made between items of information in different fields and records, enabling vehicle types to be matched to customers in the car dealership example.

Images may also be stored in a dedicated database, often known as a digital asset management (DAM) system, which can be queried automatically at print document assembly time, or they can simply be put in a specific folder that the database can reference.

It's not essential for the printer to have a database application as the customer information needed for a VDP job can be exported from the database in the form of a CSV (comma separated values) file, in which each record is separated by a line return and the field values are separated by commas. These can be opened in Excel, most word processors, or brought directly into the VDP authoring software. In Excel, each row represents a record, and each column is a field. Printers who do not want to handle databases themselves need to indicate which fields are needed and specify how the data should be delivered.

In simple VDP applications, each record might only include the recipient's name and address, but the more graphically rich marketing documents that digital print makes possible may also include a selection of images that are relevant to different customers. The most sophisticated authoring software can combine images and variable text in visually striking ways - such as photo-realistically inserting the customer's name into an image - to generate custom images on-the-fly.The variable text (and graphics, if used) are then combined with the template according to business rules that specify what variable content to use and where to place it in the document. These rules, which are written or programmed in the VDP authoring application, use conditional formatting to select text and image content depending on the information in the database.

The designers who create the layout templates used to generate the pages containing the variable data might be at the printer, at an external agency or within the client's organisation. Wherever they are, it's important that they understand how this works and design with variable content in mind, whether they are using desktop publishing or word processing software or dedicated VDP/cross-media authoring tools.

The information in the fields of the database records is used to fill placeholders in the template, so the designer must know which these are and make allowance for how much the content will vary, though more sophisticated software will handle not only text flow but image placement and scaling as well. Some solutions can even vary the number of pages according to the content.

For printers new to VDP, even starting with simple jobs will enhance their offering to existing clients, as well as helping to attract new ones. The sophistication of the VDP projects undertaken can grow naturally as the printer's database skills and VDP experience develop.


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This is one of a series of articles based on The ABCs of VDP, a free e-book from EFI that explains the benefits of variable data printing (VDP) and describes with examples how print service providers can produce, promote and sell VDP services to their customers, expanding their business portfolio and increasing profit margins.

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