What are Variable Data Printing Services?

Digital printing technology has evolved dramatically over the last few years. The primary change we will discuss in this article is improved technology with variable data printing services and digital printing presses for direct mail.

Traditional direct mail would send the same image and text to an audience, a bit oversimplified but let’s keep moving. As data about consumers and businesses are more available to marketers, this has paired very well with digital printing technology to evolve as a powerful marketing tool. Now, many mailing companies use data and images to create variable data output, such as direct mail, or variable data printed pieces.

Like with many projects the place to start is at the desired result. What is the objective of the variable data project? Is it branding, increase sales, a special event invitation or something else?

With these few applications in mind, let’s look at some of the nuts and bolts of how a variable data printing project works.

To help simplify the discussion, let’s break it down into three primary components

  • Data, such as a mailing list
  • Images like pictures or design elements
  • The substrate, what is the physical material used in the printing process

Read related article How Variable Data Printing Works

1. Data (the mailing list)

The first component of variable data is the data file with several data fields. In most cases, data consists of an exported file that a common database or CRM program will allow you to export. Typically, these are either Microsoft Excel™ or CSV (comma-separated value) file types. If you do not have a mailing list, most marketing companies, such as VeraPax, can provide a purchased targeted mailing list for your desired audience.

A data field can be as simple as, prefix (Mr. or Mrs.), city name, or age. The more differentiators, or data fields, you have in a data file the more options you have for variable data printing.

Within the data fields, values in a field can be used as triggers, or differentiators, between one record and another or, in other words, one person to another.

Another important reason to start with the data file is to determine the quantity of the project. Often, clients “guesstimate” a project quantity because they do not really know how many records are in their data file. In the example of a direct mail campaign, the USPS (United States Postal Service) requires the mailing list to be processed to meet automation rate postage requirements. This process helps prevent duplicate records, bad addresses (undeliverable) and updates the new mailing address. The results can drop list quantities by significant percentages which save money for both printing and postage.

2. Design elements

In its most basic form, design elements can either be text or images that change based on a trigger in the data.

For example, if the data file record has a prefix of Mr. you can use that trigger to print a masculine image such as a sports car, hunting or football, (forgive the stereotypes).  On the other hand, if your data file record prefix uses Mrs., you can use this to use a more feminine image in your mail piece such as flowers in a light color palette.

Text can also be changed based on a trigger in the data. Using the example above, for all records with the “Mr.” prefix, you can substitute a paragraph of text that strengthens the tie in with the corresponding image.

For example, when the prefix is Mr. your mail piece could use a football image and a paragraph of text such as “Football season is almost here. Order yours today!”

For the “Mrs.” prefix, you could also tailor the message and image such as “Fall is just around the corner, get ready for the Holidays!” with images or design elements of fall and holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

Another component of the design elements and data is the PURL. What? Yes, PURL, Personalized Universal Resource Locator. We’ll talk about this in another article. For now, you can think of it as a specific page on the web that only the recipient has access to for marketing purposes and it is highly personalized just for them.

3. The printing substrate

The substrate is a big word for what is the digital output is being printed on. In our example of Direct Mail, the most common would be paper.

However, there are many specific paper types and finishes. With newer digital technology, the substrate can be a synthetic paper or metallic paper. Also, it can have a smooth or a shiny finish (UV Coating), a soft-touch laminate that feels smooth like baby skin), and many more. The substrate is the physical component of the process. All the discussion up to now has been digital. This is where the recipient handles the physical piece, and it engages their emotional and physical senses like touch and feel, or even smell.

For a personalized letter, the size and color of the envelope, are considerations. The teaser copy (a sentence on the outside of the envelope to get the recipient’s attention) such as ”John, your football season can only get better now!”


So, what’s the big deal with variable data printing? A lot. Just like the technology all around our lives is changing so too is this traditional marketing tool. Variable data increases response rates, engages our physical senses, and can be highly personalized to look, and say, exactly what appeals to your intended recipient.




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