Magazine article Politics Magazine

The Coming Variable Print Revolution

Magazine article Politics Magazine

The Coming Variable Print Revolution

Article excerpt

In the age of social media and microtargeting, the political direct mail industry is a bit behind the evolutionary curve. Traditional offset printing has dominated the market for decades--it still represents some 90 percent of the total direct mail produced. But mail consultants are slowly starting to explore variable data printing--a technology some say has the potential to drive response rates as high as 40 percent in certain instances and allow campaigns to better leverage voter data in mailers.

"The technology is evolving every day, and it goes way beyond just personalizing a mailer by name," says Doug Hasson, who heads the consulting firm Bridge Communications. A given mailer could have dozens of variable aspects--targeting voters on everything from issues to consumer habits.

Just think of a database with dozens of fields of variable data: A digital printer has the ability to pull from the database to create tens of thousands of differentiated and personalized mail pieces all in the same print run. So if your campaign wants to target Jane with a personalized education message and Dick with a personalized economic message, the printer can spit those pieces out one after the other. And the potential for even more targeted messages and variations is endless.

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So why isn't everyone using it? "At this point it's still prohibitively expensive for most campaigns," says Liz Chadderdon who heads the Democratic direct mail firm the Chadderdon Group. The price for traditional offset printing can hover around 10 cents per piece; the cost for variable mailers could go as high as $4 per piece.

But Hasson is betting big on the potential of variable data printing, and he says his firm has found a way to drive down costs. The company has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on two digital printing machines that allow it to keep the creative and the printing all under one roof, and, Hasson says, significantly cut the cost. "I just decided to cut out the middle man," he says. "Unless we brought the machines into our shop, there was no way our client base could afford it."

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Hasson says his firm isn't a print shop, it's still a full service political consulting firm, but the in-house printers allow a huge cut in the price per piece of digitally printed mail. And, he says, his printers are capable of spitting out between 400,000 and 500,000 pieces of variable print mailers a day.

Proponents of the technology say the primary benefit is a surge in response rates. Response rates for traditional offset mail are typically in the 1 to 4 percent range, but for variable pieces the theory is that response rates can range anwhere from 10-40 percent. A 2008 study from W. Caslon & Company, a firm that provides training and marketing best practices to the printing industry, which found that with each extra layer of personalization response rates increased, nearing 40 percent on the most sophisticated mailer. But the study is far from definitive and it wasn't testing political mailers. The bottom line right now: There are still plenty of variable printing skeptics--at least those who think the technology isn't quite ready for widespread implementation by campaigns and direct mail consultants. "On smaller-run stuff, [variable printing] is doable," says Ed Peavy, who heads the direct mail firm Mission Control. …

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